Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel

Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel

Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel

Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel

Synopsis

This book records a major critic's three decades of thinking about the connection between literature and the conditions of people's lives--that is, politics. A preference for impurity and a search for how to analyze and explain it are guiding threads in this book as its chapters pursue the complex entanglements of culture,politics, and society from which great literature arises. At its core is the nineteenth-century novel, but it addresses a broader range of writers as well, in a textured, contoured, discontinuous history. The chapters stand out for a rare combination. They practice both an intensive close reading that does not demand unity as its goal and an attention to literature as a social institution, a source of values that are often created in its later reception rather than given at the outset. When addressing canonical writers--Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Keats, Melville, George Eliot, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Ralph Ellison--the author never forgets that many of their texts, even Shakespeare's plays, were in their own time judged to be popular, commercial, minor, or even trashy. In drawing on these works as resources in politically charged arguments about value, the author pays close attention to the processes of posterity that validated these authors' greatness. Among those processes of posterity are the responses of other writers. In making their choices of style, subject, genre, and form, writers both draw from and differ from other writers of the past and of their own times. The critical thinking about other literature through which many great works construct their inventiveness reveals that criticism is not just a minor, secondary practice, segregated from the primary work of creativity. Participating in as well as analyzing that work of critical creativity, this volume is rich with important insights for all readers and teachers of literature.

Excerpt

The year 1968 dramatically conjoined culture and politics in Paris, Prague, Mexico City, and many other parts of the world. in my own life as a student, the year framed my first encounter with two great critics, one on the page, one in person, whose work continues to provoke and sustain my thinking about the connections between literature and the conditions of people’s lives—that is, politics. Walter Benjamin’s work entered English at this time, decades after he killed himself (1940) while attempting to flee Hitler, and I began my vocation as a teacher by assisting the course in modern British literature taught at Harvard Summer School by Edward W. Said. the critical thinking of these two exiles, the Jew and the Arab, has fueled decades of my explorations.

Impure Worlds names a zone of inquiry and resource that has shaped my thought for a long time. It stirred me years before I learned of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on heteroglossia, before talk arose in postcolonial studies concerning hybridity, and in borderlands theory about mestizaje. Back around 1970, I still had not read Robert Penn Warren’s classic New Critical essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” (1942). Warren favors the impure, surprising most readers now, who imagine that as formalists, New Critics were purists. the power and the striking effects of impure forms animate my reading and set the problems that as a critic and scholar I try to define and explore. What I do shares much with recent work in cultural and minority studies, but they tend to focus more exclusively on heterogeneity, while my work is distinguished by attending to heterogeneity in its relationships to form.

As I was launching my dissertation in 1970, I was stirred by two closely related books by Richard Sennett that appeared that year: The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life is more theoretical and contemporary, Families against the City: Middle Class Homes of Industrial Chicago, 1872–1890 more specific and historical. Against the streets of the city, Sennett argued, families strove to produce in their children a purified identity that would, they imagined, protect them against the contaminations of people who . . .

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