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Whose American Renaissance?

The American Renaissance Reconsidered: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1982-83

edited by Walter Benn Michaels, edited by Donald E. Pease
Johns Hopkins, 217 out of print pp.

Ideology and Classic American Literature

edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, edited by Myra Jehlen
Cambridge University Press, 451 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context

by Donald E. Pease
University of Wisconsin Press, 303 pp., $15.50 (paper)

Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville

by David S. Reynolds
Knopf, 625 pp., $35.00

Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel

by Philip Fisher
Oxford University Press, 191 pp., $9.95 (paper)


Every few decades, in any given field of literary study, we can expect the publication of a multivolume collaborative history that will come to be known as the standard reference work. Typically, its chapters are parceled out to eminences who have long ruled the acknowledged fiefdoms of that scholarly realm and who, to the amusement of reviewers, appear to contradict one another wherever they touch on the same topics. These “picaresque adventures in pseudocausality,” as Geoffrey Hartman once called them, these “handbooks with footnotes which claim to sing of the whole but load every rift with glue,”1 are tolerated precisely so long as they are perceived to be patchwork creations. A time comes, however, when another generation begins to see what is really standard about the standard guide—namely, the unwitting conformity of all its contributors to deep-seated assumptions that have come to be thought pernicious. A sharply divergent major effort is sure to follow soon thereafter.

One case in point is the often consulted, sometimes politely cited, but increasingly vilified Literary History of the United States (LHUS), edited by Robert Spiller and others, which entered the scene in 1948. For a generation, Americanists indulgently savored the contrast between Spiller’s harmlessly eccentric theory of “cycles” in the national literature and the indifference of his collaborators to that same theory. But as the cultural revolution that began in the 1960s has consolidated itself in the academy, LHUS has ceased to amuse. Now it is perceived by many as the supreme expression of something called, without affection, “the liberal consensus”—and that means that its days on the conscientious young professor’s shelf are numbered.

There is more than one effort afoot to supplant LHUS,2 but the most ambitious and closely watched project is a five-volume Cambridge History of American Literature, due for publication in 1989. Thanks to early procedural and methodological revelations by its general editor, Sacvan Bercovitch, Americanists have already had a chance to glimpse the lineaments of this work.3 They know that it will be very different from LHUS, beginning with the way its team has been assembled. Instead of the usual assortment of aging dignitaries, Bercovitch’s contributors will all be, as he says, “Americanists trained in the sixties and early seventies,” making up “twenty-one spokespersons for dissensus.” They will dissent, that is, from the leading liberal myths about American history and the application of those myths to criticism of our alleged classics. And they will demystify “canonicity” itself—the notion that certain texts are so self-evidently superior that they form an indispensable set of touchstones. No one will have to wait twenty years to discern the figure in this carpet.

Predictably, the Bercovitch project is already being greeted with resentment and anxiety. It isn’t that anyone believes LHUS to have stated the final word about American literature, but that relative youth and radicalism are thought to be dubious criteria for participation in an undertaking of this kind. Shouldn’t Bercovitch have tried to enlist the most knowledgeable rather than the most like-minded team of writers? A good many Americanists with no conscious investment in the Spiller world view believe that the Cambridge history will strike a blow against disinterestedness and for the “ideologizing” of scholarship.

To this charge, however, Bercovitch and his colleagues have a carefully pondered two-part answer. In the first place, they say, the study of American literature has never lacked a ruling ideological mood. When the academic field was created some seventy years ago, it was patently a gentleman’s club—one whose exclusive social pretensions were mirrored in its reverence for the Fireside Poets and in its conception of art as a fragile kingdom lying somewhere beyond the vulgar material world. That dispensation was overthrown by the nativist and progressivist approach championed by Vernon L. Parrington, with its chauvinistic celebration of such sturdy-looking realists and democrats as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis. And then came the New Critical or modernist era, elevating such masters of indirection as Thoreau, the later James, Eliot, and Faulkner while placing a premium on irony, obscurity, symbolism, and withdrawal from public commitment—in short, the badges of post–World War II quietism. The spokesmen for all these tendencies believed they were taking their guidance directly from “literary values,” but in each case those values functioned as ideology—that is, as seeming universals that disguised and facilitated historically discrete interests.

Hence the second and bolder part of the dissensus critics’ reply to their detractors. The New Americanists, as I will call them, claim to belong to the first scholarly cohort that does not consist of ideologues. According to Bercovitch’s definition, ideology is “the system of interlinked ideas, symbols, and beliefs by which a culture…seeks to justify and perpetuate itself; the web of rhetoric, ritual, and assumption through which society coerces, persuades, and coheres.” Ideology, then, resides in the “absolute values” that a social system projects before its own gaze. Its function is inevitably a conservative one: to keep power relations out of focus and thus safe from fundamental criticism. And if so, the investigators and critics of ideology, even if they subscribe to a definite radical politics of their own, are not to be thought of as ideologues but as unmaskers.

For readers only passingly acquainted with the professional study of American literature, the most familiar issue on the New Americanist agenda will be that of the canon. We have all heard a good deal lately about the need to “uphold tradition,” to “honor aesthetic standards,” and to expose our students to time-tested “great thoughts.” But to New Americanists (and to many others) this is all sheer ideology, false consciousness that calls for the exposure of its historical determinants. Which branches of literary effort, the dissensus critics ask, have been demoted to insignificance by “the tradition,” and to whose benefit? Where do “aesthetic standards” come from if not from the cliques whose dominance is no longer to be acquiesced in without debate? And what factions have used the “great thoughts” to improve their circumstances—and again, at whose expense? Once set in motion, the secularizing impulse will not allow any of these constraining pieties to go unanalyzed.

