American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 755-775
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Deep Time: American Literature and World History
Wai Chee Dimock
I begin with a simple observation.1 Here is a list of some of the most influential books in the field, published in the past 60 years: F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (1941); R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam (1955); Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (1978); Myra Jehlen, American Incarnation: The Individual, The Nation, and The Continent (1986); and Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995).
A lot has changed in the past 60 years, but one thing has not. One word is still there, still holding court. What does it mean to refer to a body of writing as American? What assumptions enable us to take an adjective derived from a territorial unit—an America, a set of spatial coordinates on a map—and turn it into a mode of literary causality: a set of attributes based on the territorial, determined by it, and subsumable under its jurisdiction?
Physical space, in this paradigm, is endlessly reinscribed in other spheres of life: it becomes a political entity, an economic entity, a cultural entity. All of these are its replica; all warrant the use of the adjective American. There is a kind of causal chain gang at work here. We assume that there is a perfect fit, a seamless correspondence, between the geographical boundaries of the nation and the boundaries of all its other operative domains. And, because this correspondence takes the form of a lockstepped entailment—because its causality goes all the way up and all the way down—we assume there is a literary domain that lines up in just the same way. This is why the adjective American can serve as literary description. Using it, we assume, with or without explicit acknowledgment, that literature is an effect, an epiphenomenon, of the US, territorially predicated and territorially describable.
American literary studies as a discipline is largely founded on this fateful adjective. This governs the domain of inquiry we construct, the range of questions we entertain, the kind of evidence we take as significant. The very professionalism of the field rests on the integrity and the legitimacy of this founding concept.2 Not surprisingly, its disciplinary stranglehold has tightened rather [End Page 755] than loosened in recent years, when (in inverse relation to the decline of the humanities) specialization has triumphed as never before. Americanists are now nothing but that: Americanists. Thanks to this academic territoriality—an all too sad replay of the territoriality of the nation—the discipline is organized as a self-contained fiefdom, its borders policed into a natural fact. Any line of inquiry that suggests a different circumference is suspect, unprofessional-looking. Steering clear of that danger, we often write about Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Faulkner without ever leaving the borders of America, assuming that these do literally "contain" these authors. To give a crude, but not entirely unfair, summary of some of our arguments, Melville, Stowe, and Faulkner are so many metonymies of the nation: they are a part—a subset—of the American empire, American sentimental culture, American racist modernity.3 Metonymic nationalism is not a familiar phrase, but it is what this paradigm amounts to. To practice it is to write off the rest of the world. We don’t ask what it means for Melville to be obsessed with an English writer, Shakespeare, about whom he wrote: "Dolt and ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made close acquaintance with the divine William . . . if another Messiah ever comes twill be in Shakespeare’s person."4 We don’t ask what it means for Stowe to have a fan in Tolstoy, who egged himself on in his diary: "How necessary to write about this—to write a new Uncle Tom’s Cabin" (337). We don’t ask what it means for Faulkner to be a popular author in Japan.5
We don’t ask these questions because, for many...