Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The MLA Session on American Literature Anthologies, 1990

Christmas Day 1990
When I sent Jim Justus my title, I did not know Martha Banta and Paul Lauter were to be on the program, and I intended to talk about some frustrations I had encountered with my section of the NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE. In the essay "Contingencies of Value" (1983) Barbara Herrnstein Smith said: "Those who are in positions to edit anthologies and prepare reading lists are obviously those who occupy positions of some cultural power; and their acts of evaluation--represented in what they exclude as well as in what they include--constitute not merely recommendations of value, but also determinants of value." Later the same year Paul Lauter boldly asked how "we decide what to include in a course or an anthology" and decided that the answer "is not foreordained by God, the curriculum committee, or even the Norton anthology." I liked the climactic order of that, but for a job that confers great cultural power, anthology-making affords some severe lessons in powerlessness. You can put something in an anthology, Professor Smith, but you can't make anyone teach the whole of Margaret Fuller's THE GREAT LAWSUIT or the more radical Thoreau pieces, or thirty pages from my darling candidate for canonicity, CLAREL.

After knowing that Martha Banta and Paul Lauter were the other speakers, I can't talk just about my own aspirations and brushes with powerlessness, but I still want to concentrate on my period, the "American Renaissance." The death of John Benedict this year at 57 (an infuriating, absolutely preventable death from cigarette smoking) was the end of an era in the anthologizing of literature, not just American literature, and some historical sidelights on the creation of the NAAL are in order now. NAAL began in February of one of the more painful years in our recent history, 1969, with a letter from me to John Benedict analyzing the faults of the then-current Norton anthology, THE AMERICAN TRADITION IN LITERATURE, and continuing in a letter of April 1990 analyzing the faults of the Heath anthology--not Paul's but the old AMERICAN LITERATURE: TRADITION AND INNOVATION. The most urgent problem, in 1969, was to free up some of the space uncritically devoted to the Bearded poets. The second edition of the Norton American Tradition in Literature gave 90 pages in the first volume to James Russell Lowell and eight in the second volume to Robert Lowell.

The 1969 letters led, in all deliberate speed, to the 1979 NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, a companion anthology to the NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE. Its aims and assumptions seemed noncontroversial at the time. Believing that some literature was more valuable than other literature, we wanted to present good texts of much of the greatest American literature along with a large sampling of lesser works of special literary interest or else of high historical interest. The problem of conveying a sense of a general continuity of American literature (even if some voices are heard by one generation then apparently forgotten for decades) was acute at the time the anthology appeared, when the once-standard eleventh grade course in American literature was yielding to innovative, diverse courses. We tried to achieve a coherence missing in previous anthologies, so that interrelations of writers could be taught, and at least we did not print Mourt's Relation and then omit Hawthorne's "Maypole." The Bearded Poets were still there, tightened, but so was Harriet Beecher Stowe and the entire first version of Frederick Douglass's Narrative—both of them (like Dickinson) edited by Ronald Gottesman, although placed in the first volume. What I most regret is that we did not find an adequate way of showing the relation of our literature to British literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. No anthology has yet done so. At a time when many of us feel increasingly isolated from much of the rest of the world, it strikes me that an upcoming MLA American Literature Sections might review the historical circumstances under which American Literature was separated from British Literature in American colleges and address the question of how we can teach American Literature in relation to other literatures, especially British.

I was excited when I saw the Harper anthology announced, since I assumed Helen Vendler would do the Whitman section and have something wonderful to say, so I was disappointed that Justin Kaplan did the period. Later I was disappointed with the way he did it. How can I say this discreetly? I hope Kaplan was as humbly grateful to me for my footnotes to “The Great Lawsuit” as I was to Walter Harding for his footnotes to WALDEN. The Harper anthology had stellar contributors, but its aims were pretty familiar, so I won't be saying much about it. The Heath anthology demands attention. Paul always demands attention.

