Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Another look at "The Price of Diversity"
Reading Janice Fiamengo's "The Bad Faith of Andrew Delbanco" prompts me to re-post this still relevant 1990 talk.
The Price of Diversity: A Minority Report on the American Classics as National Scriptures
This is a version of the talk I gave at the 1990 Chicago MLA organized by Professor James Justus for the American Literature Section session on anthologizing American Literature. I spoke as one of the editors of the Norton Anthology of American Literature; the other two speakers were Martha Banta, an editor of the Harper Anthology of American Literature, and Paul Lauter, general editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature.1 In adapting what I said in Chicago for an issue of College Literature on teaching minority literature I acknowledge my vested interests (aesthetic, scholarly, and economic) in the NAAL, but here I write more personally as an American with close ancestors of two races who had cherished some works of American literature as private scriptures for more than a quarter of a century before becoming an editor of an anthology and who has taught the great works of mid-nineteenth century American Literature year by year for almost three decades. I write in some discomfiture, for after seeing myself as an outsider all my life, a Depression Okie, a dropout from high school who worked his way through college (and sacrificed seven years' seniority as a railroad telegrapher to go to graduate school), and a man whose academic career has been devoted to showing that much of what passes for criticism and scholarship has been a waste of everyone's time, I now find myself sounding like the most reactionary of all living old fogies.
Sobered by this new perspective, I nevertheless begin with some propositions about residual effects of the New Criticism on the way some professors, some contributors to the Heath anthology in particular, have set about expanding the canon of American literature. During and after the 1950's many graduate students earned PhDs without having been trained in historical research, in research into literary history, in biographical, textual, and bibliographical research; and of course they were not trained to be cautious in the handling of evidence pertaining to such research. So fast is the generational turnover in American colleges and universities that the students of the New Critics in the 1940's and 1950's (and their own students and those students' students) became the teachers and practitioners of a series of later approaches derived from or deeply indebted to the New Criticism--among which were phenomenology in the 1960's; reader-response, structuralism, and deconstruction in the accelerated 1970's; then the New Historicism in the 1980's and early 1990's. All these literary approaches regarded the literary text as a New Critical verbal icon, even the deconstructionists, who could not initiate the dismantlement of anything less than a perfect literary artifact. Every successive dominant literary approach since the 1950's has followed the New Criticism in repudiating historical and biographical research as that was understood in the 1940's and 1950's.
By the end of the 1960's many young critics, politicized by the Viet Nam War, felt alienated from an MLA which they saw as pursuing its scholarly or critical course oblivious to the fact that the nation was prosecuting an unjust war, and in quintessentially American fashion the young activists seized control of the MLA, and as members of the establishment have retained and consolidated their control of it for more than two decades. By and large, these young radicals were products of their time. That is to say, they were New Critics, untrained in the handling of scholarly evidence. In one of our cozy confabs in the mid-1980's (later I explain how we became friends) I challenged Paul Lauter with the accusation that his collaborators were from the generation least trained in literary history, least able to revise the canon responsibly. He confessed it at once, and confirmed it with a story from his own graduate career at Yale. In the mid-1950's he arrived in an American Literature class armed with older students' notes taken in previous courses given by Stanley T. Williams (the Irving scholar now revered by some as the teacher of great Melvilleans), notes devoted to information about literary history, biography, and bibliography, as well as literary evaluation. Lauter found at the podium not Williams but Charles Feidelson--the man who had savaged The Melville Log in American Literature as a mass of documents irrelevant to literary criticism. The moral of the story was that the classnotes from Williams were useless in the new order at Yale. This was a devastating disruption of continuity in the study of American history and American literary history, and most later specialists in American literature made no effort to retrieve for themselves what their generation had been denied. The loss of connections to earlier history is plain in Annette Kolodny's list of "moments that generated all the new scholarship" of the New Historicists or New Americanists, from "that moment in 1962 when Students for a Democratic Society published the 'Port Huron Statement'" to "the 1973 seizure of the church and trading post at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by members of the American Indian Movement publicizing a century of betrayals."2
In the late 1970's and early 1900's many young professors, untrained in research into history and literary history (and biography), decided that they wanted to write some literary history while there was still time, before they turned forty-five or fifty. Rather than educating themselves in such disciplines, they proceeded to write history and literary history as if research had all been done long before, once for all. The general editor of the Columbia Literary History of the United States, Emory Elliott, cheerfully rationalized his contributors' failure to do research by announcing that they were doing something better than poring over musty old documents in pursuit of an impossible goal, that of telling the truth about literary history. They were not such fools as to hope to tell the truth: they were storytellers, and were to be judged on their narrative verve, not on anything like discovery of and adherence to facts.3 In the spirit of the Columbia volume, the author of the Melville chapter does not even refer to the great trove of new biographical material available at the New York Public Library since 1983. Sacvan Bercovitch, the general editor of the forthcoming Cambridge literary history, has been extolling a book by one of his contributors, a study of the literary marketplace in the American Renaissance for which the author did absolutely no archival research into contracts and promotion tactics and distribution systems and sales figures but instead proceeded as if William Charvat had long ago done all the research that ever needed to be done.4 On the rare occasions when the New Americanists actually perform archival research, they may reveal their ineptitude in embarrassing ways, as when Neal L. Tolchin builds an entire chapter on his mistranscription and misinterpretation of a letter written by Melville's mother.5 We may never make up for what we lost when Feidelson replaced Williams at Yale.
