Friday, 10 September 2010

A Fresh and Contentious Look at American Lit

Back in the early ‘50’s when I broke into the teaching game, I leaned, intellectually, on my mental mentors by reading them: Gilbert Seldes, I.F. Stone, Marshall McLuhan, David Riesman, and Richard Dorson. As well as an unknown named Paul Lauter. He showed me you could profess lefty politics energetically and still remain faithful to the mandates of scholarship as I wrote for “The English Journal” and “College English.”

But what a difference sixty years make. “A Companion to American Literature and Culture” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, edited by Paul Lauter) 42 scholars (all but one wholly unknown to me!) begin by widening and deepening this essential field. Elizabeth Renker’s “Academicizing ‘American Literature’” shows how the topography changed, an essential intro for all future students. (Renker teaches at Ohio State.)

The one exception to my ignorance of the contributors is one Betsy Erkkila, now the Henry Sanborn Noyes Professor at Northwestern, then one of the most interesting humanists I mingled with at the Walt Whitman Center across the Delaware in Camden, NJ. She uses the serendipity that Melville and Whitman were both born in 1891 to explore their changing views of ensuring equality by doing away with slavery.

From their diverse perspectives: Melville from a fallen aristocratic family, Whitman from a contentiously poor one. It adds to your zeal for Walt to learn he lost his editorship of “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” over his anti-slavery stance. And she establishes the irony that both writers started their careers as pop writers, Whitman with a temperance novel and Melville with what amounted in those days to soft porn with his South Sea romances, “Typee” and “Omoo”. It deepens your respect for “Moby Dick” to observe him grappling with his British publisher over the next step towards Ahab in “White Jacket” and “Redburn”.

Even more interesting is successful efforts to push “Am Lit” way back to include the prayer(1541) of a Mayan against his Spanish conqueror.

They Came from the East
They came from the East when they arrived.
Then Christianity then began.
The fulfillment of its prophecy is ascribed to the east. . .
Then with the true God, the true Dios,
Came the beginning of our misery,
it was the beginning of tribute,
the beginning of church dues,
the beginning of strife and purse snatching,
the beginning of strife with blow guns;
the beginning of strife with trampling on people,
the beginning of robbery with violence,
the beginning of forced debts,
the beginning of debts enforced by false testimony,
the beginning of individual strife,
a beginning of vexation. ( P.12.)

This catholic literary ecumenism leads easily to account for environmentalism, queer lit, feminist politics, and every other new manifestation, recently discovered or newly interpreted. What a new century of American literature instruction commences with this indispensable “companion”.

The next step is to relate an enlarged sense of the subject to emerging global Anglophone literatures as the global village aspires to an urbanity only true humanism can husband.

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