This questioning of absolutes is now being conducted in all branches of literary study; it reflects an irresistible trend in the academy toward the spurning of unified schemes and hierarchies of every kind. What gives the New Americanist critique a special emotional force, however, is its connection both to our historic national shames—slavery, “Indian removal,” aggressive expansion, imperialism, and so forth—and to current struggles for equal social opportunity. When a New Americanist shows, for example, that a canonical work such as Huckleberry Finn indulges in the stereotypical “objectifying” of blacks, Native Americans, women, or others, a double effect results. First, the canon begins to look less sacrosanct and is thus readied for expansion to include works by long-dead representatives of those same groups. Second, their contemporary descendants are offered a reason for entering into an academic dialogue that had previously slighted them. In short, the New Americanist program aims at altering the literary departments’ social makeup as well as their dominant style of criticism.

It ought to be clear, then, that we have here something more definite and consequential than the latest permutation of “theory” as we knew it in the Sixties and Seventies. To be sure, the New Americanists are broadly poststructuralist in sympathy; they refuse to draw categorical distinctions between literature and history, foreground and background, art and advocacy, and they distrust all “foundational” claims, whether they be for fixed aesthetic quality, authorial autonomy, a specifically literary kind of discourse, or scholarly detachment. But they scorn the daisy chain of indeterminacies with which the once dandyish but now crestfallen Yale deconstructionists used to caper. For a New Americanist, social struggle must always be kept in view, and any concepts obscuring it—concepts, for example, of the “American character,” of the representative masterpiece, of the impish freeplay of signifiers—are to be not just rejected but exposed as ideology.

For the immediate future, the New Americanists’ rapidly growing sway is virtually guaranteed by the academy’s mood of social pluralism, iconoclasm, and antinationalism—a mood deriving ultimately from revulsion against America’s role in the Vietnam era. It is not surprising that the dissensus critics have made their strongest impression thus far through their critique of the “liberal consensus” of the Forties and Fifties. Growing up a decade later, they were schooled by activists to distrust not only the shibboleths of patriotism and the melting pot but also such honorific terms as “art,” “unity,” and “complexity”—concepts that figured centrally in their liberal predecessors’ lexicon.


As Russell J. Reising discloses in a useful if somewhat pedestrian study, The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Literature, the New Americanists would like us to think of the liberal consensus as extending from the 1940s straight through to the present. Thus conceived, it would embrace many styles of scholarly work, including the “Puritan origins” literary history practiced by Perry Miller and the early, preradical Sacvan Bercovitch; “cultural” criticism à la Richard Chase, Lionel Trilling, R.W.B. Lewis, Leslie Fiedler, and Leo Marx; and “self-reflexive” criticism from Charles Feidelson, Jr., to Richard Poirier and such very recent figures as John Irwin and Kenneth Dauber. As a sympathizer with the dissensus movement, Reising neglects to ask whether this herding of several generations into one corral may not be something of a rhetorical stunt, a means of making everyone but the New Americanists themselves appear hopelessly outdated. Instead, Reising joins in insisting that all these schools and figures have subscribed to one or another version of “Americanness”—the idea that this nation, despite the crassness of its commercial life, possesses a special, and admirable, character of spirit that is epitomized in certain works of imagination.

Wherever the near boundary of the liberal consensus ought to be drawn, there can be no doubt that the post-war liberal critics, for all their rejection of simplistic myths of progress, acquiesced in a literary nationalism that went largely unchallenged until the New Americanists began their assault on it. As the “Address to the Reader” introducing LHUS put it in 1948, our literature has been

profoundly influenced by ideals and by practices developed in democratic living. It has been intensely conscious of the needs of the common man, and equally conscious of the aspirations of the individual…. It has been humanitarian. It has been, on the whole, an optimistic literature, made virile by criticism of the actual in comparison with the ideal.

That is the voice of the original liberal consensus speaking with unselfconscious complacency.

The most nuanced expression of that consensus is to be found in the “cultural” authorities who helped to forge it during the period surrounding World War II. Those former or chastened leftists arrived at the postwar era at once alarmed by the exposure of Stalinist barbarity and exhilarated by America’s new preeminence and guardianship of democratic values. They were still politically minded enough to resist the strict formalism of the New Critics—hence their now familiar designation as cultural critics—yet their retreat from proletarian consciousness into “anti-ideological” attitudes also took them toward formalism and mythic, timeless universalism. The idea that literary art follows its own rigorous imperatives, apart from everyday language and the demands of material interests, held a special appeal for them. And they were eager to celebrate a body of national classics—works that could be called quintessentially American by virtue of their unconventionality, their unboundedness, and their affirmation of innocence and democracy.

  1. 1

    Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays, 1958–1970 (Yale University Press, 1970), p. 356.

  2. 2

    See, for example, the recently published one-volume Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Elliott (Columbia University Press, 1988).

  3. 3

    See especially Bercovitch, “The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12 (Summer 1986), pp. 631–653; the quoted phrases are from page 634.

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