We lost something even more devastating than continuity in the aims and methods of scholarly research. Since this paragraph will distress Cleanth Brooks if he sees it, I remind you that he denies ever having been a New Critic: what I allege was the last thing on his mind. One of the lingering consequences the New Criticism has been the removal of one of the crucial checkpoints through which candidates for canonicity had always been required to pass--the test of literary value. By banning the study of the creative process the New Criticism had set up a situation in which critics (unable to stop talking in biographical terms) routinely managed to convert even such an essentially biographical subject as Henry James's revisions into a New Critical enterprise, abstracting revision from the revising author (and doing so on the basic of perfunctory comparisons of texts). Literary criticism through the 1960's and 1980's still contained biographical and historical assumptions, but divorced from biographical and historical evidence; at times the critic reading a flawed text would condemn the poor author for not being able to to what he had in fact done, before being forced to expurgate his text.6 The habit of bashing an author unjustly, on the basis of a text flawed through no fault of his or her own, is unpleasant to witness, but not of enormous importance. However, this dissociation of the work of art from knowledge of the creative process has recently had a momentous consequence. Literature professors have all but stopped talking about the creative process (the only place you see it in MLA programs is in relation to freshman writing courses) and have lost the knowledge that aesthetic value might have some connection to the creative process. Clinical psychiatrists studying the creative process are concluding that the test of an artist's achievement is both its originality and its aesthetic value,7 but having long divorced value from the creator and placed it elsewhere (as inherent in the text, or in the reader) some young professors have felt free to go further and abandon the criterion of aesthetic value in what they teach in American Literature courses.
Although I am an editor of an anthology which without apology presents classic texts of American literature, I see myself as having devoted much time to scrutinizing the body of American Literature with the intention of expanding its canon. I have done so unconventionally, to be sure--by retracing the processes of composition, revision, and publication in ways that cast doubt on what we teach when we teach a work called Pudd'nhead Wilson or The Red Badge of Courage or Sanctuary or An American Dream. When I guided a student into reconstructing the text of Red Badge to a form very near what Crane wrote, before it was brutally truncated, I was expanding the canon by creating a text unread since early 1895.8 But I have also been concerned with expanding the canon in more conventional ways. As a graduate student in 1961 I combed The Literary History of the United States and The Literature of the American People9 and scanned older literary histories to compile a list of works that literary historians thought were wrongly neglected. The library at Northwestern didn't have Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons (1862) and a few others on my hunting list, and I didn't realize that I could have found Rebecca Harding's "Life in the Iron Mills" in the April 1861 Atlantic Monthly, but I read two hundred or so of these neglected but admired works and was drawn into reading many not on my list. (Stowe as a New England realist, the historian of the psychological effects of Edwardsianism, was a revelation, so I read almost everything except the Sam Lawson stories, which defeated me.) This reading of neglected literature profoundly affected the way I later taught American Literature, for from the time I began teaching I found I had to carry into class out-of-print books and read from them or else type out or (after the mid-1960's) photocopy passages from minor works in order to demonstrate literary influences and cultural continuities and discontinuities. At the University of Illinois the library was so splendid that in 1964 I could set undergraduates to explore minor literature and get a fine paper on a topic such as "New York through Women's Eyes in the 1840's" (that is, New York as reflected in fiction by women published in that decade). (Very few teachers in the country could assign a large class such topics even today.) Thereafter I taught a major works survey that varied year to year, but I always held up and talked about or read from many minor works.
