Whose American Renaissance?

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman

by F.O. Matthiessen
Oxford University Press, 678 pp., $18.95 (paper)

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…

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