- Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel
Jonathan Arac’s new essay collection brings together pieces published by the author over a thirty-year period from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s. Half have been previously published as journal articles and the rest as book chapters. In this age of academic hyper-specialization, they reveal the insights still to be gleaned from broad reading across periods, languages, and genres. Each essay benefits from the breadth and lateral sweep of Arac’s mind: for instance, his chapter on Eliot’s Mill on the Floss touches on a wide-ranging set of texts, including Don Quixote, the Oedipus myth, Wordsworth, Auerbach’s Mimesis, Freud, Proust, and Edmund Burke.
This capacious allusiveness, then, is what the title promises: Arac’s notion of “impure worlds” is less an argument sustained throughout the essays than a retrospective name for his intertextual way of practicing criticism. Impurity stands here for an expansive understanding of literary influence that Arac credits to Harold Bloom (x) but which could as easily be attributed to the vast comparativism of critics like Auerbach, Bakhtin, or Lukács, each of whom he cites repeatedly. Against the totalizing of New Critical textual hermeticism or New Historicist synchronic contemporaneity (x), Arac insists on the diachronic interplay of forms and content.
Of the ten essays, seven deal squarely with the novel, with three each treating Mark Twain and Charles Dickens at length. The two writers are brought together in the fourth chapter devoted to Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Here, Arac shows how attending to the literary canon and the traces of previous authors can pay dividends. He demonstrates Stead’s feminist “refunctioning” (48) of the activist heritage of both novelists, each of whom were “at once the progressive opposition and the status quo itself” (59). This chapter thus dwells on the always-renegotiated interaction between “Politics and the Canon,” the title for the book’s first part, which begins by tracking the outsized influence of Shakespeare on nineteenth-century literature.
After two chapters that deal with Shakespeare’s impact on Romantic poets and essayists, the third examines how the rediscovery of Shakespeare’s talent for psychological individuation affected the rise of character in the “age of the novel.” While the essay’s datedness may seem like a limitation at first (the 1970s claim that “character has not been an effective concern of current criticism”  requires heavy footnoting in 2011), Arac develops a nuanced notion of interiority based on ghostliness in Hamlet and Little Dorrit. The gothic gusto for the past exemplified in haunted castles and misplaced inheritances here partakes of what Arac calls “a shared claustral imagination” (41), one that serves to produce a modern type of angst-ridden character depth. This contiguity between Shakespearean and Victorian character shows how the insights of past literature are constantly refunctioned, an iteration of generic recycling “by which Hamlet was turned from a Renaissance prince to a petty bourgeois of the nineteenth century” (45).
This concern with the literary canon’s incessant reformulations into new presents becomes acute in Arac’s discussion of the controversy over Twain’s Huck Finn in chapters 5 and 10. In diagnosing the ways in which the novel has been deployed as a parable of “interracial goodwill” (63) in contemporary America, Arac most explicitly develops the overriding question at the center of his criticism: literature’s role “as a social institution” (ix). While chapter 5 taxonomizes the public debate as alternating between humanist “idolatry” (72) of literary redemption and the unresolved problem of American racism, chapter 10 offers a close reading “without polemic” (153). Here, Arac concentrates on Huck’s voice, reading the novel’s distinctive narration in great [End Page 108] detail and showing, for example, how one particular sentence “269 words long” with “eleven semicolons” translates as “high literacy” (158) the uneducated speech of its protagonist.
This final chapter also addresses how a text comes to be qualified as...