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American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 814-822

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New Origins of American Literature

Grantland S. Rice

Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787--1845. By Jared Gardner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic. By Laura Rigal. Princeton University Press, 1998.

With all the emphasis on expanding and diversifying the field over the past three decades, early Americanists probably haven’t paid enough attention to our discipline’s institutional history. As scholars like David Shumway and Gerald Graff have noted, the disciplinary origins of American literature are found in the birth of two early modern institutions. The first, the rise of the nation-state, was propelled, as Benedict Anderson has argued, by the growth of a "national consciousness" that was enabled by the medium of print. The second, the development of American colleges and research universities, drew from the examples of Oxbridge and the University of Berlin and took up the task of uniting a ruling class, certifying technical, professional, and managerial competence, and realizing the idea of a national culture.1 In other words, the field of American literature, historically, has been inextricably tied to two institutions of early modern nation building. Like English literature, which found its disciplinary origins in nineteenth-century imperialism, American literature emerged as a subject of study to advance the project of forming national citizens.2 Shumway’s book-length argument puts it even more bluntly: "[T]he discipline’s most significant achievement [has been] to secure for Americans a belief in their success as a culture" (6).

Early Americanists in particular should take note of disciplinary history, since the periodization of the field makes a great number of early American texts, the rise of the nation-state, and the birth of the discipline coextensive. And looking at this matrix raises some fascinating questions. For example, it is a commonplace to observe that the struggles of early American writers and bibliographers to "discover" an indigenous literature factored into the creation of a national culture. But we pay little or no attention to how the disciplinary notion of an American literature itself has perhaps played an even more significant role. For example, J. Hillis Miller makes the powerful observation that "the most important books on United States literature, from those by [End Page 814] F. O. Matthiessen, Charles Feidelson Jr., R. W. B. Lewis, and Perry Miller down to the more recent work by Roy Harvey Pearce, Sacvan Bercovitch, Philip Fisher, and Harold Bloom, have been devoted not so much to describing as to attempting to create the unified national culture we do not have." Miller argues that the function of the most influential scholarship in the field has been more performative than descriptive, using general concepts such as "the frontier, the American Renaissance, the American Adam, a certain use of symbolism, a special kind of romance, [and] the Puritan ideal" to create a national literature where none inherently exists (32). I would go one step further to speculate that it has been this "performative" function of the discipline, the field’s ability to serve the ideological needs of the nation-state, that historically has secured American literature a central place in higher education.

But the decline of the historical construct of the nation-state over the past 30 or 40 years, brought about by both the end of the Cold War and the transnational imperatives of a rising global marketplace, has worked to undermine the importance of a national literature. As Masao Miyoshi has argued, economic power has been shifting since the 1960s from nations to transnational corporations, what he defines as emerging commercial entities that no longer depend on a home nation and that promote shareholder, employee, and client loyalty over national affiliation.3 For evidence, Miyoshi cites a study by Leslie Sklair that revealed that of the largest 100 economic units in the global economy of the mid-1980s, more than half were corporations rather than nation-states.4 And that number has almost certainly increased dramatically over the...


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