Predicting the Past

Predicting the Past: The Paradoxes of American Literary History

Michael Boyden
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Leuven University Press
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qdzhr
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    Predicting the Past
    Book Description:

    Drawing from the social theories of Niklas Luhmann and Mary Douglas, Predicting the Past advocates a reflexive understanding of the paradoxical institutional dynamic of American literary history as a professional discipline and field of study. Contrary to most disciplinary accounts, Michael Boyden resists the utopian impulse to offer supposedly definitive solutions for the legitimation crises besetting American literature studies by “going beyond” its inherited racist, classist, and sexist underpinnings. Approaching the existence of the American literary tradition as a typically modern problem generating diverse but functionally equivalent solutions, Boyden argues how its peculiarity does not, as is often supposed, reside in its restrictive exclusivity but rather in its massive inclusivity which drives it to constantly revert to a self-negating “beyond” perspective. Predicting the Past covers a broad range of both well-known and lesser known literary histories and reference works, from Rufus Griswold’s 1847 Prose Writers of America to Sacvan Bercovitch’s monumental Cambridge History of American Literature. Throughout, Boyden focuses on particular themes and topics illustrating the selfinduced complexity of American literary history such as the early “Anglocentric” roots theories of American literature; the debate on contemporary authors in the age of naturalism; the plurilingual ethnocentrism of the pioneer Americanists of the mid-twentieth century; and the genealogical misrepresentation of founding figures such as Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Lowell.

    eISBN: 978-94-6166-010-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-8)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 9-10)
  3. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 11-24)

    In the midst of the 1980s, with the culture wars in full swing, Werner Sollors issued his “Critique of Pure Pluralism.” The article appeared inReconstructing American Literary History, a kind of statement of principles for the newCambridge History of American Literaturethen underway (the long awaited final volume appeared in 2005), and begins by recounting how a critic reviewing a new edition of theOxford Companion to American Literaturecastigated this work for being racist, sexist and elitist because, despite its professed intention to expand the established canon, the cover age of black authors was not up to...

  4. THE “PRE-HISTORY” OF AMERICAN LITERATURE: EARLY PROSPECTS (1850-1910)
    (pp. 25-50)

    Although a few names stand, most early accounts of American literature now seem to generate little more than antiquarian interest. American literature studies only really began, according to most accounts, in the twenties and thirties with Vernon Louis Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, Perry Miller, Stuart Sherman, and others. Thus, inCreating American CivilizationDavid Shumway consigns literary histories produced before the First World War to a “predisciplinary” stage in the rise of American literary studies. These preprofessional accounts, he argues, display two major “weaknesses”: on the one hand, they lack “an aesthetic appropriate to American literature,” and, on the other,...

  5. LIVE AND LET LIVE: DEBATING CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE (1890-1930)
    (pp. 51-84)

    In the complement to hisHistoire de la littérature anglaise(1863), devoted to “les contemporains,” Hippolyte Taine remarked: “Si Dickens était mort, on pourrait faire sa biographie (…) Malheureusement Dickens vit encore et dément les biographies qu’on fait de lui” (1921: 2-3).³⁶ For current ob servers, the assumption that a scientifically valid approach to literary history should abstain from judging living authors seems difficult to maintain. Today, it is perhaps not so much the present as the past that arouses suspicion.³⁷ Why, as the reasoning goes, should we read the epics of dead white males instead of focusing on the...

  6. THE USES OF LANGUAGE: LITERARY POLYVOCALITY AND ETHNIC CONTINUITY (1880-1950)
    (pp. 85-118)

    “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (Anzaldúa 1999: 81). With this much quoted statement, the late Gloria Anzaldúa stressed the intimate link between her identity and language. Like a skin that demarcates the body, language defines us in relation to the world, and thus cannot be peeled off at will. At the same time, however, the quote is rendered in English rather than Chicano Spanish, Anzaldúa’s professed mother tongue. The assertion of the unquestioned primacy of one’s mother tongue expressed...

  7. PRECURSORS AND EXEMPLARS: GENEALOGIES IN AMERICAN LITERARY HISTORY
    (pp. 119-152)

    Voicing the concern that Saul Bellow’s oeuvre is getting ever more “foreign” is at the same time a way of underwriting its domesticity. Positing that contemporary Americans are out of touch with the tradition of Western literature that constitutes the meaning horizon of Bellow’s work thus entails an incentive to reconnect to it. Behind this is the idea that a people’s identity depends on its association with and remembrance of a body of classics. Interestingly, the same logic underlies an infamous quote that Charles Taylor attributes to Bellow: “When the Zulu’s produce a Tolstoy we will read him” (1994: 42)....

  8. CONCLUSION: NOTHING REALLY ENDS
    (pp. 153-160)

    The main objective of this book has been to conceptualize American literary history as an open-ended system. Such a system stabilizes itself by keeping open the question as to what constitutes its founding teleology. On the level of its operations, however, such a system is not open but closed. Precisely this operational closure, which situates every communication about American literature in a self-referential network, ensures that the system fails to live up to its end. It is this complex interplay between openness and closure that I have tried to unpack in the foregoing chapters. Every type of society tends to...

  9. ENDNOTES
    (pp. 161-182)
  10. WORKS CITED
    (pp. 183-204)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 205-214)