With this interest in expanding the canon I was excited when in early December 1983 I received the flyer for Reconstructing American Literature, Paul Lauter's forthcoming Feminist Press collection of revisionist syllabi from American literature courses.10 At MLA I carried the flyer around the hallways of the Hilton until I found a man passing out copies of it. I don't hang out with strangers at MLA very much, but I wanted to know the writer of that flyer, so I hung out with Lauter. One day we burrowed far beneath the Sheraton, down where the signs still said Americana. At the end of the tunnel were bound copies of Reconstructing American Literature, and he gave me the first signed copy, "to continue & develop the debate." I promptly required it in an undergraduage class and in two graduate classes, and for later courses I talked about it and put it on reserve. I was painfully ambivalent about it, cheered by the fact that many young people were now reading and teaching neglected works but disturbed at some of the attitudes I found in the syllabi and the headnotes. I thought some of the syllabi were sexist--biassed against men (the delightful Caroline Kirkland could be rediscovered but not the marvelous Joseph Kirkland). I thought the syllabi were biassed against regions of the country, particularly the South, but also the West and the Midwest, including Chicago (Joseph Kirkland had two strikes against him). I thought they were biassed against even women regional writers unless they happened to be from New England, biassed against stories about fundamental Protestantism, biassed against any writer who did not have leftist leanings, or leanings that could be construed as leftist. I felt condescended to by some of the contributors who, I thought, were assuaging their cultural guilt by teaching what purported to be American Indian literature but was textually suspect and anyhow was anomalous, since it was in translation. I made these points at the 1984 MLA on a panel Lauter and I organized with Coral Lansbury, part of our ongoing efforts at continuing and developing the debate,
What I learned from Lauter and his crew and their associates was directly reflected in the authors I began adding to my section of the second edition of NAAL and the changes I made in the selections for writers already included. At the March 1984 NEMLA meeting in Philadelphia I went to a meeting of Lauter's group to ask them (among other things) to level with me: were they teaching Margaret Fuller's The Great Lawsuit, the whole of which I had laborously annotated for the first edition of NAAL and about which users of the anthology were less than enthusiastic. (The Lauter collaborators confessed that they weren't really teaching the Fuller, but they were happy to have it in the anthology.) At dinner with some of the Lauter group Lawrence Buell wrote "Eliz. Stoddard / 'Lemorne vs. Huell' / (1862) / Harper's" in the back flyleaf of my copy of Reconstructing American Literature. I found the story as worthy as Buell did, especially since there was nothing in NAAL to suggest the influence of the Brontes in the United States aside from the major example of Dickinson. Within days I was giving the Stoddard story a long-delayed chance to achieve canonicity. Some literary works never get a chance; sometimes one chance is all a work needs. The verdict is not in, but here is a "contingency of value" for Barbara Herrnstein Smith's file:11 a story given a chance in my section of NAAL--and subsequently in the 1985 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women--because I sat between Rita Gollin and Larry Buell at the non-smoking end of a long table. (Nothing is quite that simple, of course: I was predisposed to learn more about Stoddard because of what scholars had said in the 1940's and early 1950's.) My fascination with the aims of Lauter and his crew and with their Reconstructing American Literature may not have been widely shared (I wonder who else required students to buy it as often as I did), but I think everyone who even thumbed through Reconstructing must have profited from it, and long before the Heath anthology was published Lauter and his contributors (and their friends and associates) had achieved some of their goals indirectly, through their influence on NAAL and other anthologies.
But now I would say that the weaknesses I pointed to in Reconstructing American Literature recur in the Heath Anthology of American Literature (1989). I had missed in the syllabi in Reconstructing any evidence that the contributors had embarked on a grand promiscuous reading of all the American literature the contributors could lay hands on, open to finding merit anywhere, the way David S. Shields in the early 1980's was reading every Colonial poem he could find (without first subjecting it to tests for political correctness).12 Many of the contributors to the Heath anthology seem to have gone hunting not see what wildlife (some of it once domesticated) was in the underbrush but with the specific intention of spotting only minority writers who had not been in previous anthologies. But one should not confuse the recovery of many minority writers with a true reassessment of the canon of American Literature. The Heath advertising makes its highest claims for the diversity of the anthology, but diversity is just what I miss in it--a wide representation of American humorous literature; of sporting literature; of literature dealing with religious customs, including Midwestern and Southern Protestantism; of early international novels; of the writings of historians (after the colonial period, where they are well enough represented); of the literature of local color and regionalism, with due representation of the literature of the South, West, Midwest; of literature which depicts American customs and mores (including sexual mores of the middle classes); and any attempt to demonstrate the literary traditions out of which American literature developed, especially its debts to British literature. Caught in the crunch between the economic necessity of including the "classic" American writers (however squeezed, as poor Henry James is) and the desire to represent a wide range of minority voices, in particular voices of women, blacks, and American Indians, the Heath editors wrote off generations of American writers who in their own times had been the most popular or the most respected American voices.