Just before MLA in 1983 I received the Feminist Press flyer for RECONSTRUCTING AMERICAN LITERATURE, the forthcoming collection of revisionist syllabi from American literature courses. At the Hilton in 1983 (feeling like a character from THE CONFIDENCE-MAN) I carried the flyer around the hallways until I found a man passing out copies of it. Now, I don't hang out with strangers very much, but my interest in expanding the canon is intense, and has been since 1961, when I read through dozens of books (around 200, really) cited in different literary histories as unjustly neglected works of American literature. From the time I began teaching I found I could not avoid and reading from them in carrying into class out-of-print books order to show literary influences and cultural continuities and discontinuities, so I wanted to know the man who wrote that flyer, and I hung out with Paul. On December 29 we burrowed far beneath the Sheraton, down where the signs still said “Americana.” At the end of the tunnel were the bound copies of Reconstructing American Literature, and Paul gave me the first signed copy, "to continue & develop the debate." I promptly required it in an undergraduate class and in two graduate classes, and later talked about it in several others.

As part Choctaw and Cherokee I felt condescended to by some of the contributors. I thought some of the syllabi were sexist--biased against men (the delightful Caroline Kirkland could be rediscovered but not the marvelous Joseph Kirkland). I thought the syllabi were biased 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 biased against even women regional writers unless they happened to be from New England, biased against stories about fundamental Protestantism, biased against any writer who did not have leftist leanings, or leanings that could be construed as leftist. I made these points at the 1984 MLA on a panel Paul and I organized with Coral Lansbury. The weaknesses I pointed to in Reconstructing American Literature are present also in the Heath anthology.

I missed in the syllabi in Reconstructing American Literature 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 Shields was then reading every Colonial poem he could find. It now seems to me that Paul's contributors to the Heath anthology went ahunting with the specific intention of locating voices of minority writers who had not been heard from in previous anthologies. In so far as they did original research, established the biographies of their writers, authenticated texts, identified their places in literary history, they deserve thanks and will hold a place in the history of American literary history. But what I miss in the innovative selections of the Heath anthology is, of all things, diversity--a wide representation of American humorous literature, of sporting literature, of literature dealing with religious customs, 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--literature of the South, West, Midwest, of literature which depicts American customs and mores (including sexual mores), and any attempt to demonstrate the literary traditions out of which American literature developed, especially its debts to British literature.

Paul's contributors try to represent a range of minority voices, particular voices of blacks and American Indians. In the anthology, as in Reconstructing, I felt condescended to, patronizing, at the inclusion of inferior and textually dubious material purely on the grounds that it was by reds or blacks or yellow-skinned writers. In my experience people of mixed blood are usually aware of shades of darkness and lightness and don't think of themselves as simply black or red or whatever, although white anthology-makers may find it convenient to disregard percentages. That's a visceral reaction. More rational is my anger at being presented Indian chants or Indian stories as translated by white men--or as reconstructed and substantially or written or rewritten by whites. How come white men hold copyright to some of the so-called Indian songs and stories? Give my surviving dark aunts their tribal rights, clean up some of the horrors sheltered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, do something about alcoholism and the prevalence of fetal-alcoholism syndrome on the reservations, but don't placate me with a translation of dubious authenticity, not when my tribes so lost their identity that their languages play no role at all in American Literature.

