Readying for Surprise: Emory Elliott's Literary Historiography

By Foster, Travis M. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Readying for Surprise: Emory Elliott's Literary Historiography


Foster, Travis M., Papers on Language & Literature


Emory Elliott. National Dreams and Rude Awakenings: Essays on American Literature, from the Puritans to the Postmodern. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitatsverlag, 2010. Hardcover $65.85.

Very likely, Emory Elliott agreed with Jonathan Arac that those of us who teach and study literature "make a bigger difference faster" in the shaping of our fields not through "extended original composition," but by engaging "a collaborative project of literary history" (7). In "Writing a History of American Literature at the End of the Twentieth Century," one of the essays and talks anthologized here, Elliott accounts for his decision to devote substantial time to literary history because it afforded him a unique opportunity to help "reconfigure the American canon" (244). It's largely the success and influence of projects like Elliott's Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) and Columbia History of the American Novel (1991) that I imagine Katherine Kinney has in mind when she introduces her 2009 American Quarterly obituary by describing Elliott as a scholar who "worked tirelessly to imagine, extend, and institutionalize" the "radical revision in the canon of American literature" (vii). The Los Angeles Times obituary, too, recognizes Elliott as a literary historian and editor when it praises him for his influence "in expanding the canon to a wide array of diverse voices" (Thurber).

This new collection of Elliott's work, edited by his friend Winfried Fluck and son Matthew Elliott, suggests a slightly different legacy. The volume does indeed provide metacritical and historiographic insights into Elliott's work as an editor, literary historian, and canon expander. Yet it also includes a sampling of key theses that will be familiar to readers of his monograph Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England (1975) and his multiple essays on Melville and Twain, two figures Elliott had hoped to consider in book-length monographs before his sudden and, by his son's account, unexpected death at the age of 66. Fluck and M. Elliott wisely organize the essays not chronologically, but into four thematic sections: Puritans, Twain/Melville, literary history (or, more accurately, literary historiography), and transnationalism. Taken together, the body of writing emphasizes not the canon expanding scholar celebrated by Kinney and the Times so much as the relentless historian of the present who, time and again, insists that we pay attention to the recurrent "structures of thinking" that give texture and direction to sociopolitical reality (314). Indeed, tacitly at least, these essays, grouped together as they are here, reveal that Elliott's focus on the durability of the past sparked the intellectual and political passions he brought to literary history's unique potential to achieve a feminist and multicultural agenda of canon expansion.

Elliott parses the relationship between past and present through a potentially confusing collection of phrases: "subtle social and psychological tendencies" in 1975 (51); "continuities" and "historical circularity" in 2000 (84), (89); "cultural linkage" and "unconscious ideology" in 2004 (97), (100); "structures of thought and social organization" in 2007 (314). I say potentially confusing because over his career Elliott remains more interested in revealing parallel structures between past and present than he is in conceptualizing that relationship by developing a consistent theoretical vocabulary. Yet reading the materials collected in this volume reveals a procedure at least partially in line with that Walter Benjamin sketches in The Arcades project. Both Eliott and Benjamin turn to history in order to make newly recognizable images that can awaken knowledge about contemporary crises (see, especially, Benjamin 462-63). However, if Elliott shares with Benjamin hopefulness in history's potential to break through epistemological logjams, he depicts a different temporal relationship between past and present.

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