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.

Perhaps the key shaper of “Americanness” criticism was the Lionel Trilling of The Liberal Imagination (1948), who helped to replace Vernon Parrington’s sociological conception of American literature with an explicitly cultural one. For Parrington, American history was a record of successive emancipations from aristocratic and sectarian European roots, and American literature in all its variety reflected that record of linear democratic progress. It followed, for Parrington, that we should cultivate all those elements of our heterogeneous literary tradition that manifest that record. But a culture, Trilling wrote in rebuke of Parrington,

is not a flow…; the form of its existence is struggle…it is nothing if not a dialectic. And in any culture there are likely to be certain artists who contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions; they contain within themselves, it may be said, the very essence of the culture.4

The real America is to be sought, then, in those relatively few books produced by “dialectically” capacious minds.

As Nina Baym pointed out in a justly celebrated article, all the writers who satisfied Trilling’s critierion proved to be white middle-class males from non-immigrant northeastern families.5 Born into the mainstream but modestly alienated from it by their literary vocation, they “contained” just the right “contradictions” to produce what Trilling called “the most suggestive testimony to what America was and is.” As for women writers, their association with domestic life cast them as personifications not of the treasured dialectic but of the blandness which true (critical) culture must heroically oppose. The likelihood that Trilling and his followers would find the right stuff in a female author was scarcely greater than that of seeing Miss Watson board up her house and light out for the territory.

In recent years, however, it has not been Trilling but F.O. Matthiessen who has come to personify the liberal consensus in the minds of its antagonists. The case is worth dwelling on, for it was Matthiessen in his monumental American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), who coined the name of our putative golden age and decisively shaped the way it has been apprehended until now. American Renaissance was not only a tour de force of personal sensibility; it was the first book both to claim international stature for the alleged giants of the mid-nineteenth century—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman—and to demonstrate their responsiveness to the New Critical techniques of analysis that were helping to illuminate another recently secured canon, that of modernism. But both modernism and New Criticism now stand accused of ideological lackeyism—and Matthiessen’s influence, it is felt almost forty years after his death, still inhibits a truly egalitarian grasp of our literature.

Two critiques of Matthiessen and his magnum opus have been especially important in shaping the now ascendant New Americanist view. These English Institute papers of 1982–83, which can be found in Walter Benn Michaels and Donald Pease’s collection The American Renaissance Reconsidered, were written by Jonathan Arac and by Pease himself. They allege that by ingeniously intertwining two strands of practice, nationalism and formalism, Matthiessen devised a kind of cold war criticism before the fact. Inflating certain books to superpower status and then concentrating almost exclusively on their formal properties, he is said to have deflected potentially embarrassing questions about the state of American democracy in the midnineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries alike.

Many liberal readers would regard this as a curiously grudging account of American Renaissance. In honoring his five classic authors, after all, Matthiessen reasonably assumed that he was favoring anticonventionalists and champions of the ordinary citizen against the patrician blandness of Irving, Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes. Matthiessen himself was an active socialist who seconded the presidential nomination of Henry Wallace in 1948, and the explicit theme of American Renaissance was the uses of literature for enhancing and broadening democracy. Its preface quoted with approval Louis Sullivan’s challenge: “Are you using such gifts as you possess for or against the people?”

But a growing number of Americanists who were educated in the Sixties and after have not been mollified by this record. In practice, they ask, was Matthiessen’s idea of “the people” truly inclusive? Were his great authors as democratic in spirit as he maintained? Did they actually do much of anything about the social evils of their day? And had Matthiessen’s newly solidified canon really been determined, as he maintained, by “successive generations of common readers,” or did it rather express the avant-garde bias of Wastelanders who fetishized inconsecutiveness, irony, self-division, privatistic revolt, and detachment from the vulgar mob?

American Renaissance is indeed an ambivalent book, poised between communitarian longings and an admiration for eccentrics who had cast their conflicts into ambiguous symbolism. Emerson in particular exasperated Matthiessen with his watery ideality and his gilding of Jacksonian greed, yet the critic also maintained that because “all souls were equal” for Emerson, his “value can hardly be exaggerated for those who believe now in the dynamic extension of democracy on economic as well as political levels.” Matthiessen’s efforts to live with such contradictions have struck many readers, especially those who knew him personally, as a mark of heroic integrity. But for critics who acquired their political loyalties in the Vietnam era and have never experienced the disillusionment that befell Matthiessen’s own generation of leftists, his waverings look like a surrender to the interests he nominally opposed.

