Into the Workshop: In Search of Identity and Pretexts

By Reilly, John M. | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Into the Workshop: In Search of Identity and Pretexts


Reilly, John M., The Midwest Quarterly


A fictional technique always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics. The critic's task is to define the latter before evaluating the former.--Jean-Paul Sartre

HOW DOES ONE know reality? That is the question underlying all of literature, for each invention of art proposes a structure of the world. Every instance of decoding the artisan's technique occasions our learning to read its peculiar dimensions. Every text presents a terrain requiring for its exploration the drafting of a map on which we locate the suppositions marking the promontories and declivities in thought that give us evidence of the materials making up the surface--hard rock or shifting sands. Every text compels us also to chart the locale of vantagepoints providing the clearest sight of narrative landscape and the easiest access to areas of dense population. We may even mark the textual map with convenient spots for rest and refreshment, for, as critics, we have in mind that, for our classrooms and professional journals, we serve the role of scouts pre-viewing the area for the tourists who eventually will use the guide we are preparing.

How does one know reality? Thirty years ago a crisis arose in the cartographers' chart rooms when a doughty band of dissenters initially challenged the atlas of American literature. The common issues of the atlas, it was claimed, showed insufficient indices for sites of African American accomplishment, even fewer for Asian American literary attainments. The U.S. philological survey had rendered large stretches of territory that were known to be explored and settled as terrae incognita. Where on the survey map were Spanish Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Koreatown, and border settlements? Where, for that matter, were the cartographic icons directing visitors in American literature to kitchens and clinics and shop floors, places where women as well as men can be met? The commonplace mappings of American writing thirty years ago were like those New Yorker projections that show the distant border marked by the Hudson River and the entire foreground filled by Mid-town Manhattan, except that the version of America displayed on the literary map showed at its center a majestic flow called The Mainstream, all else was tributary. How could we know reality from such a provincial charting?

You will have noted that this dissent from the dominant cartography disputed not only the representation of literary landmarks. More significantly, by questioning the conventional geographic projections, the dissenters, who grew in number year by year, expressed doubt about the practice of the criticism that had provided field studies for the final mappings. As a consequence, interest shifted from the reality to be discovered within individual narratives toward the premises of charts displaying the metanarrative of American literary history. If writings by so-called minority authors were unmentioned in the metanarrative, and if that metanarrative, moreover, presumed to describe only authors with a claim to major status, then literary history must be a reflection of social prejudice toward people of color, at least toward people of color. If the metanarrative titled "American Literary History" canonizes authors, because they have spoken best about what is most significant in American culture yet includes few women and fewer ethnic writers in the select group, the inference to be made becomes self-evident. Literary history is another instance of institutional power at odds with democratic values. Having found that the maps issued to them in graduate school had been distorted by political bias, dissenting critics, therefore, determined that nothing less would do than a reconstruction of literary historiography. The query of how one will know reality readily transformed into the demand to declare, "Which side are you on--the side of a true representation of America as it is to be seen when all groups are fully enfranchised, or the side of those whose critical practice worked to stabilize a distortion of reality? …

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