American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

PART IV
CONTEMPORARIES, 1970-1998

The period we think of as the contemporary era of criticism--the past twenty-five years or so--has been characterized by paradigm shifts that, for many, were unanticipated, even incomprehensible. These changes in the values and functions of literary analysis have resulted in a divorce between the readers of literature and the readers of criticism. On the one hand, the academy has taken over the business of criticism and, from the outside, seems to have created an impenetrable jargon; certainly, it is more difficult to comprehend than criticism ever has been before. In defending against such claims, apologists for the newest criticism remind us that, in their day, New Critics like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were also charged with specialized writing. Now, the number of regular readers of criticism has dwindled to the point that there is really no market pressure to create a critical prose that general readers can understand.

Although no single factor explains the origin of this state of affairs, perhaps the most celebrated cause of the split ties in the advent of theory. What came to set academics notoriously apart, even from themselves, was an appetite for philosophical systems that yielded a set of critical questions that turned the humanistic tradition on its head. The movement toward abstraction goes back to some thinkers from earlier parts of the century, but the fashion began in earnest in the middle of the 1970s. Moribund as the New Criticism had become, sterile as many found methodologies like archetypalism and Freudian psychoanalysis to be, the way was open to discover a new paradigm for literary interpretation. Many ideas circulated, but none--not hermeneutics, phenomenology, semiotics, structuralism, narratology, nor reader response--awakened the imagination of any significant proportion of Americanist critics. Americanists proved skeptical of several of the new systems as systems, thereby recalling an earlier vein of pragmatism in their makeup. In addition, American literature critics and scholars still wished to preserve what their colleagues in English literature had already forsaken, a profound connection to what they loosely termed--in the cold-war rhetoric that was once so unquestioned--the national spirit or the democratic ethos or the liberal tradition or the American dream. Once literary and cultural theory made an impact on American criticism, such concepts would be deconstructed--interrogitted, problematized, and reinscribed.

Replacing the vivifying relation co social values that literary critics had once found in the historicist tendencies in American studies was a new concern for the writing of women and blacks. This inttrest had begun to assert itself, after the advent of civil rights movement and, later, by the early 1970s, of the second wave of feminism. It was most explicitly expressed in the call; especially by leftist critics, to revise the "canon" of American literature, which had come co be understood as repressive. An egalitarian politics of revi

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