- Creating American Civilization: A Genealogy of American Literature as an Academic Discipline
David Shumway’s history of the “discipline” of American literature adds his name to the lengthening list of scholars who have trained their sights on the field over the past twenty years—Spengemann, Vanderbilt, Graff, Pease, Carafiol, Jay, Porter, and others. Of all these studies, Shumway’s dates its subject most narrowly, not from the European Discovery, or the Revolution, or the decade after the Civil War as others have, but from the publication of Matthiessen’s American Renaissance only a bit over five decades ago. Yet Shumway sees the power and cultural influence of this “object” as great. “The discipline’s most significant achievement was to secure for Americans a belief in their success as a culture.” Taking his cue from the Foucault of Discipline and Punish, Shumway’s discipline is “made possible by the strategies and techniques of power.” It is “the form that the research university imposed on knowledge,” and Shumway complains that it “removes things from [“their embededness in human”] experience.” It is a repressive disciplinary machine, a “systematic reduction.”
The history that grows out of these assumptions swings between attacks on disciplinary “impositions” on knowledge that give the narrative its moral energy and a conflicting insistence that the forms of culture unfold through mechanical operations of inexorable social systems indifferent to blame or praise. Repeatedly Shumway asserts that “the authority of the men of letters was not a product of their . . . genius but of the roles they filled in the literary system,” that “Emerson was not a genius, but a product,” and that “like the other figures treated in this book Mattheissen is . . . best considered a historical necessity, the sort of person whom the discipline would have to have invented had he not existed.” Writers like Matthiessen, he goes on, [End Page 133] “contributed to the . . . development that the field was already bound to take. How could it be otherwise?”
This determinism runs athwart the disciplinary critique that places Shumway’s work in the movement to reform academic practices. Although he insists that the discipline developed as it was “bound” to, it can only be a fair target for his critique if, as he also repeats (three times in a page), things “could have” been different. Even after the Cambridge History of American Literature, he argues, “it was still possible for the academy to have constituted American literature in many different ways.” In this version, now moral agent rather than machine, the field chose racism, nationalism, aestheticism, and sexism and imposed them on all it surveyed, making itself an object fit for our disapproval.
In the pursuit of his moral case, Shumway finds racism operating “covertly” in the work of critics from Charles Richardson to Donald Pease, although he partially absolves them with the not altogether welcome excuse that they did not know what they were doing. Nor is his insistence on such ideological transgressions embarrassed by a poverty of facts; he finds sexism in the disciplinary treatment of early male and female critics despite his own admission that no concrete evidence supports the charge. In place of such evidence, he repeatedly offers his own “guess[es]” which predictably reinforce his case.
Although his criticism of misguided proto-Americanists suggests that he knows what it is to be “genuinely historical,” his narrative does not describe the development over time of complex cultural practices into the discipline of American literary study. He displays a set of chronological snapshots, not tightly connected, each of which illustrates yet again the problems he has seen all along. Chief among these are the familiar observation that American literary studies is less than perfectly diverse particularly regarding race and gender (as usual in these discussions, class gets short shrift), and the unsurprising revelation that it expects its members to play more or less by its current rules and standards.
What is surprising is the degree to which Shumway’s own work illustrates, even as it critiques, this latter principle. In its argument...