When I wished the Reconstructing syllabi had included more establishment authors I wasn't asking for equal time for political bigots or early imitators of Hawthorne. Then, in the depths of the first Reagan administration, I thought we might as well know how some of the kindly people who had voted for Reagan had learned to fear and hate some people less fortunate than themselves. Now, in the 1990's, when many teachers will want to say, and perhaps even do, something about homelessness in America, it might be good to teach Stephen Crane's "Experiment in Misery" and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, but it might be still better to teach some of the conservative voices of the 1870's and 1880's when unemployed people (many of them not native born) began wandering out of cities into small towns and rural areas looking for work and food, and creating what became known as the Tramp Menace. In December 1990 the news magazines said there was a shift in public opinion, a hardening of sensibility about the unemployed and the homeless. If we want to put into historical perspective questions of practical compassion as well as idealism, we could do worse than to listen to some frightened and angry conservative voices that helped mold American public opinion--the voice of Thomas Bailey Aldrich in The Stillwater Tragedy (1880) or John Hay in The Bread-Winners (1884) or the xenophobic Stowe in Poganuc People (1878) or the ambivalent voice of Mary Wilkins in The Portion of Labor (1901). That sort of writing by men and women who were part of the literary establishment but who have lost some or all of their prestige is not represented in the Heath anthology: the men are dropped altogether and politically suspect or incorrect writings by the women are not selected.
The most visible innovations in the Heath anthology are the new selections by racial minorities, especially blacks and Indians. Last September I flew Oklahoma to see a quarter Choctaw and quarter Cherokee aunt on her ninetieth birthday; it turned out that others had had the same idea, dozens of them, half-Indians and quarter-Indians among some of the more elderly. Most of us were strangers to each other and all of us peered at the unfamiliar, but undeniably familial and undeniably Indian faces, and tracing our relationships required us to recall tribal identity. This is prefatory to saying that I react viscerally to the practice of anthologizing as "American Literature" Indian "writing" recorded by whites or translated by whites--or reconstructed and substantially or wholly written or rewritten by whites. Can a story be Indian when a white man took U. S. copyright to it? Anthology editors are assuaging their consciences cheaply when they print a speech a white newspaper editor fraudulently put in the mouth of an Indian chief. Even when the documents are genuine, the anthologists are inconsistent in printing translations of them. We don't include in American Literature anthologies a section of creation myths of the ancestors of all people now living in the United States (such as chapter one Genesis), so why include Indian creation myths? (I leave aside the question of what criteria of political correctness govern the choice of creation myths and which tribes are privileged over others.) My experience is skewed by the fact that my Indian ancestors (being from the Five Civilized Tribes) became assimilated a long time ago (although I have a 1906--pre-statehood--family photograph which includes a Choctaw ancestress who at that late year, my aunt says, spoke only Choctaw). Members of tribes that kept their identities might feel differently--but then they can keep their literature alive in Navaho or Hopi dialects, not English. I feel like saying to white anthology makers, "You won, we lost, let it go." Give my surviving aunts the tribal rights they were cheated out of through being required to register far away from where they lived, clean up some of the horrors in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, do something (fast) about fetal-alcoholism syndrome on the reservations (a daily tragedy in 1991 with bitter consequences stretching far into the twenty-first century), but don't try to make up for genocide with a few dubious translation of dubious texts. (After I said this in Chicago, several people with Indian blood told me they felt just the way I do, and some white people said they had never known what to do with those translations of Indian songs or speeches.)
