Death to the Originary Narrative! or, Insurgent Multiculturalism and Teaching Multiethnic Literature

By Torres-Padilla, Jose L. | MELUS, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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Death to the Originary Narrative! or, Insurgent Multiculturalism and Teaching Multiethnic Literature

Torres-Padilla, Jose L., MELUS

In A Different Mirror, Ronald Takaki recounts an incident with a taxi driver as he heads to a conference on multiculturalism in Norfolk, Virginia. In a drawling accent, the taxi driver compliments Takaki on his English and asks him how long he had been in the country. Alter informing the driver that his family had been in the United States for over a hundred years, Takaki muses over the significance of the encounter. "Somehow," he writes, "I did not look 'American' to him; my eyes and complexion looked foreign" (1). And, more to the point, he adds: "I can understand why he couldn't see me as American. He had a narrow but widely shared sense of the past a history that has viewed American as European in ancestry" (2). Takaki's anecdote holds much import for those of us who teach from a multicultural perspective. It clearly illustrates the dogged Eurocentricity that informs perceptions of national identity and culture in the United States. Moreover, it shows that these ideas are not simply abstractions, but that they have an impact on the daily lives of US citizens, especially those who happen to be people of color.

As educators, Takaki's anecdote tells us that we still have a long way to go before the thinking behind such incidents is erased from personal and collective memory. Part of the struggle remains to rewrite excluded people back into the national and cultural narrative. As Takaki rightly affirms, "America has been racially diverse since our very beginning ... and this reality is increasingly becoming visible and ubiquitous" (2). Teachers and scholars of multiethnic literature are also involved in that battle as we raise canonical issues and proceed with the crucial project of recovering neglected writers and situating them in the canon. In what most people consider "American literature," there has also been the type of ethnocentricism exhibited by Takaki's taxi driver. The intellectual and literary version of this type of ideological construction is exemplified by what Nina Baym calls "the Originary Narrative." For teachers of multiethnic literature, the struggles to eliminate racist euro- and anglocentricity from all facets of our lives cannot be disassociated from the dislodging of this literary narrative from theory and pedagogical practice. But, as Baym demonstrates, it is a "story" as deeply entrenched as its more popular counterpart.

Baym traces the origins of "American literary history," as a field, to the cultural agenda of the American Whigs during the post-revolutionary period. (1) The Whigs were promoting, along with the early literary historians, a national type based oil what they perceived as the superior Puritan qualities and values of self-reliance, self-control, and, most importantly, acceptance of hierarchy. (2) With increasing immigration, the Whigs and similarly minded educators wanted to shape citizens along Anglo-Saxon, Puritan lines and they envisioned the study of literature as an efficient way to do it. Between 1882-1912, publishers, the most prominent being Houghton-Mifflin, cranked out "extracts in compilations" for the public school curriculum that

   enunciated patriotic, moral, and Christian sentiments, and in
   true Whig fashion attributed the enlightened, prosperous,
   independent, intelligent, Christian, honest, hardworking, sober
   and moral American character--along with the republican
   institutions that such a character had created--to New England
   Puritan origins. (82)

That this narrative of the nation's literary development has origins in a nation-building project is not surprising, nor is the evidence that Baym provides for the persistence and entrenchment of this uncritical New England bias within the academy and its institutions. However, we must take notice of Baym's concluding assumptions and claims that present this Originary Narrative as an insurmountable barrier for literary historians, scholars, and educators. At the end of her essay, Baym states that there exists a "supposition that American authors necessarily articulate a New England vision" along with "the still functioning preference that they actually be of New England descent" (101, her emphasis).

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Death to the Originary Narrative! or, Insurgent Multiculturalism and Teaching Multiethnic Literature


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