In his own eyes, Matthiessen had stuck to his socialist ideals by, for example, deploring Captain Ahab’s demented individualism—a dark variant on the Emersonian program of assimilating the “not-me” to the “me”—while highlighting the humane and democratic flexibility of Ishmael. In Ahab, Matthiessen argued, Melville had issued a prophetic warning against “the empire builders of the post–Civil War world.” But Arac, Pease, and their colleagues point out that such a formulation preempts close scrutiny of the prewar world, the one from which most of Matthiessen’s literary giants themselves half-averted their gaze. Were not the railroad barons already consolidating their monopolies in the 1850s, meanwhile quoting Emerson on hitching one’s wagon to a star? And what about the Civil War itself, which gets casually mentioned in American Renaissance but earns no entry in the index? What, above all, about slavery? As Arac puts it,

Matthiessen demonstrated that his object of study, the literary, functioned for writers as an evasion, though not a complete disengagement, from a political life of which they did not wholeheartedly approve…. But his interpretations of this compromise failed to reckon with the affirmative support that compromise still gave to dubious policies. It is both more understandable and less commendable than Matthiessen suggested that Hawthorne, despite his skeptical conservatism, supported the party of Jackson. For the Democratic party’s commitment to slavery made “the Democracy” include much less than “all the people.” Rather than facing up to divisions within the renaissance, Matthiessen divided the renaissance from the war and segregated qualities “before” and “after.” His wish for wholeness led to disconnection.

Unlike some commentators who simply identify Matthiessen with a smugly dominant liberalism, Arac brings out the pathos lurking in American Renaissance. Matthiessen thought he was forwarding the Popular Front program of international cultural pluralism, but his postwar successors found that they could turn his book to nationalistic ends with no difficulty at all. Again, Matthiessen’s Christian principles reinforced his vision of universal brotherhood, yet they also led him to highlight the politically conservative concept of sin and thus, as Arac says, to overdramatize “the evil individuals who obstruct the common good of an otherwise united American People.” And as a closet homosexual in an age when his career would have been shattered by disclosure, Matthiessen was helpless to reveal his fervent, erotically based kinship with the one authentic egalitarian in his “Renaissance,” Whitman. Indeed, he explicitly disavowed it, alluding aversively to “a quality vaguely pathological and homosexual” marring a stanza from Leaves of Grass (italics added).

Arac shows that American Renaissance is really two books in dialogue, or, more accurately, one book vainly petitioning the other for rebuttal time. Behind the impersonal ideal of order derived from Eliot and the canon-forming monumentality, one can detect a muffled cry for recognition of the transient moment, the wayward impulse, the denigrated outcast and rebel. In this sense, the critics who now seek to do justice to the full ethnic, sexual, and class diversity of the literary 1850s—the age that Matthiessen ironically helped to reduce to the work of a few male Anglo-Saxon masters—regard themselves as forwarding his real agenda in more propitious circumstances than his own.

Whether Matthiessen’s New Americanist interpreters have fully grasped those circumstances, however, is another question. For Pease, who treats the paranoid cold war mentality without reference to the Soviet Union and its policies, one sign of post-1945 American irrationality is the fact that Matthiessen was “designated a ‘fellow traveler’ ” shortly before the suicide that made him a martyr to that same cold war. The quotation marks are eloquent; it is clear that for Pease there was no such thing in the real world as a fellow traveler. Other accounts, however, reveal that from the Thirties onward Matthiessen was precisely a fellow traveler—that is, someone who abstained from Party membership while generally hewing to positions set forth by the Kremlin. And insofar as his suicide registered political as well as personal despair, the disillusioning shock of Soviet Realpolitik in Eastern Europe had as much to do with it as McCarthyism. Pease’s failure to register these well-established facts would seem to make up a textbook illustration of partisan myopia, and more generally to cast some doubt on the New Americanists’ belief that they have put ideology behind them.


In any event, the project of fulfilling Matthiessen’s “real agenda” requires the dissensus critics to take up a very different position from his toward the relations between ideology, history, and literary merit. As Myra Jehlen has observed in her introduction to a provocative collection of essays that she and Sacvan Bercovitch have edited, Ideology and Classic American Literature, in the glory days of the liberal consensus

the common critical wisdom was that in literature, ideology was a trace of incomplete combustion in the transformation of the material of history into the spirit of literature. To call a writer “ideological” was to mean that he or she was less accomplished; an “ideological” work was by that definition less literary.

That was precisely Matthiessen’s understanding; his “Renaissance” masters had, by their literary power, transcended the politics of their age. But this “sidelining of history,” as Jehlen calls it, this pretense that great art must be decoupled from the struggle for social dominance, makes no sense to the New Americanists. Or rather, it makes sense to them as a repressive strategy, a means of keeping the lid on divisive differences of interest such as those between slave masters and slaves, land clearers and those whose territory was thereby seized, and more recently between the purveyors of “Americanness” criticism and the groups that find their traditions frozen out by that criticism.

To see why the dissensus critics regard such neglect of “the marginalized” as inexcusable, one could consult two formidably learned and unrelenting books by a contributor to the Ideology volume, Richard Slotkin: Regeneration Through Violence and The Fatal Environment.6 Rendering the “frontier experience” from the vantage of the decimated natives and the ravaged landscape, Slotkin’s work provides a macabre correction of the late Henry Nash Smith’s classic (and classically liberal) Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950). In one of Smith’s last, characteristically magnanimous, essays, included in the Bercovitch-Jehlen collection as a kind of trophy, he acceded to Slotkin’s implied critique of his work, confessing that he had been blind to the way such catchwords as “free land” and “frontier initiative” had served to rationalize atrocities. There could be no more affecting testimony to the power of ideological analysis, in conjunction with thorough research, to put liberal illusions to rout.