My literary heritage is English. In the eighth grade (in what had been, when my father was born there, the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory), I found an old copy of an anthology of American Literature and read (among other works) Thoreau's "The Bean Field" and Whitman 's "I Saw in Louisiana a Live (Oak Growing" and a dozen or so poems by Dickinson and a batch of poems from Spoon River Anthology. I was twice damned as a Depression Okie and part Indian, but from the time I found that anthology I inherited American literature in the English language. When I left high school after the 11th grade and became a railroad telegrapher in southwestern Louisiana, I read my way through a one volume Shakespeare I bought in New Orleans. This is what Americans have done throughout our history--make the best of our English heritage. Millions of European immigrants sacrificed their languages so their children would be Americanized. Yes, there was terrible loss of cultural heritage, but immigrant parents usually made that sacrifice willingly. In their eagerness to represent minority writers who actually wrote in English the contributors to the Heath anthology sometimes lose sight both of aesthetic value and historical significance, so that Frederick Douglass hardly seems to be a more important writer than Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs’ book is a moving human document. Anytime 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 great literary document. Douglass's terse 1845 Narrative is one of the greatest human documents in all of American literature, and one of the greatest American stories in the Franklin tradition of self-education and rise from humble beginnings to national prestige. But 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. We've got a copy in Special Collections at the University of Delaware. I hadn't realized until I read our copy that "Columbian" (it's obvious if you think about it) 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 sexier episodes of TYPEE upon 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 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. Anyone can produce a memorable narrative if it is based on a memorable life, but to lump Douglass with Jacobs is to ignore his triumphant struggle to become not just the author of a book but an American writer.

From the time of the first white settlements children have grown up more poorly educated than their fathers—take Melville (with his cosmopolitan father), Douglass (with a white father), or the Pike County migrants Clarence King observed. Now in Washington, D. C. and elsewhere many young black men are less well educated than their grandmothers and grandfathers. At Delaware and elsewhere the blacks who get through college are more and more likely to be female, not male. Thoreau is a threat to anyone who wants to bring literature down to the lowest common denominator, to offer "Little Reading" in the classroom rather than to offer literature that students have to stand on tiptoe to read.

NEWSWEEK last week had a cover story on the "thought police" in American universities. An aesthetic squad of that police force was at work in the 1940's and 1950's telling us it was unseemly to talk about the creative process. No wonder many professors have renounced the idea that there is such a thing as a great literary work which deserves (after whatever vicissitudes) to be known as a classic. A few years ago I called the creative process the Outcast of the MLA. She is banned because if we talk about the creative process we not only admit the existence of the author but also have to admit the authority of the author. You haven't heard much mention at MLA, this last decade, of a monumental study of the creative process, Albert Rothenberg's The Emerging Goddess (Chicago, 1979). Hopkins, of all places, just published Rothenberg's new book Creativity and Madness, a popularization and an extension of the earlier book. Here he defines creativity as "the production of something that is both new and truly valuable." To many people in this room the idea that some art is more valuable than other art (outside of the auction room) is something that emerges profanely from the mouth of Senator Helms. I am still committed to the idea that some works of art are better than others. Worse, I still believe that the better the work of art the more apt it is to be of enduring cultural and political value.

The Heath anthology of course needs to be seen in the wider context of the writings of the New Historicists or more broadly those Frederick Crews calls the New Americanists. I would include some of Emory Elliott's contributors to the Columbia Literary History of the United States and some of the people who will be in Sacvan Bercovitch's Cambridge literary history. On the basis of the initial evidence I have been complaining that the New Americanists are producing, for the most part, literary history without the bother of historical research. Elliott says his contributors are storytellers, not truthtellers. When he says that, he is telling the truth. Robert Milder, the author of the Melville chapter, for instance, does not even refer to the great trove of biographical material available at the NYPL since 1983. Bercovitch has been extoling a particular history 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, as if William Charvat had done all the research ever to be done. It is possible to feel that the New Americanists are taking the Celestial Railway to literary history, literary history without research, but with intense political correctness. Running through much writing and editing by the New Americanists is a wish that American society had been fairer all along, and a winsome notion that we can rewrite the past to make it right. In an "Extra" in American Literature Annette Kolodny put the case most strongly. We were to acquire somehow "an integrity of memory"--an integrity of national memory in which buried voices were heard as loud as Emerson's voice or Hawthorne's voice. Once, at the beginning of the 19th century, propagandists had envisioned the American National Literature that was yet to be written; in the middle of the century Melville complained that critics were still looking to the future instead of seeing that American literature was already being created; now at the end of the 20th century we are told to rewrite history so as to imagine that the oppressed, the forgotten, were always vivid, alive, and triumphant in the American collective memory. Close your eyes, and wish, wish, oh wish.