That's personal, maybe more personal than scholarly, but I am on more solidly objective ground in suggesting that in their eagerness to represent minority writers who actually wrote in English some of the Heath editors lose sight both of aesthetic value and historical significance. The result is a pervasive leveling in the Heath anthology, to the point that Frederick Douglass hardly seems to be a more important writer than, say, Harriet Jacobs. Any time a victim of memorable suffering looks in his or her heart and writes, the result is apt to be a moving human document--but not necessarily a literary document. Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is such a moving human document, but it was published too late to have any historical impact, and strikes me as having little literary merit. Douglass's terse 1845 Narrative is one of the greatest human documents in all of American literature, but it is also a literary document, and very much an American story in the Franklin tradition of self-education and self-propelled ascent from humble beginnings to national prestige. Douglass did not simply look in his heart and write. As a slave boy in Baltimore he learned to comprehend the dialogues and forensic disputes in his copy of The Columbian Orator. I hadn't realized until I read the copy in the Special Collections at the University of Delaware, but of course "Columbian" meant "American"; even in slavery Douglass was training himself with a textbook for would-be national orators. With greater advantages Melville's brother Gansevoort was doing exactly the same thing at the same time. And before he wrote down his Narrative Douglass tried parts of it out, night after night, before live audiences, getting the story right before putting it into print--just as, at the same time, Herman Melville was trying out the spicier episodes of Typee on his fellow sailors. Taste has changed, and we have to remind ourselves that Douglass's purple passages, such as the set piece on the sails on the Chesapeake Bay which William Lloyd Garrison praises in the preface, were not only proof that Douglass could write the sort of bravura display which the times admired: such passages were profoundly functional, because "fine writing" in prose is like poetry--quotable, memorable, and even memorizable, and therefore powerful in the crusade to awaken the consciences of the North. Even in slavery Douglass was struggling with something very few freeborn people ever conquer--style, and by the time he wrote the Narrative (although a white man in Maryland held title to him) he was his own literary master. To lump Douglass with Jacobs is to ignore his triumphant struggle to become not just the author of a book but an American orator--when oratory was an art, samples of which were presented in schoolbooks (all through the century) along with samples of biography and history as well as essays, fiction, and poetry.
The Heath anthology not only represents minority figures with selections of dubious authenticity and other selections of dubious historical or aesthetic value, it also distorts even "standard" writers, at times (not always), by presenting them not in a historical context (history being deemed irrecoverable) but in terms of late twentieth century political correctness. In the Heath anthology Melville is presented as a proletarian, an enemy of "capitalism and slavery," who wrote his books out of a bleeding social conscience.13 I don't recognize this Melville, despite some zealous political passages in his early writings. Melville's considered judgment was that bringing contemporary issues into a literary work was always a mistake, as when he criticized the section of "Lycidas" on the corruption of the English church: "Mark the deforming effect of the intrusion of partizan topics & feelings of the day, however serious in import, into a poem otherwise of the first order of merit."14 In the Heath anthology "Melville" is what Barbara Herrnstein Smith might call an example of adaptive misuse--misuse of a nineteenth-century writer to fit a late twentieth pseudo-Marxist agenda.14 (I find it very hard to take academic radicalism seriously when it shelters itself under tenure and the capitalistic TIAA-CREF just the way the rest of us do.)16 We know that Thoreau lost sleep--literally lost sleep--over the remanding of fugitive slaves to the South. As far as we know Melville never did. As he wrote in "Loomings," "Who aint a slave? Tell me that." He had other agenda. Great writers do not always respond in the same ways to the same momentous political issues of their times, and I feel no compulsion to grade Melville or anyone else on a chart of political correctness--not Hawthorne the Southern sympathizer, or Emerson the advocate of resettling freed slaves in Africa, or George Washington Harris the all-round sexist and racist who helped drive some of my ancestors out of their homes and helped start them on the genocidal march to Indian territory, or Stowe the bigot who rued the influx of the pauper poor from southern Europe. By the current criteria of political correctness no one in the nineteenth-century can 'scape whipping, and the New Americanist may have to decide whether to cut off all acquaintance with past writers just the way he or she has to decide whether or not to stop seeing relatives who keep framed signed photographs of Vice President Quayle on their television sets. Frederick Crews, who has become the most eloquent and comprehensive reviewer of academic books on American literature for the benefit of the general reading public, poses the problem that confronts people like some of the Heath editors: "will they be able to acknowledge a possible divergence between political correctness and literary power?"17
Political correctness clashes with historical truth in the Melville headnote where the editor says that Melville's father-in-law Lemuel Shaw was "a staunch defender of racial segregation and of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law."18 Is the student who thinks slavery is morally wrong supposed to feel self-righteous when he or she encounters this reference to the "infamous Fugitive Slave Law"? Is a black student supposed to have his or her sense of victimization enforced? Still believing that one can recapture much of the truth about many episodes of the past, I declare that in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Bill was not infamous. It could not have been adopted as part of the Compromise of 1850 if it had been infamous. Most Americans, even most of those who opposed slavery, accepted the bill as a necessity because their strongest commitment was to preserve the Union, not to redress a wrong built into the Constitution and plaguing every subsequent generation. The historical truth is that a decade before the Civil War began devotion to the union overwhelmed scruples about slavery throughout the North. In 1962 at the Boston Public Library I spent days reading through the newspaper coverage of fugitive slave cases. During the Sims case, in the spring of 1851, all the newspapers of both parties, Democratic and Whig, were united in wanting Sims to be promptly and peacefully remanded. All respectable citizens thought the Law should be enforced in order to preserve the union. Only a couple of newspapers, the Liberator and the Commonwealth, advocated rescuing a fugitive slave or otherwise actively resisting the law. The phrase "lunatic fringe" had not been coined, but those papers were regarded by all decent people, Whig or Democratic, in that light, or worse: not only lunatic, but incendiary. Yet only four years after the Sims case the Massachusetts legislature passed, over the veto of the governor, the Personal Liberty Act--the purpose of which was to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law. In those few years public opinion in Massachusetts had been reversed--by activists like Garrison and Parker and Whittier and Douglass. Thoreau helped. Such idealists achieved one of the most dramatic reversals of public opinion in American history.
