Rewriting Literary History

Article excerpt

"Racial Memory and Literary History" by Stephen Greenblatt, in PMLA (Jan. 2001), Modern Language Assn. of America, 26 Broadway, 3rd fl., New York, N.Y. 10004-1789.

The idea that nations have their own distinctive literary histories has come under strong scholarly assault in recent decades. Feminists, deconstructionists, and New Historicists have charged that traditional national literary histories, with their narratives of collective progress, give a false unity to what was a multicultural reality. But now, as feminist, black, Hispanic, and gay and lesbian scholars write their own literary histories, many are adopting the same traditional historical narrative of unfolding progress, even if not on the national level. In doing this, contends Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard University and a leading New Historicist, they are making "a serious mistake."

"It is one thing," he says, "to celebrate powerful literary achievements and to understand how new work can build on the work of the past; it is quite another thing to endorse a theory of evolutionary progress or steady, organic development that one knows is bankrupt." In The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature (1996), for instance, editors Roberto Gonzales Echevarria and Enrique Pupa-Walker "genially acknowledge that [their] sense of continuity is a fiction," Greenblatt says, yet they insist "'it does not matter."' But truth, he objects, does matter in writing literary history, as in any other form of history. …