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Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction
Philip Fisher. Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. 290 pp.
You need only to have thought about buying shares in Amazon.com, moved or changed jobs several times in the last decade, or felt prematurely obsolete in the workplace or the company of young people to grasp the significance of Philip Fisher's thesis in Still the New World. Through wide-ranging, perceptive readings of important works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and art, Fisher asserts that the American imagination is constructed from a capitalist epistemology that values the emergent over the tried and true, the moving over the stationary, and the creative over the sustainable. This book reads "the whole of American culture and economic life [. . . as] a, so far, successful attempt" to be prospective rather than retrospective. Written with the enthusiasm of a venture capitalist in the age of the start-up or a day-trader working an unprecedented bull market, it accurately reflects the zeitgeist of the boom years of the 1990s.
Borrowing the concept of "creative destruction" from economic theory, Fisher argues that ours is a society defined by the frame-making and frame-breaking of always new and newer enterprises. With "no common racial origin [, . . .] no common history, no shared religion," and no [End Page 517] collective folkways, "democratic personality" in the United States gets conjugated in the future tense. Fisher argues that thick cultural identities are discarded by immigrants for low-definition personalities; he defines "assimilation" in a world of constant enterprise as being the generational experience of all citizens rather than the exclusive provenance of minorities who must adapt to a stable or dominant social order. Still, this book's best moments occur when Fisher, leaving aside the thesis, moves in close to read patiently what American literature has to say about riddles, sleep, the passions, and epistemological obfuscation.
Early on, Fisher shows how Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Circles," which adapts from economics to aesthetics and moral life the romancing of a "zone time" between "the start-up of an idea" and its "full acceptance" or utter rejection articulates the "fundamental philosophy for the wider American culture." Fisher also champions the transparency and sameness evident in the American understanding of "home" from the Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian homestead to the contemporary suburban sub-division. In addition, he praises as uniquely democratic an aesthetics of abstraction developed by Walt Whitman and culminating in post-war Abstract Expressionism. By contrast, slavery, as fictionalized by Herman Melville, and the postbellum culture of celebrity and professionalism are shown to have damaged democratic transparency and sameness. In perhaps his most compelling chapter, Fisher juxtaposes works by Thomas Eakins, Thorstein Veblen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain to demonstrate the varying ways they participated in and protested against the emergence of hierarchical social space during the Gilded Age. The final chapter concerning the transition from realism to naturalism to varieties of modernism compares works by Howells, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway; it is only tangentially related to the thesis but still useful for its wayside insights.
The most obvious question raised by the text concerns the difference Fisher posits between abstraction and realism, since Whitman's poetry provides examples of both aesthetic strategies. But more enduringly troublesome is the fact that Fisher's celebration of creative destruction and abstraction often leads to startling political oversights. For instance, in spite of his evident delight in the creative remaking of railroad beds into bike paths for weekend excursionists, he fails to acknowledge [End Page 518] the people whose houses were destroyed by the laying down of tracks or those today without the time, leisure, or opportunity to use suburban bike paths. Elsewhere he speaks of "Yuppiedom" as if it were an equivalent stage in life to "childhood, adolescence, [. . .] or...