Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 1990
pp. 111-128 | 10.1353/arq.1990.0007
FRED G. SEE American Literature in American Literature Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. ... all the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws. —Emerson, "History" . . . the haiku reminds us of what has never happened to us; in it we recognize a repetition without origin, an event without cause, a memory without person, a language without moorings. —Barthes, Empire of Signs Iontentious beginning, an agon of epigraphs: the fullness ' against the emptiness of our past. But this project of Duke Univetsity Press—reprinting samples of "the best work being done by historians , critics, and bibliographers of American literature"—sets up exactly that struggle. The series charts the last sixty years of the major journal American Literature and chooses its best essays on Emerson (and, in forthcoming volumes, on Melville, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, Faulkner, The Frontiet Myth, and The Tfanscendentalists, among others). These anthologized selections are drawn from the archive of published editorial choices going back to 1929, choices which have always already illustrated (in the words of the "Series Introduction" shared by all volumes) "the best work being done by historians, critics, and bibliographers of American literature during any given year" (vii). This is an interesting doubling, in other words—historical criticism scanning its own history. The project is clearly an Emersonian one in which one age sounds another: the volumes echo a critical past which Arizona Quarterly Volume 46 Number 2, Summer 1990 Copyright © 1 990 by Arizona Board of Regenrs issN 0004- 1 6 10 Fred G. See re-calls a furthet literary past, and they beg the (historical) question put in Ezekiel and implied by Eliot: Can these bones live? In the context of the last fout decades (since, say, the 1953 publication of Roland Barthes' Le Degré Zéro de l'Ecriture and Roy Pearce's The Savages of America) the laws that gtound reading have suffered radical change. American Literature has kept faith with history as about the only ground worth holding. Heterodox readers elsewhere have persistently and loudly questioned that faith. We might put the debate this way: is history, is the history of texts and readings, an abundance of subjects which speak through us (and which by our writing we fulfull); or is it a mystified law of origins that eludes us as we obey it, that continually denies a beginning for our own utterances? To quote Peatce—certainly he is one of the most distinguished and illuminating historians of our literature—"We are not in a position either to justify the past or to instruct it. We can only assent to its certitudes and ask ourselves how they comport with our own" (Savages, ix). And then, a few pages later, In writing the history of a belief, the historian perforce reveals a complex of tensions, contradictions, inconsistencies, confusions, and ettots. Yet such revelation cannot make him feel superior to the men whose belief he is studying. Knowing the past, he will be able to sympathize with it; sympathizing with it, he will accept it; accepting it, he will perhaps be able to free himself of the limitations which it sets about him and to use more intelligently the opportunities it offers him. (Savages , xii) But the assent to historical certitude on which Peatce bases any such questioning is what Barthes (surely an equally distinguished conttaty) seeks to condemn and undo. Writing Degree Zero: "man is a ptisoner of his language: outside his class, the first word he speaks is a sign which places him as a whole and proclaims his whole personal history. The man is put on show and delivered up by his language, betrayed by a fotmal reality which is beyond the reach of his lies, whethet they are inspired by self-interest ot generosity" (81). And again: History puts in [the writer's] hands a decorative and compromising instrument, a writing inherited from a previous and different History, for which he is not responsible and yet which American Literature113 is the only one he can use. Thus is bom a tragic element in writing, since the conscious writer must henceforth fight against ancestral and all-powerful signs which, from the depths of...