In the late 1960's, fresh from reading the thunderous denunciations of the "higher law" advocates in the Boston newspapers, I was able, in class after class, to put into historical perspective the changes in public attitudes toward the war in Viet Nam. Rather than politicizing the classroom in the sense of directing students to judge the war in a particular way, I was actively encouraging students to understand present history in the light of past American experience. Here, in American mid-nineteenth century history, and literary history, was proof that a handful of people following their consciences could sway a majority to their side--an almost exact parallel to our contemporary experience. When you tell a student only that the Fugitive Slave Law was "infamous" you may instill a cheap dose of self-righteousness, but you distort history, you obscure our sense of the lives of authors like Thoreau, and you close off any chance of using the past in order to understand, and perhaps to effect changes in, the present. As strongly as I object to those Heath editors who see an anthology as a means for politicizing students, I don't see how anyone can avoid calling attention to political implications in classic American Literature and relating the classics to present political conditions. During the Viet Nam war journalists and politicians beat their breasts lamenting that America had lost its national innocence, that for the first time in our history we were fighting an unjust war. They were wrong, but I don't remember in the 1960's seeing historians point to the Whig outcries over Polk's invasion of Mexico (Executive War!) and McKinley's invasion of the Philippines. The historical truth is that every two generations or so America (according to some idealists) had lost her innocence. (Then, once the memory had faded, she had magically had regained her innocence.) As he declares in one of the most poignant passages in "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau during the remanding of slaves had cast about to define his vague sense of loss and had realized that what he had lost was a country. Through the 1960's and early 1970's I carried to class a fading thermofax of William M. Gibson's 1947 article on Howells' and Mark Twain's opposition to the Spanish-American war, where he quoted Howells's lament at the loss of a national idealism and innocence; in the 1980's I replaced that worn out teaching aid with a crisp Xerox of the article.19 During the Viet Nam years Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer were making old discoveries while thinking they were making them for the first time. In the late 1960's students did not always like hearing that they were less than unique, and in the 1970's they did not always like hearing that the old pattern had been reenacted in the September after Kent State, when in colleges all over the country the Me Generation emerged cloaked in a fog of apathy and amnesia. By showing the recurrent pattern I was using writings by classic American authors to teach something I considered immeasurably significant about the American national character--a pattern of slow arousal of conscience, of action on the basis of that conscience, and afterwards the pall of a collective amnesia. Anyone reading this in the first administration of the Environmental President / Education President can draw his or her own more recent applications to American life, and assemble a range of classic texts on the subject of one aspect of the American national character, the capacity to suppress a profound perception by quick forgetting--"Rip Van Winkle," "My Kinsman Major Molineux," "Benito Cereno."
Underlying the last paragraphs is my conviction that the aesthetic value of the American classics is not separable from cultural and political value; now I need to confront a new threat, the diminishing store of knowledge of history, including literary history, which students now bring with them to college. To understand--and make full cultural use of--Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" we need to know the circumstances under which it was recognized (under the apparently unauthorial title "Civil Disobedience") as a major political weapon. To teach "Benito Cereno" in a way faithful to Melville we need to have a sense of the complex racial attitudes possible for a northern white to feel in the middle of the decade before the Civil War. Yet students come to college knowing less about American history and American literature year by year (the eleventh grade American Literature course has been discarded by many Delaware schools in the last several years), and in many colleges undergraduates have few chances to make up the loss by reading classic nineteenth-century American texts.
