Friday, January 07, 2005

Graff’s essay, “Promise of American Literature Studies,” from Professing Literature: An Institutional History takes up some of the issues John T and I talked about today. The question Graff tries to answer by writing it is why the study of American literature never became interdisciplinary when it seemed ever poised on doing so. He talks about the changes that took place in various institutions that adopted study of the literature and asks specifically, “Why, when conditions seemed ripe for the creation of a study of culture that would overcome the old compartmentalizations and fragmentations, did such a study not materialize?”

Graff begins, as do many of the other essayists I’ve read, by tracing the history of the field. He says that the notion of interdisciplinary study isn’t new, that by the mid-twentieth century Northrop Frye already protested the many “determinisms in criticism,” such as Marxism, Freudianism, Existentialism, and the like. But Graff says that Frye was wrong to infer that such “conceptual framework[s]” were new, citing Stanley Edgar Hyman’s 1948 survey, which “characterized [...] the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature.” In other words, bringing in theories outside literature to understand the literature was nothing new. But Frye’s work itself, with its “system of myths, modes, and genres,” says Graff, “would make it possible to blur distinctions among literature, religion, popular entertainment, and advertising as expressions of common patterns of mythic identification.” Now, this idea is important as a feature of American studies because it ignores the old focus on high culture and sanctions consideration of elements like popular entertainment and advertising as reasonable areas of study to learn about culture; it expands the idea of culture beyond what people in an ivy-covered building think about.

Come to think of it, this connects to the article about Bakhtin and heteroglossia that I complained the other day was so difficult to understand. Bakhtin says that his novelization theory means that the text written in any number of situations is worthy of study. The traditional novel is an obvious case, but the advertisement text of a copy writer and the text of a Harlequin romance are equally valid as well. That’s the nature of popular culture study.

Anyway, so in the mid-twentieth century, as Randall Jarrell put it, critics became “much better armed than they used to be” with tools of interdisciplinarity. Earlier, in the 1930s, Parrington “thought of scholarship as a science and of criticism as inherently subjectivist.” But it took the next generation of theorists (like Fiedler, Marx, Lewis, Smith, and Matthiessen) to develop the idea of “a literary work as a microcosm of collective psychology or myth” and to make “New Criticism into a method of cultural analysis.”

The theorists saw the literature in terms of “thematic dualisms” such as “’Adamic’ innocence versus tragic experience (Lewis); frontier versus city (Smith); pastoral ‘middle landscape’ versus industrial machine (Marx); and male fellowship versus acceptance of social and sexual experience (Fiedler).” The only theorist of the group that was political at all was Matthiessen, who, says Graff, “managed to transform the organic social conservatism of Eliot and the Agrarians into a celebration of the democratic spirit.” His book, American Renaissance, “fused cultural criticism and academic literary history with the New Criticism’s method of explication and its themes of complexity, paradox, and tragic vision.” While Graff observes that it may be weak in its “prolix” analyses of some texts, one of its great strengths is “confronting American literature not only as an academic field but as a problem of cultural destiny.” Matthiessen thought that “American culture’s greatest weakness ‘has continued to be that our so-called educated class knows so little of the country and the people of which it is nominally part.” That idea has a great relevance to the idea of regionalism that John T and I were talking about today. It reminds me of my many international students who think all of America is as diverse and cosmopolitan as the D.C. Metro area and NYC. The East Coast is such a tiny part of the Culture. It’s amazing that that myth has persisted even until the present.

The result of this cultural weakness, though, has been one contributing factor, it seems, to the downfall of the study of American culture—that is that “the theorists’ generalizations about ‘American literature’ rested on a very limited number of works [...] the same number of authors and titles – the contents of a year’s course in the American classics.” Citing Berthoff, Graff says that by ignoring what doesn’t fit on a list of pre-conceived notions, we have “concocted in many cases a language that at its best is cultist and at its worst is jargon.”

Another flaw that’s led to the weakness of the study of our culture has been, as Nina Baym put it, the fact that the current theories of American literature would have one believe that “literature [...] is essentially male.” While that might have worked while women were more effectively marginalized, it’s hard to apply that rule these days.

Finally, though, the discipline itself was marginalized—as other essayists I’ve mentioned have noted. To add it “to the existing departments, which did not have to adapt to them, quarrel with them, or recognize their existence to any sustained degree” was the kiss of death. So that answers the question of why American Studies has never been fully legitimized as the study of a culture. This is actually a very useful article because it began to help with some of the forming ideas I’m having about a paper.

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