- Fragments of Union: Making Connections in Scottish and American Writing
Susan Manning is best known as the author of The Puritan-Provincial Vision (1990), a comparative study of Scottish and American literature in the nineteenth century. Her new book similarly addresses thematic connections between the Scottish and American Enlightenments, though its thesis reaches much further, arguing in general terms that the organic, hierarchical structures of English language and culture are challenged by a rhetoric of accumulation and parataxis characteristic of both Scottish and American idioms. Whereas the centripetal authority of English literature lays down traditional patterns of grammatical authority, argues Manning, the centrifugal style of Scottish and American writing is constituted more by the sum of its parts, bringing into play a complex interaction between the hegemonic center and the putatively autonomous margin. This in turn generates a "federative" rather than "incorporative" structure (39), one predicated on a syntax of addition that is often signified stylistically by the use of conjunctions, catalogs, and lists, rather than by the assumptions of cultural order and linguistic decorum in which the moral essays of Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson are saturated. Manning traces this "grammar of the imagination," as the [End Page 621] title of her first chapter calls it, through a large number of writers: from David Hume and Thomas Jefferson in the late eighteenth century, through Scottish literary figures such as James Macpherson and Henry Mackenzie, to the Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson nearly a hundred years later. The concluding chapter pushes Manning's line of argument through to later American writers: William James, Toni Morrison, and others.
Fragments of Union is an ambitious but uneven book, some of whose conceptual difficulties derive from Manning's attempt to extend the parallel readings of Scottish and American literatures into a statement about the intellectual possibilities of comparative criticism. The introduction cites Gilles Deleuze's Différence et répétition (1968), which discusses "the mind-changing qualities of repetition," along with his subsequent work Critique et clinique (1993), where he analyzes American literature's "penchant for fragmentary forms" and argues, in Manning's words, that "American writing is unambiguously, indeed aggressively, federative and paratactic" (17). Manning seems in fact to have an awkward relation with Deleuze; later on she suggests that a "texture of sociality" or "web of relatedness . . . offers a better model than either Lacan or Deleuze for reading Hume, at least in part because its structures are derived from his [Hume's] writing" (62). That is the literary historian speaking, but an unresolved tension between this historicist contextualization and a more philosophical approach is the conceptual fault line running through this book.
On its own terms, the historicist angle works well. An excellent section in the second chapter links William Byrd's description of the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina to his self-conscious sense of provincialism and makes illuminating connections with the similar sense of outsiderhood in the work of Byrd's "strict contemporary" (76), the Scottish poet James Thomson. The extended philosophical inferences, though, are more problematic. In particular, Manning attempts to extrapolate from the "structures of fragmentation and union" that she sees as endemic to American writing (25) a theory of American literature and culture as a whole, so that Elizabeth Bishop's predilection for the conjunction and and Donald Barthelme's "Fragments are the only forms I trust" are held to be evidence of their "Americanness" (39, 15). (This Barthelme maxim is in fact articulated by the protagonist of his short story "See the Moon?" and should not be associated unequivocally with the author himself.) But such a focus on the syntactic category of parataxis works to essentialize the American cultural tradition, to reduce it to an epiphenomenon of the old myth and symbol narratives in which disparate events were taken to reproduce the traces of shadowy ideal forms: as Leo Marx interpreted American literature as a variegated refraction of the tropes of pastoralism, and Tony Tanner posited as its unifying matrices a transcendentalist reign of...