As Bercovitch conceives it, a New Americanist’s goal in studying American “classics” is to solve a problem that the liberal critics never perceived, since they took at face value the “No, in thunder!” stands of those mildly alienated books. What, Bercovitch asks, is the real role of dissent in a nation that was founded on a massive defiance of authority? Is not the rhetoric of dissent a safety valve for the system, a means of reaffirming the Revolution without triggering another and less welcome one? If so, our standard authors were not the idealists and mavericks that they supposed but ideological jesters in the court of a brutal monarch, laissez-faire capitalism. While they thought they were urging their countrymen to resist the tyranny of the majority, they were actually doing the bidding of a socioeconomic regime that had learned how, in Bercovitch’s words, “to circumscribe the bounds of perception, thought, and desire.”

Here, it seems, we see something akin to Herbert Marcuse’s once modish notion of repressive tolerance being retrofitted to the antebellum world. That notion automatically posits a state, or if not a state then some Machiavellian elite, that can orchestrate dissent from behind the scenes. But these are severely impoverished premises for understanding the Jacksonian period, when a stable ruling class worthy of the name could scarcely be said to have existed. Not a fine-tuned repressiveness but a raw dynamism, working toward ends that few paused to imagine, characterized the society as a whole. And thus it may be a quixotic gain for critics to brush aside the “deceptive” appearance of moral independence in, say, Emerson or Thoreau in order to reveal a puppet of the system.7 If the “safety valve” argument has any verisimilitude at all, it might be more plausibly applied to the New Americanists’ own radical dissent in the 1980s, which is proving to be quite compatible with the normal pursuit of academic self-interest.

In the best Sixties spirit, both Bercovitch and Jehlen are committed to regarding the democratic American dream mainly as an instrument of social control. Yet they also remain liberal enough to concede that the application of this idea to literary texts causes them some misgivings on two counts. In the first place, the goal of stripping away liberal illusions in classic texts can turn the critic, in Jehlen’s words, into “a sort of adversary of the work she or he analyzes.” Wary of being taken in by an establishment author’s rhetorical charm, a New Americanist will maintain a clinically humorless position toward, say, the extravagant experimentalism of Melville or the whimsical irony of Hawthorne or Thoreau. The resultant discourse can get bogged down in its own methodological complexities, meanwhile resisting on principle the sophistication of the text itself.

Concomitantly, there is the problem of reductionism, which Myra Jehlen names as such. As she says with confessed uneasiness, for a New Americanist,

The work that presents its conception of the world as natural through the apparent spontaneity of character and story conceals that way “its real ideological determinants,” which it is the critic’s task to reveal. The ideal and apparently absolute imaginary world orbits an ideological star in a contingent universe.

This striking image is meant to imply that the critic will be paying scant attention to the verbal texture and manifest structure of a given work, but it has a further connotation as well: the choice of a “star” at such remote range can be an arbitrary, a priori matter. What New Americanists discover in a standard work is usually a defect of consciousness that they had posited from the outset—most often some form of compliance with Jacksonian selfishness, racism, sexism, homophobia, or environmental rapacity. The conclusion can prove to be considerably less absorbing than the dazzling theoretical moves that lead up to it.

To see this adversarial reductiveness at closer range, consider one of the essays in the Bercovitch-Jehlen book entitled “The Politics of The Scarlet Letter,” written by the same Jonathan Arac who gave us such a balanced assessment of Matthiessen’s struggles. For Arac, The Scarlet Letter can be best understood as a fictional counterpart of Hawthorne’s sycophantic Life of Franklin Pierce, an indirect brief for a “progressive conservative” quietism ultimately directed against abolition. Hester Prynne’s failure to make a lasting choice for “passion” over “principle” leaves her, so far as Arac is concerned, “a double of the Puritan establishment”—a stand-patter in her time as Hawthorne was in his. And the novel as a whole, by positing an act of personal sin as the cause of Hester’s misery, retracts its tentative hints of feminism and substitutes the political soothing syrup of “trust in the future.”

“Students,” writes Arac,

judge The Scarlet Letter an intransitive “work of art,” unlike, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is “propaganda” rather than “art,” for it aims to change your life. If recent revaluation has shown that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is also art, may it not be equally important to show that The Scarlet Letter is also propaganda—not to change your life?

In other words, Hawthorne’s real message is that we needn’t get agitated over slavery and the oppression of women. The fact that slavery is not actually mentioned in The Scarlet Letter cannot faze the critic, since his method points an accusing finger at precisely what the text has “repressed.”

