American Culture Wars, 1803-1861

By Wilczynski, Marek | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), September 2006 | Go to article overview

American Culture Wars, 1803-1861


Wilczynski, Marek, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


When a historian of nineteenth-century United States culture and literature from virtually any country of Europe cuts through the layers of his or her expertise, customs and habits of the field, and perhaps routine, s/he realizes a crucial difference between the vernacular cultural background and the chosen object of study. Be it Germany, France, Poland, Hungary, or Latvia, all the local cultural formations seem much more stable in the eyes of respective national communities (always, as Benedict Anderson has taught us, "imagined") than American antebellum culture appears in the eyes of today's students born and/or raised somewhere between New York and San Francisco. Not only the standard "central" figures of the first half of the nineteenth century turn out much less disputable (Goethe, Hugo, Adam Mickiewicz, Sandor Petofi, Christian Waldemar), but the overall order of less prominent authors, as well as publications, genres, and values proves comparatively immune to major overhauls or even partial revisions. Quite on the contrary, in the United States an ongoing cultural debate, originated in the early 1970s, has now resulted in a fascinating diversity of opinions about the American cultural past. The quicksands of controversy occasionally affect long-established reputations of thinkers and writers, and received ideas once brought into play by critics (e.g., Hawthorne and Melville approached by feminist criticism, a revision of Richard Chase's thesis about the specificity of the "American romance") or, much more often, throw up names and texts which have been long forgotten or downplayed by academia and other institutions responsible for cultural circulation.

It is more or less obvious that the recent expansion and transformation of the American literary and cultural canon have been conditioned by the processes centered around United States universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. If one were to select a representative figure active in the radical civic movement continued by the changes in the departments of English, the most characteristic example is perhaps Paul Lauter, editor of the mammoth Heath Anthology of American Literature, an alternative to less comprehensive and thus politically different Norton or American Tradition in Literature. The "New Americanists" of Lauter's generation, in respect to the early and mid-nineteenth century best represented by Jane Tompkins as the author of Sensational Designs (1985) and Donald Pease with his Visionary Compacts (1987), indicated the main directions of change and set the tone of the revisionist endeavor. Consequently, the "race-class-gender" key became the standard instrument of literary and cultural studies, and almost all of a sudden the Matthiessenian map of the "American Renaissance" period shrank to cover only the tip of an iceberg--a vast realm of words excluded from the field of yesterday's audience attention. In short, then, the "New Americanist" program brought about two major alterations: first, the scope of "readable" texts grew immensely to comprise, among others, the sentimental fiction and poetry of women, a large number of previously unacknowledged slave narratives, and early testimonies of Native Americans, such as, for instance, William Apess; second, the repertoire of questions asked about particular texts or groups of texts changed into an agenda of grievances and postulates of empowerment. It is not my intention here to get involved in a polemic with either of those trends, following the footsteps of, say, Frederick C. Crews or Frank Tuttleton who, each in his own way, vigorously opposed the "New Americanist" turn at its very beginning. Besides, in particular all the additions to and expansions of the canon, understood as a set of culturally relevant messages from the past, seem to me valuable, no matter what politically correct hierarchies have been proposed to put them in some "order." The more material to study, the better: in result, our view of the history of United States literature and culture has definitely become wider-ranging and less narrowly biased by unwarranted assumptions of scholars. …

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