American Literature: The State Department History

The State Department has published a “Revised Edition” of “Outline of American Literature,” by Kathryn VanSpanckeren. In the section on the fiction of 1820-1860, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and the Transcendentalists represent the first great literary generation […].”

On Stowe, not one of the greats, the essay has inaccuracies and curious emphases. VanSpanckeren emphasizes Uncle Tom’s service to St. Clare and belittles sentimentality–“The most touching scenes show an agonized slave mother unable to help her screaming child and a father sold away from his family. These were crimes against the sanctity of domestic love.” The mother in the first case is presumably Cassy (Aunt Hagar and Lucy and Dinah are also torn away from children, though “screaming child” not part of those scenes) and the second Tom. The phrase “crimes against the sanctity” seems aimed to demean Stowe’s politics. UTC does not “represent” the first great “literary” generation because it appeals to emotion and an ideology which affirms reform that originates from religious conviction and domestic transformation. So why, exactly, should that disqualify the work from “greatness”?

A partial explanation of why one group of literary figures is “great,” and another is not, may reside in a comment on Michael Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom: “It is terrible poetry — but everybody loved it.” Now that sounds to me like a good reason to read it. We face one of the legacies of industrial book publication and Modernist suspicion of popularity: those works which are loved by the public, such as those written by Hawthorne’s “scribbling women,” must be terrible. Since popularity equals badness, the State Department survey does not seek to determine whether likes and dislikes from past moments might lead us to question whether our current definitions of artistic excellence reflect not timeless judgments but our historical context. Or maybe the strange citation that serves as judgment on Dickinson explains the ideology of literary appreciation from the State Department, from R. P. Blackmur, that her poetry “sometimes feels as if a cat came at us speaking English.’ ” As Stowe said of young George St. Clare, our literary critic is “dangerously witty.” Blackmur is clever, and one can pardon a slip–Homer nods and all–but a quip that seems at best obfuscatory highlights the contradictions in identifying “great” literature without investigating why some works are excluded from the concept of greatness. If a poem impersonates a cat speaking English, then it’s great?

While the essay acknowledges that works like Harriet Wilson’s have been “overlooked until recently,” it persists with generic categories of “great literature” and fails to inquire whether works characterized as outputs of particular identity formations–Stowe, Wilson, and Douglass are in category “Women Writers and Reformers”–might invite a reconsideration of the category of literary quality. The profession of American literary and cultural studies has moved to a study of a wide range of texts from authors formerly forgotten, dismissed because female, dismissed because popular, dismissed because regional, dismissed because ethnic. And such a range of interests befits a multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual society. Yes, the United States (and the land masses on which the political entity formed) is multilingual, and it always has been. See Marc Shell and Werner Sollors’ Multilingual Anthology of American Literature. In the State Department version of literary history, multiculturalism is a recent development, part of Contemporary American Literature.

Stowe is not alone among newly recognized writers to receive short shrift. When discussing realism, Twain is a writer in his own category. But I would think that the category of “Black Writers” deserves revision. Charles Waddell Chesnutt may be called black for the same reason that Barack Obama is called black. But like Obama he’s also white. To categorize Chesnutt as black says as much about America’s continuing legacy of racial concepts as it does about Chesnutt.

The essay is certainly serviceable as an introduction to American literature. But the scholarly canons of pre-20th-century literature have been re-shaped by the same trends that make 20th-century literature multicultural. The survey could be improved, both as a representative of the contemporary study of American literature and as a product of the State Department–whose purpose might be to foster dialogue with other nations–if the essay offered more attention to multicultural American literature and less emphasis on those works whose distinctive Americanness is taken as a mark of greatness. It may be that the works that represent vibrant multicultural traditions will be enduring as well.

And dear sub-sub aide to Madame Secretary, if by some freakish coincidence your department has become aware of this brief comment, this is not a guide for a thorough revision. Please appoint a committee with an advisory board of eminent scholars in American literature. Tell them to get right to work. In my dream-fantasy, the next mid-term election will turn on the State Department’s most recent revision of the history of American literature.

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