Indeed, that method allows Arac to sermonize about any peripheral topic that crosses his mind:

The Scarlet Letter ends with the death of Hester, and its writing began with the death of Hawthorne’s own mother. The difference is that Mrs. Hawthorne committed no crime in marrying a mariner who then happened to die in Surinam of yellow fever. Hawthorne’s novel transforms his life situation by adding accountable guilt. A complex social fact—involving American trade relations in the Caribbean, the inadequacy of mosquito control, the conditions of medical knowledge—is turned into a crime. Something that might require political action—as it did to empower public health undertaking in the nineteenth century—becomes a matter for ethical judgment and psychological reflection.

Caught up in this righteous discourse, a reader could almost forget that the fictional “transformation” of the elder Hawthorne’s death, when the romancer-to-be was just four years old, into Hester Prynne’s adultery is a pure invention of Arac’s, unconnected to a single cited line of The Scarlet Letter.

Arac does realize that his wrath is taking him ever farther from the romance that Hawthorne actually wrote, and he tries to introduce qualifications to the argument. But they come to nothing, for in Arac’s mind the real scarlet letter belongs to Hawthorne for having cobbled together the Life of Franklin Pierce. And we can appreciate his dilemma. How is a New Americanist to remain true to his democratic principles without despising a sacred-cow author who not only temporized over slavery but tied his fortunes to those of an anti-abolitionist president?

One potential solution does beckon. As Bercovitch points out, ideological analysis can be either negative or positive. It can strip humanist absolutes of their universal pretensions or, alternatively, locate in those same absolutes “a utopian criticism of the status quo, a vision of human possibilities that provides the ground for reconstituting the moral and material norms of society.” The liberal critics had practiced only the latter, positive-ideological, kind of analysis, praising literary visionaries such as Whitman and Thoreau for upholding an anti-materialist conception of the American dream. But when a New Americanist prefers to spare certain authors from destructive treatment, he can apply this same approach in a less “spiritual” variant. Such is the tack adopted by Donald Pease, the other chief Matthiessen revisionist, not only in his Ideology chapter on Melville but also in his recent book, Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context.

Pease, we recall, had earlier charged the liberal-consensus critics with having misread the American Renaissance according to cold war bias—that is, as a morality play between good (democratic, artistic) individualism and bad (conformist, popular) regimentation. But as Pease now emphasizes, the great threat in the 1850s was not conformism but secession, and the dominant myths of self-realization and material progress offered no hope of preventing the approaching cataclysm. In this setting, according to Pease, our great writers perceived “the need for a recuperated public will,” and so they proposed “visionary compacts” that could renegotiate the American Revolution in humane and collective terms. It seems, then, that the authors whom Matthiessen had praised for their superiority to mass politics, and whom Arac distrusts for much the same reason, were actually practical thinkers, would-be midwives to a national rebirth that could have obviated the Civil War if only they had been heeded.

In one sense or another Pease considers Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, and even Poe to have shared in this search for forms of collective responsibility contrary to the “Revolutionary mythos” of sheer self-development and laissez-faire. Oddly enough, his hero among these figures is Arac’s villain, Hawthorne, whose “disgust with the corruption of partisan politics” led him, in The Scarlet Letter, to offer a contrary model whereby Jacksonian anarchy is checked by the Puritan covenant.8 “Hester and Arthur,” he notes approvingly, eventually learn to “put their most intimate needs into the service of the community’s.” Here Arac’s thematic opposites, passion and principle, get reversed; it is presumably by having chosen to embrace the public good that both Hawthorne and his protagonists are now said to be surmounting fictive cheap thrills and showing us how to avert a war or, what seems even worse from Pease’s standpoint, personal isolation.

In contrast to Arac, then, who grasps Hawthorne’s penchant for equivocation and disapproves of it, Pease treats The Scarlet Letter as a virtual tract, a hymn to the Puritan polis whose members “care for one another, precisely because their relations are grounded in a collective memory.” Yet one point on which Hawthorne does not equivocate is his harsh judgment of that very community, “the most intolerant brood that ever lived” (The Scarlet Letter, chapter 6). In order to cling to the only thesis that can allow him to respect The Scarlet Letter, Pease substantially rewrites Hawthorne’s romance.

Pease fares no better in trying to credit other “Renaissance” figures with having urged visionary compacts upon their contemporaries. Poe, as he observes, supplies only a negative example, a registering of extreme dispossession and cultural vertigo. Thoreau, who gets mentioned in this study as seldom as possible, “elevates disconnection into a national ideological value,” and so in his way does Emerson, whose doctrine of self-reliance, Pease remarks, “enjoined all Americans to share Emerson’s contempt for the masses.” Presumably, this is not what a visionary compact is supposed to accomplish.

