American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

centuries the eons until the white laws and commerce and customs will rot in the deserts they've created, lie bleached. Humildes yet proud, quietos yet wild, nosotros los mexicanos- Chicanos will walk by the crumbling ashes as we go about our business. Stubborn, persevering, impenetrable as stone, yet possessing a malleability that renders us unbreakable, we, the mestizas and mestizos, will remain.

Lawrence Buell


American Literary Emergence as a Postcolonial Phenomenon

1

As the first colony to win independence, America has a history that Americans have liked to offer as a prototype for other new nations, yet which by the same token might profitably be studied by Americans themselves in light of later cases. In the field of American literary history, however, such a retrospective rereading has rarely been tried. This essay attempts precisely that: to imagine the extent to which the emergence of a flourishing national literature during the so-called Renaissance period of the mid-nineteenth century can be brought into focus through the lens of more recent post-colonial literatures. This is a project I have come to as an Americanist by training who has since turned to studying Anglophone writing on a more global scale. Although this body of writing and the critical commentary that has arisen to frame it interest me mainly for their own sake, as an Americanist I have also found that they have caused me to rethink what I thought I already knew.

If my approach seems strange, as I hope it will, the reasons should be clear. Some formidable barriers inhibit Americanists from analogizing between this country's literary emergence and even that of Canada or Australia, let alone West India or West Africa-- barriers both of ignorance and of principle. Most Americanists know little about these other literatures, nor am I much beyond my novitiate. As to the barrier of principle, even mildly liberal academics will suspect the possible hypocrisy of an exercise in imagining America of the expansionist years as a postcolonial rather than proto-imperial power, as if to mystify modern America's increasingly interventionist role in world affairs. All the more so is my study subject to such suspicions given the ease with which it is possible to slide from thinking about America as the first new nation to thinking about America as the model for other new nations. And all the more so if the analogizing also risks, as mine will, blurring the distinction between the European settler as colonial and the indigene as colonial. I shall return to these issues at the end of my essay but shall bracket them for now.

____________________
"American Literary Emergence as a Postcolonial Phenomenon" by Lawrence Buell. First appeared in American Literary History. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.

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