The breaking of the tradition of teaching American Literature in high school justifies a look back at the start of that tradition. The makers of my little collection of textbooks of American Literature (for high schools, not college) published between 1890 and World War I probably did occupy positions of "cultural power," as Barbara Herrnstein Smith says all anthology makers do.20 Many of them were diffident about the aesthetic value of the literature yet producted, yet willing to propose that the study of the best writing we had produced would "enlarge the views, improve the taste, intensify the patriotism, and elevate the aims of teachers and pupils."21 In an 1898 textbook the editor placed patriotic concerns far above aesthetic concerns:22
There are many works which should be studied by every American, if for nothing else, because of their relation to our national history and ideals. The Biglow Papers, the Harvard Commemoration Ode, Whittier's tribute to Lincoln,--all these, and others like them, have their place in the education of American youth. They should be given the fullest chance to do their work of quickening our national conscience and lifting us to nobler life. And it is not books only that help to elevate. The personal example of such author-patriots as Lowell, Whittier, and Curtis, of such stainless scholars as Longfellow, should be a most widespread and potent influence for good. In a great commercial nation such as ours, the inspiration from the life and aims of the scholar and the poet is especially needed to correct the tendency to strive only for the commonplace and the practical.
A 1911 editor was still more agressive:
Any one who makes an original study of American literature will not be a mere apologist for it. He will marvel at the greatness of the moral lesson, at the fidelity of the presentation of the thought which has molded this nation, and at the peculiar aptness which its great authors have displayed in ministering to the special needs and aspirations of Americans. He will realize that the youth who stops with the indispensable study of English literature is not prepared for American citizenship, because our literature is needed to present the ideals of American life. There may be greater literatures, but none of them can possibly take the place of ours for citizens of this democracy.
For all the aesthetic and political naiveté (not to mention tacit sexism) of such pronouncements, I think these textbooks did great cultural and political good.
Rather than lamenting the threat to their cultural identity, millions of immigrants between 1890 and 1910 deliberately sacrificed their European languages and literatures so their children like other Americans would know only English, which luckily is the language of Shakespeare. Learning English and American literature in school was a means of transcending social and economic barriers. Yes, as a nation we lost the chance for multi-cultural enrichment during that period of intensive Americanization but as far as the immigrants were concerned, that loss was compensated for by economic and political opportunities here: being American was a privilege. We all know of exceptions such as Jews who could not bear the barbarism of Brooklyn and went home to Germany in the mid-1930's in order to live a richer cultural life. But for most immigrants, all along, America was not just a nicer place to live but a place they chose when the options were death or life; ask ask septuagenarian Jews, who got out of Europe in the late 1930's, or ask "boat people" of the 1970's and 1980's. No wonder immigrants who married here and had American children or who came here married and brought their children or sent for them later--no wonder these parents were determined that their children, in order to be securely, irrefutably Americans, would speak only English and read in school what the native children were reading. Textbook editors and immigrant families were in at least tacit collusion, for the editors helped see to it that immigrants and native-born Americans alike were instilled with an awareness of a common body of classic American literature (however distorted it would look to our eyes, with its heavy tilt toward poets such as Longfellow and Whittier). Youngsters of whatever ancestry were exposed to "Rip Van Winkle" and "Self-Reliance" and "Evangeline" and "The Barefoot Boy." No matter that removed such literature was far removed from urban life or even rural life as it had become, it did its work in familiarizing children with the same literary texts and predisposing them to enjoy American poetry and other poetry in the English language all their lives. Such functions of literature seem to have been abandoned in the public schools without anything of value being substituted, and advocates of bi-lingual teaching are now overwhelmed by the reality of the new immigration. As I write this paragraph the NEWSWEEK for 11 February 1991 arrives with an article on "Classrooms of Babel," where the writer concludes: "Bilingual classes aren't an option in a classroom where a dozen languages are spoken." Any attempt to apportion equal time for literature written by Americans of various linguistic ancestries is going to founder. We have to choose whether to follow the textbook makers of a century ago in trying to instill in students some knowledge of an (ever-varying) core of American classics or else we have to give up the idea of having any communal knowledge of any American Literature.
In the last sentence of the Preface to Leaves of Grass Whitman said: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." In the turn of the century textbooks I just cited, he was still a marginal figure (although far better known than Melville), but the country had affectionately "absorbed" some other "major" writers and some of its lesser writers, and was the more humane and united for it. It is easy to make fun of this position. Kolodny mocks Harry Levin for his naive belief that we once had been nourished by a collective knowledge and collective memory of American literature. I think we did have such knowledge and memory, and that we are far along in the process of trashing it as effectively as we have trashed the environment. Nothing good has replaced it. Now are the words and images that unify the country derived from television commercials, MTV, or movies rather than literature?