For some reason, however, Pease remains undeterred by these rebuffs. As a culminating instance of the visionary compact at work, he addresses Moby-Dick, which, in the “cold war” reading, allegedly pits Ahab’s totalitarianism against Ishmael’s democratic pluralism. Such an apprehension of Ishmael, Pease claims, turns the individualistic “negative freedom” of Melville’s age and ours into a saving virtue, whereas Melville actually took pains to show that the irresponsibly “transcendentalizing” Ishmael needs the imperiously resolute Ahab as a palliative for his chronic depression and boredom:

If the Cold War consensus would turn Moby-Dick into a figure through which it could read the free world’s survival in the future struggle with totalitarianism, Melville, as it were, speaks back through the same figure, asking us if we can survive the free world Ishmael has handed down to us.

Here, in the guise of rescuing Moby-Dick from one anachronistic reading, Pease subjects it to another one; if Melville isn’t proleptically endorsing the cold war, then he must be warning us against it.

What chiefly marks Pease as a New Americanist, despite his indulgence toward the writers of the Matthiessen canon, is his eagerness for moral certainties about the relation between the books and the politics that he admires. He cannot rest until he has thinned out Moby-Dick to a sermon that a liberated 1980s congregation could approve while passing the plate for the Nuclear Freeze. No room is left for the improvisation and morbid sarcasm that make the actual experience of reading Moby-Dick such a roller-coaster ride. Pease, it appears, cannot imagine that a great writer could have at once depicted and shared a deadly incapacity either to believe in anything or to rest content with his lurking nihilism. But Melville, as his rapid descent into the maelstrom of Pierre suggests, hearkened to inner voices that had nothing at all to say about visionary compacts with his countrymen.


Pease’s and Arac’s handicaps in dealing with canonical books could be said to come down to the perennial problem of whether, and how, to honor the principle of authorial intentionality. Pease feels compelled to invent new, politically upbeat intentions for nineteenth-century works so as to purge them of their distasteful irresoluteness and irony. Arac, as a “negative-ideological” seeker of hidden complicities, sees the injunction to honor conscious intentions as a reactionary trap; he wants to interrogate Hawthorne with a brighter bulb than that master of twilight effects would have found comfortable. And other New Americanists, expressing poststructuralist convictions, deny on epistemological grounds that authorially determined meaning can be reliably ascertained at all; “intentions” are just artifacts produced by interpretations.9

Such scruples must be put aside, however, when New Americanists turn from analyzing the canon to proposing additions to it. The only way to resuscitate a disprized tradition—literature written by evangelical women, escaped slaves, regionalists, and members of the working class—is to reconstruct what its exponents were trying to accomplish and lend one’s respect to that effort. At such a time, it is hard to tell the difference between a New Americanist and, say, a traditional historical scholar who allowed the New Criticism to come and go without being at all dismayed by “the intentional fallacy.” Sooner or later, though, an abrupt shift of theoretical argument will remind us that this objectivity toward selected movements has a polemical, establishment-baiting motive. Whenever a New Americanist offers to bind interpretation to original intentions, it is understood that no canonical authors need apply.

Take, for example, Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. This book is already widely regarded as the strongest defense of the sentimental novel, and thus the most damaging assault on the Matthiessen canon, yet devised. And predictably, it advocates a strict intentionalist approach to the works it tries to rescue from disfavor, not just Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World but also lightly regarded novels by Charles Brockden Brown and Fenimore Cooper. All of them, says Tompkins, produce redundant and implausible effects not through ineptitude but through didactic intent. They are—indeed, literary texts in general are—best understood “not as works of art embodying enduring themes in complex forms, but as attempts to redefine the social order.”

This austere definition is aimed against critics who disregard differences of genre and try to rank all works by “eternal” standards of judgment—in reality, modernist ones. And Tompkins’s argument succeeds brilliantly in persuading us to give Cooper and the others a second look. “The endlessly repeated rescue scenes in Arthur Mervyn and The Last of the Mohicans,” she urges,

the separation of families in Uncle Tom, and the Job-like trials of faith in The Wide, Wide World, while violating what seem to be self-evident norms of probability and formal economy, serve as a means of stating and proposing solutions for social and political predicaments. The benevolent rescuers of Arthur Mervyn and the sacrificial mothers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin act out scenarios that teach readers what kinds of behavior to emulate or shun.

We must grant these purposes from the outset, says Tompkins in the voice of an orthodox intentionalist, or stigmatize ourselves as prisoners of a single time-bound aesthetic.

But when Tompkins turns to her bête noire, Hawthorne, and contemplates his status as the critics’ darling, she reverses her premises entirely. Now she denies that we will ever be able to establish what Hawthorne meant those works to say, since all we can ever see in them is our own evolving intentions. For Tompkins the cognitive skeptic, “the ‘true nature’ of a literary work is a function of the critical perspective that is brought to bear upon it.” Critics, then, don’t “overlook” and then “discover” certain features inhering in the work; they quite literally create an essentially new text in the act of declaring it to contain those features. This theory has the desired effect of minimizing the credit that Hawthorne deserves for his fame. Unfortunately, however, it boomerangs on all the rest of Sensational Designs. If there is no ongoing Hawthorne to be understood by the light of his intentions, then there is no Warner or Stowe, either, and Tompkins’s efforts to demonstrate the enduring merits of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Wide, Wide World become pointless.

