Academic journal article Early American Literature

On the Circumstances Surrounding the Creation of Early American Literature

Academic journal article Early American Literature

On the Circumstances Surrounding the Creation of Early American Literature

Article excerpt

History attends to change. Disciplinary history discovers change initially to have a usual shape--a dispersion from unanimity to dissensus. (1) The sense of shared interest and common cause that gave rise to a community of inquiry ramifies into a complication of purposes. Early American Literature in the twenty-five years from its founding in 1965 to the Prospects Conference of 1989 marking the end of the editorship of Everett Emerson graphically embodied this conventional story of disciplinary complication. Narrating the transit from consensus to dissensus recounts an itinerary too familiar to compel attention. What interests is the mystery of how and why the original community of inquiry formed. What matters historically are the messy particulars of the divisions and cross-purposes. Here let us think about how Early American Literature influenced and registered the field's metastasis.

As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Early American Literature, we are brought back to one mystery: Why did it come to be in 1965? What brought about a sufficient community of inquiry to warrant the formation of the MLA's Conference of Colonial American Literature (later the Division of American Literature to 1800) and the launch of its newsletter, a publication that quickly morphed into the journal, Early American Literature? Why did the institutionalization of early America not take place with the post-World War II promulgation of American studies as a field? (Gleason; Brown) Why did it take place nearly a generation later?

There was no immediately recognizable heritage of identity politics at work in the emergence of Early American Literature in the 1960s--the sort of sensus communis that undergirded the study of southern literature in the 1930s for instance, or American studies in the wake of World War II. Nor was a shared concern with an aesthetic ideology--romanticism, modernism--being avowed in the formation of the community and journal. While earliness might have a value if one were propounding a genetics of American civil religion, why did the community not come about in the 1930s when Perry Miller made the issue of ideological primordiality important, instead of the 1960s when Theodor Adorno's elaborations in Against Epistemology of Martin Heidegger's critique of Greek first philosophy and essence of origin gained traction in philosophy and history?

So what was happening in the years before 1965 that made persons wish to declare a peculiar interest not in the whole of US national literature but in a rather arbitrarily defined chronological section prior to the nineteenth century? And why within its first years of operation did the newsletter-journal violate that partition to include materials up through the 1820s? My claim here is that the field of early American literary studies emerged in the 1960s because of new media, a revolution in the means of accessing primary materials, a happenstance roughly analogous to the digital revolution we are now experiencing. The new medium that enabled a new community of interest to form around early American writings was microphotography. (2)

In the 1950s a group of librarians armed with new imaging technology imagined an information order in which any library might have the entirety of American literature up to 1800, the corpus that Charles Evans had described in his monumental American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets, and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from the Genesis of Printing in 1639 down to and Including the Year 1820. Evans's great bibliography had only reached the year 1800 at the time of the bibliographer's death in 1935. From 1941 to 1959 Peter Smith published the fourteen constituent volumes of the bibliography, its coverage terminating in 1800, rather than Evans's projected 1830. Ralph Shaw undertook the task of extending the American Bibliography through 1819, and Richard H. …

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