I must not be the only teacher who feels pressured to let other people vote my conscience. We all just got a flyer from SUNY Press on a book edited by Henry A. Giroux, Postmodernism, Feminism, and Cultural Politics: Redrawing Educational Boundaries. The flyer itself struck me as an effort to intimidate anyone who did not want to teach according to a prescribed political agenda. I have taught Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's "Life without Principle" in every survey class for a quarter century because there has never been a time when someone didn't want my proxy for one issue or another. In the Heath anthology some of the contributors seem to push on users a notion of political correctness at the cost of misusing the writers and distorting history. Melville is presented as a proletarian, writing books out of a bleeding social conscience, an enemy of "capitalism and slavery." I don't recognize this Melville. The Melville I know thought that the intrusion of 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." I think what we see in the Heath Melville is what Barbara Herrnstein Smith might call adaptive misuse--misuse of Melville as--what? a nineteenth-century Jack Abbott? 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: "Who aint a slave? Tell me that." 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 Hawthorne and Emerson and George Washington Harris on a chart of political correctness as established by me or anyone else. I think some members of this audience need to be reminded that American Literature professors can be decent, responsible people even if they didn't give their moral proxies away during the Nixon presidency and even if they refuse today to give their moral proxies to J. Hillis Miller, Stanley Fish, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Annette Kolodny, to H. Bruce Franklin, to Phyllis Franklin, to Paul's contributors, to Winnie Mandela, to George F. Will, to Dan Quayle, to William Bennett, to Mike Royko, or even to Studs Turkel.

I want to talk more about the costs of political correctness. In the Heath anthology Carolyn Karcher says that Melville's father-in-law Lemuel Shaw was "a staunch defender of racial segregation and of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law." How is the student reading that supposed to feel? In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Bill could not have been adopted as part of the Compromise if in fact 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 the preservation of the Union, not to a redress of a wrong built into the Constitution and plaguing every subsequent generation. Students need to know how profound the love of the union was, a decade before the Civil War began. In 1962 at the Boston Public Library I read through the coverage of the fugitive slave cases and learned that during the Sims case, in the spring of 1851, all the respectable newspapers of both parties, Democratic and Whig, were united in wanting Sims to be promptly and peacefully remanded. Put it another way: almost all respectable citizens thought the Law should be enforced in order to preserve the union. Only a couple of papers on the lunatic fringe advocated rescuing a fugitive slave or otherwise actively resisting the law--the Liberator and the Commonwealth. 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 Phillips and Whittier. Thoreau helped. Such idealists achieved one of the most dramatic reversals of public opinion in American history. In the late 1960s, fresh from reading the thunderous denunciations of the Boston papers of the lunatic and incendiary "higher law" advocates, I was able, in class after class, to put into historical perspective the changes in public attitudes toward the war in Viet Nam. Here, in American history, was proof that a handful of people following their consciences could sway a majority to their side. When you tell a student only that the Fugitive Slave Law was infamous you distort history, and you close off any chance of using the past in order to illuminate wise changes in the present.

