Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"The Literatures of America:
A Comparative Discipline”
Paul Lauter

Lauter argues against “the Great River theory of American letters,” one we’ve all taken a dip or two in. Perhaps you know it as “mainstream American literature,” the big guys, like Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Hemingway, and the others in the great flow of white men. Lauter explains that we are unwise to use such a theory because it is “fundamentally misleading,” since America “is a heterogeneous society whose cultures, while they overlap in significant respects, also differ in critical ways.” He compares the great river theory to making the assumption in gender studies that “the male is considered the norm” or in studying “ethnic organization and behavior” assuming the norm is “Anglo-American.”

Lauter’s purpose in writing is to suggest a way to study “the many and varied literatures of the United States.” He wants to find a way to include the writings of many marginalized groups. He points out that “the works generally considered central to a culture are those composed and promoted by persons from groups holding power within it.” As a result, there may be many reasons why other works of literature might be misunderstood or excluded. To use a comparative method of study would be more inclusive, including “Anglo-European, male writing as but one voice, albeit loud and various, in the chorus of ‘American’ culture.”

The comparative method is not without its complexities. For one, he says, we may be unaccustomed to the method. Another issue is that the various cultures within the U.S. are at different stages of development. So while the white male group may have had more time to develop as writers, other groups might not have had as much time to develop their literacy. Thus, the comparison might not always be on equal terms.

For an example, Black writers might not seem as developed as white writers, having gained literacy later than white writers. While women might have been literate sooner than Blacks, they often were ignored because they wrote what was expected of them—“success tales, in which virtue, in the form of constancy, often self-denial, and sometimes devotion to craft generally brought happy endings for the heroines.” He’s talking about that kind of sentimentalist fiction that’s predictable and awful, rather than pleasant (the kind that Leslie Fiedler talks about in Love & Death in the American Novel).

The problem is, see, the history of fiction isn’t something we can agree on precisely. That is to say—what we once thought was the History of Fiction was just one voice speaking, when in fact many voices should have been represented. It is as though an invisible hand covered those other mouths, not the hand of a conspiracy, necessarily, but the kind of hand that would arise from poverty, a language difference, or just, for example, living in the wrong region. This invisible hand of which I speak is the vehicle of marginalization.

To apply the term “regionalist” or “local colorist” to writers, Lauter notes, “marks them as peripheral to the development of a national culture” because “a critical category like ‘regionalism’ is about as useful—and as accurate—in describing these writers as a phrase like ‘escapist fiction’ would be if applied to Poe” as well as “ethnic” or “minority” regarding other writers.

Lauter also points out what he calls “the social issues,” meaning “the prices paid, often by women for men’s upward, or outward, mobility, the sacrifices of community to self, the difficulties for sustaining community.” What he means is that the work of a marginalized writer or group might not surface or be heard because that group is, essentially, working to support the group in power. To oversimplify grossly, while the group in power can focus on writing, producing a great work of literature, the marginalized group cleans the house, works at the 7-11, and so on, in support—no time to write.

Several examples come up, but Lauter discusses Charles Chestnutt at length. Lauter cites from Chestnutt’s journal, where he says, “The object of my writings would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the white—or I consider the unjust spirit of a caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn social ostracism.” So not only did Chestnutt observe that he was in a marginalized group, but also he noted that it wasn’t his task to elevate his own group but rather to educate the mainstream to the point where that group could have the keen insight of his own—a noble goal.

A contributing factor to this discussion of fiction has to do with taste. Lauter makes the obvious point that taste is individual and related to one’s experience, but he also explains that what is obvious to me was not always obvious. Lauter cites Zola, who said “there are certain things people ought to like, and that they can be made to like.” Zola’s idea of taste better describes the traditional view of literature and What We Ought to Think About it. Consider Shakespeare: contemporary middle- and lower-class audiences my age and older probably don’t go to Shakespearean plays or read them for pleasure because they went to school under the tutelage of a faculty who believed they could force us to like the “proper” literature—like Shakespeare. We rebelled.

Obviously, the idea of taste being related to one’s personal experience is a better one. Lauter brings this idea back to the idea of marginalized writers and their ability to connect to a wide, mainstream audience. He explains that if the writer is from a marginalized group, she cannot assume that the mainstream audience has experience with her subject matter, and if they have no experience with it, there’s really no guarantee that they’ll find her work interesting. She’s got to make “readers like or, more to the point, find interest in, matters and people quite outside their experience.” So really, says Lauter, “The question of function is thus critically related, on the one hand, to subject and, on the other, to audience.”

Elements of fiction are important in understanding the relationship of fiction to the culture, says Lauter. For example, “point of view is [as a] technical device” is one way Henry James “produces psychological verisimilitude and intimacy of narrative.” Audience is important also as element of fiction in analyzing stories and novels. Lauter leaves us with the reminder that if we want this comparative method of studying literature to work, to prevent us from returning to that dysfunctional “Great River” metaphor, we’ll have to “be sensitive to a far broader range of audiences, conventions, functions, histories, and subjects” than we were before.

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