The Value and Valuable Work of Multi-Ethnic Literature

Article excerpt

In 1990 The Heath Anthology of American Literature was published under the sponsorship of the Reconstructing American Literature project (RAL) of the Feminist Press. Inspired by the Civil Rights movements, the RAL project attempted to redress the limited, exclusionary conception of "American literature" represented in most university curricula, syllabi, and anthologies, and to affirm the literature classroom as a potential site of social and political change (Lauter, "Cultural" 180). The Heath, as it has come to be called, was designed to represent more accurately the diversity of American literature and the US cultural mosaic, past and present, than other existing American literature anthologies. The deliberate and intensely reflective intellectual and emotional processes guiding inclusion decisions are described in the preface to the first edition of the Heath and in subsequent published pieces by Paul Lauter, a key player in the Heath's publication, and indeed in multicultural literary studies generally (see "Cultural," "Implications," and "Reconstructing").

As Lauter suggests, the Heath has become more than a significant revisionist pedagogical tool or even a symbol of an instructor's commitment to multiculturalism; it has become a "cultural symbol" representing a sea change in what can be valued and a recognition that to value previously marginalized writers and texts is to challenge the authority structures that for too long relegated such texts, and such cultures, to the fringes ("Cultural" 183). (1) In this context, Richard Ruland's well-known review of the Heath, "Art and a Better America," is most significant for its critique of the anthology's political and social nature. While praising Lauter for his awareness of the difficulties inherent in "the marriage of two distinct theories of art that have rarely cohabitated comfortably," aesthetic value and social relevance, Ruland nonetheless insists that the anthology, and its editors' discussions of this issue throughout, fail to resolve in any effective way the tensions in this union (343). Ultimately, he argues, the Heath succeeds in offering a social, historical, and political vision but fails in its offering of a "literary discourse" (350). According to Ruland, the editors "speak more often of ideological hegemony, power groups, and economic motivations" (351) rather than of "what can be called 'literariness'" (354).

Lauter's published response stresses that in accounting for categories of race, gender, and class in the anthology, he and the other editors were "engag[ing] the most interesting social, political, and artistic questions, the questions of our time" ("Implications" 330), in effect asserting that these issues are interconnected. Lauter persuasively argues that the absolute severing of the political from the aesthetic is "theoretically naive" ("Cultural" 184), but in describing the inclusion of many new and unfamiliar texts in the Heath, he states, "Not all of these new texts are, to be sure, masterpieces--whatever that means" (189). Still unable to define what is actually meant by literary greatness, Lauter points to other justifications for inclusion, such as "historical importance, influence, and perverse originality" (189).

Lauter's inability to answer Ruland's demand for criteria and justification for the Heath selections drives my concerns in the discussion that follows. As I see it, earlier notions of the contingency of value are giving way to more critical evaluations of aesthetic value in multiethnic literature, such as the work performed by Robert Elliot Fox in this issue. (2) I hope to contribute to this effort by describing one key facet of what I see as a multiethnic aesthetic. This aesthetic, however amorphous and multiplistic, offers a worthy response to charges that literature by minorities is taught merely for representation or for politically correct content. Moreover, as it merges the political with the imaginative and the culturally-specific with the cross-cultural, the varied and variable criteria that constitute what I am calling the aesthetics of multicultural literature reaffirm literature and literary study as valuable work. …