I confess to some wishful thinking of my own, a lingering hope that there can be an eleventh-grade high school class and a sophomore 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--American scriptures. This is infinitely problematical. Franklin's autobiography became one of the American scriptures as soon as it was published. "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" became American scriptures as soon as they were published (and became a British scripture too--look at Dickens's early use of Irving). Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" {a.k.a. "Civil Disobedience"), Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," Melville's "Bartleby," became American scriptures much later. The canon, plainly, is shifting, and someday "Life without Principle" may be one of the great American scriptures. Maybe there never was a time when Americans were united by exposure to a common body of literature. Yet when I read Hart Crane' s "The Bridge" I sometimes think that some sort of national awareness of common literary classics may have emerged in 1910's and 1920's, when textbooks were pretty much of a piece, when the canon of American literature seemed more or less stable, when immigrant parents were determined that their children would be Americans, would speak only English. Voices were excluded from the textbooks which "everyone" read. Melville was excluded, most of the time Dickinson was excluded, and Whitman some of the time. But I wonder if there was not something powerful, healing, and uniting about a generation or two of youngsters all exposed to "Rip Van Winkle" and "Self-Reliance" and "Evangeline" and "The Barefoot Boy," no matter how removed such literature was from urban life or rural life as it had become. Whitman said: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." Where I live Whitman is a bridge, and every time I hear the Philadelphia Shadow Traffic report I rejoice. You can't read the New York Times in the summer without encountering a reference to Melville, even if only for his Berkshire County house or even if, as in this last Sunday's Travel section, the journalist puts him in Indonesian waters he only dreamed of sailing. Whatever good there is in an ideal of a national literature, that good will be subverted by any anthology of doctrinaire voices of the politically correct.

I still hope that in later revisions the Norton Anthology of American Literature can represent still more diverse American voices than it does now--while at the same time acknowledging and perhaps enlarging the canon of works which are of enduring national importance, the nearest we can get to a body of national scriptures.

[Notes at end: “probably not use” . . . . Maybe I meant to put the latter part of this up with the part about the Heath contributors not being quite serious about diversity]

My criteria for greatness are of course debatable, but based on the consensus of many decades of lovers of American literature. In teaching I act on an elitist assumption--that there is at least a remote possibility that documents which afford rich, complex aesthetic experiences might also be the very documents most likely to work transforming enlightenment--social, cultural, political enlightenment--in earnest young students. Could Thoreau's "Life without Principle" possibly achieve Thoreau's aim--to encourage any hearer or reader to stand for principles against the pressures of the times, to resist the short cuts to wealth of any kind, to resist the pollution of the mind from the media? Paul Lauter says his students find Thoreau irrelevant; that's worse than the late 60's, when some students carried Walden around long after they were too zonked out to read any passage in it.

The best lessons come from the classics. 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. Any historian and any teacher of American literature could point to the Whig outcries over Polk's invasion of Mexico and McKinley's invasion of the Philippines. Every two generations or so America had lost her virginity (as the commentators said) then magically had regained it as national memory faded. During the remanding of slaves to the South Thoreau had cast about to define what he had lost and had realized that what he had lost was a country. For years I carried about a Thermofax of Bill Gibson's 1940s article on Howells' and Mark Twain's opposition to the Spanish-American war, where he quoted Howells' lament at the loss of a national idealism and innocence. Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer have been making old discoveries. Teachers who saw a recurrent pattern could use writings by classic American authors to teach something 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.
When I wished the Reconstructing syllabi had included more establishment authors like Thomas Bailey Aldrich I wasn't asking for equal time for bigots. 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. It seemed to me that we could not learn that from reading the writings of labor agitators but we might get it from reading John Hay, Henry Adams, and even some of the xenophobic passages of the later Stowe. If we want to understand one of the dark sides of the American Psyche, I thought, we ought to be willing to go to any lengths--even to the extreme of reading some minor literature by representatives of the Establishment at different periods in our history. Now, when many teachers will want to say, and perhaps even do, something about homelessness in America it might be very good to teach Stephen Crane's "Experiment in Misery" and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, but it might do even 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 we are told of a shift in public opinion, a hardening of sensibility about the unemployed and the homeless. To teach practical compassion and well as idealism and sentimentality, we could do worse than to listen to some frightened and angry conservative voices that helped mold American public opinion--the voices of Harriet Beecher Stowe or John Hay, for example, or the ambivalent voice of Mary Wilkins in The Portion of Labor.

No comments:

Post a Comment