American Literature & the Culture Wars

American Literature & the Culture Wars

American Literature & the Culture Wars

American Literature & the Culture Wars

Synopsis

Gregory S. Jay boldly challenges the future of American literary studies. Why pursue the study and teaching of a distinctly American literature? What is the appropriate purpose and scope of such pursuits? Is the notion of a traditional canon of great books out of date? Where does American literature leave off and Mexican or Caribbean or Canadian or postcolonial literature begin? Are today's campus conflicts fueled more by economics or ideology? Jay addresses these questions and others relating to American literary studies to explain why this once arcane academic discipline found itself so often in the news during the culture wars of the 1990s. While asking some skeptical questions about new directions and practices, Jay argues forcefully in favor of opening the borders of American literary and cultural analysis. He relates the struggle for representation in literary theory to a larger cultural clash over the meaning and justice of representation, then shows how this struggle might expand both the contents and the teaching of American literature. In an account of the vexed legacy of the Declaration of Independence, he provides a historical context for the current quarrels over literature and politics. Prominent among these debates are those over multiculturalism, which Jay takes up in an essay on the impasses of identity politics. In closing, he considers how the field of comparative American cultural studies might be constructed.

Excerpt

During the past two decades, a main feature of our nation's "culture wars" has been the increasingly fierce quarrel over the teaching of American literature. Debates about terms such as "cultural literacy," the "canon," "political correctness," and "multiculturalism" have spilled over from the campuses onto the pages of popular magazines and even been featured on the nightly news. Judging from the uproar, one might think that we were seeing nothing less than the end of American literature — or at least the end of any consensus about how to define and teach it. This sense of an ending, however, is equally matched by a feeling of opening horizons, as dozens of forgotten or overlooked books and authors come into view. Even the classic texts of the tradition have been reopened by new methods of interpretation, so that The Scarlet Letter and Emily Dickinson and The Waste Land suddenly take on . . .

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