I confess to some wishful thinking of my own, a lingering hope that there can be at least an eleventh-grade high school class and a sophomore or junior college class in which all students will have a chance to read works of American literature which have entered most deeply into the collective American consciousness--the American scriptures. This is problematical. Aesthetic evaluation really is, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith says, contingent on many factors; but some literary works really are better than other literary works, and anyone imbued both with a sense of the preciousness of time and a love of literature will feel that he or she is better occupied teaching the best literature most of the time. In chapter three of Walden Thoreau described popular literature of his time as "Little Reading" which could be consumed without strain by the barely literate, in pathetic contrast to the classics, which students always have to stand "on tiptoe" to read, which can be truly read only by those whose lives are changed by the experience of reading. In teaching (and anthologizing) I act on Thoreau's assumption--that documents which afford the most rich, complex aesthetic experiences might also be the very documents most likely to work transforming enlightenment--social, cultural, political enlightenment--in all earnest young students. We may survive as a people without knowledge of a common body of literature, but if we read the casual writings of the day, the Times, as Thoreau says, rather than reading literature meant for Eternity (or if we forsake the pleasures of reading altogether, even Little Reading, for the pleasures of the other media) we lose something that all civilized societies have held sacred, the aesthetic and richly socializing experience of absorbing a set of national classics, an experience that just might be worth passing on to the next generation.
1. Ronald Gottesman et al., eds., The Norton Anthology of American Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979). The second edition (1985) and the third edition (1989) are edited by Nina Baym, et al. See also Donald McQuade, general ed., The Harper Anthology of American Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) and Paul Lauter, general editor, The Heath Anthology of American Literature (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1990).
2. Annette Kolodny, "The Integrity of Memory: Creating a New Literary History of the United States," American Literature (1985) 57:291-307; the quotations are from pp. 306 and 307. I have picked up the apt term "New Americanists" from Frederick Crews, "Whose American Renaissance?" New York Review of Books (27 October 1988) 35:68, 70, 72, 74-81.
3. Emory Elliott, ed. Columbia Literary History of the United States (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), p. xvii. The New Americanists-New Historicists seem to think that they have done all the research there is to do if they go to the library and find a 1930's or 1940's book on the topic they are interested in.
4. See Bercovitch's review of Michael T. Gilmore's American Romanticism and the Marketplace in TLS (9 January 1987) 4371:40.
5. Tolchin, Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988). Chapter 2 (pp. 36-58) is built on the claim that Melville's mother was baffled by Typee ("which none of us understand") when in fact what confused her was her son Allan's letter about it.
6. Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1984), Chapter 4, "The Authority of the Revised Text and the Disappearance of the Author: What Critics of Henry James Did with Textual Evidence in the Heyday of the New Criticism." For James C. Calvert's author-bashing, see pp. 166-168.
7. A magnificent book, almost wholly ignored by literary critics, is Albert Rothenberg's The Emerging Goddess (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979); Chapter 13 should be read by every graduate student and English professor. A simplified discussion of value is on p. 9 in Rothenberg, Creativity and Madness (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990).
8. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Henry Binder (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982). See also in my Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons Chapter 6, "The Red Badge of Courage: The Private History of a Campaign that--Succeeded?"
9. Robert E. Spiller, et al., Literary History of the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1948) and Arthur Hobson Quinn, et al., The Literature of the American People (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951.)
10. Paul Lauter, ed., Reconstructing American Literature (Old Westbury, N. Y.: Feminist Press, 1983).
11. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, "Contingencies of Value," Critical Inquiry (1983) 10:1-35. Reprinted in Contingencies of Value (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).
12. This massive research culminated in Shields's Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
13. Carolyn R. Karcher, "Herman Melville, 1819-1891," in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, I:2402.
14. Herman Melville's annotation in his copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton, (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1836) p. 277.
15. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, "Contingencies of Value," p. 13.
16. Kolodny, p. 107, celebrates the bravery of "feminists, Blacks, gays and lesbians in the academy" who "risked their careers to pursue" their new awareness of "diversity, division, and discord" in the United States and its literature; the statement might be nearer the truth of what happened if "risked their careers to pursue" were emended to "built their careers on pursuing."
17. Frederick Crews, "The Strange Fate of William Faulkner," New York Review of Books (7 March 1991), 38:47-52; the quotation is from page 51.
18. In the Heath anthology, Karcher, I:2402.
19. William M. Gibson. "Mark Twain and Howells: Anti-Imperialists," New England Quarterly (1947) 20:465-466.
20. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, pp. 25-26.
21. Selections from Hawthorne and his Friends, preface by Dr. Richard Edwards (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890), p. viii.
22. Henry S. Pancoast, An Introduction to American Literature (New York: Henry Holt, 1898), p. vi.
23. Reuben Post Halleck, History of American Literature (New York: American Book Company, 1911), p. 6.