American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature

American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature

American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature

American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature


In its more than three decades of existence, the discipline of American studies has been reliably unreliable, its boundaries and assumptions forever shifting as it continuously repositions itself to better address the changing character of American life, literature, and culture. American Mythologies is a challenging new look at the current reinvention of American studies, a reinvention that has questioned the whole notion of what "American"- let alone "American studies"- means.

Essays in the collection range widely in considering these questions, from the effect of Muhammad Ali on Norman Mailer's writings about boxing to the interactions of myth and memory in the fictions of Jayne Anne Phillips to the conflicted portrayal of the American West in Cormac McCarthy's novels. Four essays in the collection focus on Native American authors, including Leslie Marmon Silko and Gerald Vizenor, while another considers Louise Erdrich's novels in the context of Ojibwa myth.

By bringing together perspectives on American studies from both Europe and America, American Mythologies provides a clear picture of the current state of the discipline while pointing out fruitful directions for its future.


Northrop Frye, perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential writer on the topic of mythology and literature, remarked: ‘The word myth is used today in such a bewildering variety of contexts that anyone talking about it has to say first what his context is’ (3). More recently Eric Gould has suggested that the concept of myth has become a new omnibus term for our times, a term that may mean both everything and nothing. He writes of myth as ‘a synthesis of value which uniquely manages to mean most things to most people. It is allegory and tautology, reason and unreason, logic and fantasy, waking thought and dream, origin and end’ (5). Establishing a guiding context for this collection of critical essays on contemporary American literature and its relationship to mythology must also consider the notion that myth is essentially a reliquary of stories and tales bearing no proximate connection to imaginative literature or literary criticism, or even that the articulation of myth has been entirely replaced by such literature (Segal 2).

Yet contemporary American writing is clearly engaged with mythologies, however varied their origins or applications, and is aware of the seeming paradox and difficult resolutions inherent in combining modernday events and social circumstances with the kinds of universal associations and cultural depth usually associated with myth. Also, especially since the second half of the twentieth-century, literary theorists and critics have frequently attempted to reconcile modern literary production and its largely secular subject matter with mythological symbols, patterns and structures – Northrop Frye, Richard Chase and Roland Barthes being but some of the most prominent examples. in addition, while the myth and symbol school of criticism – most famously represented by the work of R. W. B. Lewis, Leo Marx and Henry Nash Smith – has since the late twentieth century been derogated for its neglect of much other than white male experience, nevertheless that recent consensus points to the continued interest in the role played by myth in American cultures, within a new and necessary awareness of its pluralist boundaries. in Europe, where ancient history and traditional . . .

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