This anthology represents a project of several years' development. The original idea for the collection came ten years ago when American literary criticism was becoming more self- conscious about its origins as well as its social and political goals. I thought it would be useful to gather the essays that I saw as contributing to this tradition of critical discussion, one that had been somewhat neglected since the 1960s. My hope was to create a book that gave students of contemporary debates in literary criticism fuller resources in the background of those controversies, just as I supposed that these historical examples of literary criticism as cultural critique might also prove interesting to new scholars of the subject.
Throughout the planning, my aim was to bring together a good many of the key documents in American cultural criticism and other pertinent contributions so that students could have in one book a sampling of the rich argument and luminous analysis that literature in the United States has stimulated. Many great essays and writers and traditions, however, have been omitted. Sometimes, the rationale was that these works were otherwise widely available. Sometimes, I had to make the kinds of choices and compromises that bedevil any editor. Indeed, the essays omitted from the present volume might constitute a table of contents just as attractive as this one. Nevertheless, the essays here show the changing history as well as the chronic concerns that have formed the dynamic, unfolding deliberation among critics and authors about the way literary values signify the state of American society.
The reader of this volume can trace several general debates regarding the literary formulation of issues like American nationhood and exceptionalism, the racial divide, gender politics, and class consciousness, as well as the substance and shadow of American culture--from antebellum romance fiction to late-capitalist postmodernism. Occasionally, I have tried to focus explicitly on well-known issues, like the possibilities of the Great American Novel or the cultural capital invested in Nathaniel Hawthorne's reputation, though such groupings are meant to be provocative rather than prescriptive ways of reading this material. I am confident that students, even beyond the book's intentions, will be able to discern connections and continuities as well as disjunctions and discontinuities among the essays.
Several critics and editors have helped me through the challenges of assembling this collection, especially in discriminating among the wealth of possible alternative selections. I am especially grateful to a learned predecessor, Richard Ruland, whose two- volume collection, The Native Muse and This Storied Land, has proven very instructive. It is a pleasure also to thank Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Morris Dickstein for their early help in sustaining the book's viability. They made valuable comments about the volume's organization and offered excellent advice. William Cain and Priscilla Wald made smart sugges-