On a closer look, moreover, Tompkins appears less committed to intentionality even for the outsider texts than she lets on. In particular, she feels no reluctance to ascribe her own radical-feminist inclinations to the sentimental authors whom she champions against male-chauvinist detractors. According to her reading, Uncle Tom’s Cabin—which was written by a feminist, though a moderate and domestic one—has less to do with abolishing slavery than with curbing male power. At the heart of the book, Tompkins asserts, lies Stowe’s yearning for a “new matriarchy” featuring “the removal of the male from the center to the periphery of the human sphere.” But this antagonistic conception is false to the spirit of a novel whose hero is a man, whose most repulsive figure after Simon Legree is a woman, Marie St. Clare, and whose every page cries out for charity and reconciliation, not sex war.

As for the touching but monotonously homiletic Wide, Wide World, Tompkins does what she can to compensate for the fact that its heroine, Ellen Montgomery, receives much of her moral guidance from a sanctimonious young preacher who, with Warner’s enthusiastic approval, teaches her to abase herself before another authoritative male, Christ. Ellen and other sentimental heroines, Tompkins wishfully asserts, were made to perfect themselves in Christian submission only because it “gave them a place from which to launch a counter-strategy against their worldly masters that would finally give them the upper hand.” The lifelong evangelical Warner would have been mortified by the drawing of such a lesson from her pious apologue.10 Tompkins’s distortions of both Warner and Stowe appear to betray a worry on her part that such spiritualizing authors may need cosmetic improvement before they can find acceptance among secularist contemporary champions of women’s rights.

It is easy for Tompkins to show, however, that writers like Warner were discriminated against from the outset by the kingmakers of literary culture. Perhaps the liveliest pages in Sensational Designs are those comparing Hawthorne’s personal connections with Warner’s disadvantages. “Unlike Hawthorne,” Tompkins writes,

Warner had not lived in Concord, did not know Emerson and his circle, was not published by Fields, had not known Longfellow at college, had not roomed with a former [sic] President of the United States whose campaign biography she would write and who would get her a consulship when she needed money.

The idea is that this old-boy network, extended down through succeeding generations, is mainly responsible for Hawthorne’s canonical status.

The building of literary reputations is a political matter, just as Tompkins says; powerful cliques select “classics” that will flatter their own values, interests, and claims to special discernment. Yet not even Tompkins can finally convince herself that Hawthorne, in contrast to the luckless Warner, made it all the way from the 1830s until now on the strength of his connections alone. There is, she grudgingly says, something there that has allowed The Scarlet Letter to serve as the culture’s Rorschach blot. “That very description of The Scarlet Letter as a text that invited constant redefinition,” she admits, “might be put forward, finally, as the one true basis on which to found its claim to immortality.”

What could that something be that has guaranteed the remarkable staying power of The Scarlet Letter? Surely it must have to do with the book’s famous ambiguity—not just its surface coyness, which can become tiresome, but its capacity to sustain any number of plausible general interpretations without losing its power as a story. That ambiguity, we recall, strikes some New Americanists as nothing more than the expression of a contemptible political cowardice—a cowardice, I should add, of which Hawthorne may well have been guilty. But until now at least, “posterity” doesn’t seem to have cared. Even if, as Tompkins insists, posterity is only an unending chain of interest groups, the net effect of all that diversity has been to give at least some advantage to authors who can lend imaginative sympathy to rival characters and points of view.


All the liabilities of the New Americanist enterprise that I have touched upon—its self-righteousness, its tendency to conceive of American history only as a highlight film of outrages, its impatience with artistic purposes other than “redefining the social order,” and its choice of critical principles according to the partisan cause at hand—suggest that there may yet be a role for other styles of reading American literature. It ought to be possible for critics who are politically unembarrassed by ambiguity and irony to leave “cold war” rationalizations behind, branch out from the canon, yet continue to affirm what radicals sometimes forget, that there is no simple correlation between political correctness and artistic power.

That is precisely the aim of an ambitious and at least partially successful new book that professes cultural pluralism while departing sharply from New Americanist premises: David S. Reynolds’s Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. Drawing on prodigious research in obscure sources, Reynolds introduces us to a great many little-known and forgotten popular writings of the antebellum era—writings that prove to abound not only in the prudish moralism we have been led to expect but also, more surprisingly, in atheism, nihilism, licentious sensationalism, and working-class anarchism. That fact in itself should give pause to theorists like Bercovitch who claim to know how the Jacksonian order “circumscribed the bounds of perception, thought, and desire.” Reynolds, however, has no wish to adopt nineteenth-century iconoclastic writers as political heroes. The “subversive imagination,” for him, is not a standard of virtue to which we should hold our classic authors accountable; it is rather something those authors found ready at hand in their culture—raw material that they needed to bring under control before they could write works of permanent interest.

In making this point, Reynolds is disputing the high-culture emphasis of Matthiessen’s American Renaissance, which linked its literary giants to Shakespeare, to Coleridge, to T.S. Eliot, and to one another but not to the everyday world they actually inhabited. On the other hand, Reynolds accepts without question Matthiessen’s canon, modestly and uncontroversially expanded to include Dickinson and Poe. Indeed, he dares to specify a quality, “literariness”—a dense, archetypally concentrated suggestiveness deriving from the fusing and decontextualizing of many rhetorical strategies—that allegedly distinguishes all the classic works of the period from their thematically similar but “shapelessly skeptical” counterparts in the penny press.

Reynolds shows in convincing detail that every one of the “Renaissance” heavyweights was significantly affected by popular culture but managed to replace its sensationalism and its crude contradictions with an inclusive vision. Thus Poe began his career in the world of journalism, borrowing its lurid themes, but he purged them of gore, sensuality, and rant. His fiction shifts attention from the grisly deed to the mind that is driven to it. Analytic power, humor, even moral judgment—a trait that many critics, ignorant of the quasi-pornographic fiction and reportage that Poe refined upon, have failed to detect in him—lend his fiction a crucial detachment and control.

As for The Scarlet Letter, Reynolds shows that none of the ingredients of its plot could have surprised Hawthorne’s contemporaries. The sinning preacher and his fallen parishioner who must wear a dishonoring letter on her dress, the female reformer, the wronged and vindictive husband, the hypocritical Puritans, even the child who impishly botches her catechism were all anticipated in widely read works. In those books, however, moralism and prurience coexisted without reconciliation; one was merely an excuse for the other. By contrast, The Scarlet Letter is unrelievedly about morally purgative efforts that only make matters worse. As in Poe’s case, but with more sustained ethical intensity, the focus has shifted from shocking acts to boundary-testing minds that weigh the consequences of acts. And in Hester Prynne Hawthorne merged the stereotypes of the sinner and the social angel, thus turning potential melodrama into a work of complexity and tragedy.

One further example, that of Whitman, can epitomize Reynolds’s approach—and also begin to suggest its limitations. Here again the critic denies that “subversiveness” arises spontaneously in the alienated author without a prior grounding in the culture. As against the common assumption that Whitman “had begun as a conventional hack writer of moralistic fiction and poetry and then experienced some dramatic change that made him a literary iconoclast,” Reynolds traces the iconoclasm to popular sources. In his journalistic years, Reynolds argues, Whitman “let reformist vitriol flow from his pen for the sheer subversive delight of it, without much attention to programs for change.” His early, best-selling temperance novel Franklin Evans is a fairly standard example of “dark” or “immoral” reform literature, whose centerpiece is the nominally condemned depravity in which it wallows.

In his fiction and journalism of that period, Reynolds says, Whitman was dealing with sordid materials—drunkenness and delirium tremens, crushing poverty, depraved lust, infanticide—that were still considered too indecorous for inclusion in a serious poem. To become the Walt Whitman whom we know, he needed only to alter his position toward those materials, moving from sensation-mongering into moral paradox and self-dramatization as the man who turns his back on nothing. Reynolds notes this change occurring in Whitman’s earliest known jottings in free verse, in his note-book of 1847:

I am the poet of slaves, and of the masters of slaves….
I am the poet of sin,
For I do not believe in sin.

Here, says Reynolds,

we find Whitman starting his flight beyond slavery or antislavery, beyond sin or reform of sin to broader moral regions…. The intensity of dark-reform rhetoric has carried him beyond conventional moral categories altogether…. The poeticization of sin has led toward literariness [italics as found].

What does it mean, however, to say that “the intensity of dark-reform rhetoric” itself was responsible for creating Whitman’s new, all-encompassing persona? Nothing comparable occurred to other practitioners of such rhetoric. If Whitman in 1847 is already heading toward “broader moral regions” than those envisioned in his sources, something besides those sources must be taking him there.

Consider, for example, Whitman’s awareness of his homosexuality, a fact whose importance Matthiessen gauged but was cowed into minimizing. To disbelieve in sin was for Whitman a liberating achievement, a deflection of potential self-blame into a defiantly healthy public stand. But Reynolds, amazingly in view of the biographical tradition since Roger Asselineau’s The Evolution of Walt Whitman in 1960, refuses to acknowledge the poet’s erotic bent at all. It was merely Whitman’s disapproval of prurient romance fiction, says Reynolds, that led him “to emphasize adhesive love, or affection between men,” as a literary theme; he was just employing a “means of avoiding the love plot.”

Unfortunately, Beneath the American Renaissance repeatedly falls into such mechanical insistence on its taxonomies. Reynolds’s efforts to find “frontier humor” and “macabre newspaper imagery” in Emerson and Hawthorne are sometimes far-fetched. Walden strikes him as aiming chiefly not at articulating a transcendental, nature-based individualism but merely at “reinvigorating” a range of imagery borrowed from labor, temperance, antitobacco, antilicentiousness, and antislavery movements. And he further maintains that in calling Moby-Dick a wicked book, Melville meant only that it exposed certain “visionary and Oriental devices” from popular literature as “mere fantasy and wish fulfillment”—a trivialization even more remote from the living Melville than Donald Pease’s “anti-cold war” reading. It is hard to remain impressed by Reynolds’s insistence on “literariness” when he keeps subordinating it to such influence hunting and pigeonholing.11

Of much greater concern for our purpose here, however, is Reynolds’s deductive approach to literary value. Take, for instance, his telling declaration that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though praiseworthy in several respects, “misses literary status because its warring elements do not fuse to create metaphysical ambiguity or multilayered symbols.” It is something of a shock, in 1988, to see these Brooks-and-Warren New Critical criteria taken as defining the boundary between real and ersatz literature. Beneath the American Renaissance, blithely subtracting aesthetic points from books that advocate a cause and make their meaning plain, will strike critics like Bercovitch and Jehlen as a perfect instance of what they mean by ideology—as an attempt, that is, to bind us to “standards” that look eternally valid but merely reflect the liberal reluctance to embrace a nonhierarchical idea of culture.

The broader qualities that Reynolds upholds—moral inclusiveness, resonance, psychological complexity, irony, wit—do form a sound rationale for the canon that has prevailed since Matthiessen’s day. But this is hardly surprising, since the choosing of “classics” and the naming of indispensable virtues that a classic must exhibit are really a single act. It does not occur to Reynolds that there are arguably major works of American literary art—Sister Carrie is one, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is surely another—that wield enormous cultural and emotional power without showing much distinction sentence by sentence. A critic should be prepared to set aside his checklist of authentically literary traits and ask how this can be so.

In Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel, for example, Philip Fisher maintains that it is not Stowe’s artistic deficiency but our own immersion in modernist conventions that accounts for the trouble sophisticated twentieth-century readers have experienced in appreciating Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to Fisher, our contemporary expectations for a great novel have been conditioned by ironic post-Flaubertian fiction that bristles with alertness against clichés and unearned feelings. But in the history of the Anglo-American novel from Richardson onward, the central tradition has been a quite opposite one—precisely that of sentimentalism. At the heart of the sentimental novel, Fisher says, lies “the experimental extension of…normal states of primary feeling to people from whom they have been previously withheld…. Sentimentality is…anti-ironic in exactly the degree that the modern ironic form is anti-sentimental.” As Fisher demonstrates, when Uncle Tom’s Cabin is reread as an expression of this expansive impulse, it appears as a richly complex and self-integrated epic—subtle, various, and legitimately moving.

Yet we needn’t have waited for Fisher or for Tompkins to come to Stowe’s defense. Already in 1962, Edmund Wilson found Uncle Tom’s Cabin “a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect.”12 “We feel,” wrote Wilson, “that the dams of discretion…have been burst by a passionate force that, compressed, has been mounting behind them, and which, liberated, has taken the form of a flock of lamenting and ranting, prattling and preaching characters, in a drama that demands to be played to the end.” Stowe outdid herself in this one novel, according to Wilson, by virtue of the nobility and urgency of her theme: the mortal peril that slavery was posing to an entire nation’s soul. Her vision of a truly Christian Union not only fired her imagination, it also spared her from the sectionalism and scapegoating that had marred most abolitionist literature.13 In Wilson we had a model of the critic who can appreciate the historical reasons for a novel’s power without needing to convert its politics into his own.

From F.O. Matthiessen on, however, academic Americanists have had trouble arriving at such a flexible and worldly stance. Matthiessen’s precariously balanced aesthetic–political vision, at once poignant and impossible, has by now split into two styles of thought that tend to correct each other’s blind spots. Jane Tompkins and David Reynolds could be said to epitomize that standoff. The radical Tompkins grasps the relativity of literary values and fruitfully defies the elitism of taste that the “aesthetic” Matthiessen tradition has never overcome, but she and other New Americanists are unwilling to establish methodological ground rules that would cover both the works they promote and the works they resent. Reynolds, unconstrained by left politics, can freely acknowledge, as Matthiessen did, that the political elusiveness of already canonical “Renaissance” texts is intimately connected with their durability, but he turns that elusiveness into a universally valid test for entry to the pantheon, a nonnegotiable demand that would freeze the canon where it is.

The canon will change nonetheless, for a simple reason that Tompkins and her sociologically minded colleagues are best prepared to grasp. While we have all been debating which nineteenth-century works “have lasting appeal,” most of us have forgotten to ask: appeal to whom? As the academy has come to dominate what is published and taught about premodern literature, the whole notion of making a diffuse “educated public” into an arbiter has become ever more implausible.

The truth is that for any works written before the last seventy years or so, the most influential academics get to decide who’s in and who’s out. And the New Americanists themselves seem destined to become the next establishment in their field. They will be right about the most important books and the most fruitful ways of studying them because, as they always knew in their leaner days, those who hold power are right by definition.

This Issue

October 27, 1988