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  • The Provincialism of Time
  • Priscilla Wald (bio)

In his introduction to The Reinterpretation of American Literature (1928), Norman Foerster cautions against a “provincialism of time” that he considers “far more insidious than that provincialism of place from which American criticism suffered in the last century” (xiii). Defining the term as “the measure of past literature by the ideas and moods of a narrow present” (xiii), he could just as well have used it to issue a warning to critics about the presentist hubris we display when we forget the Ecclesiastan wisdom: that there is nothing new under the sun. It is a critical imperative—or so it seems—to underscore our breaks with the past, to be, as it were, unprecedented. Ralph Waldo Emerson enjoined his generation to “enjoy an original relation to the universe” (Emerson 7), and Ezra Pound issued his modernist mandate in three words: “Make it new!” While I would not argue that the critical imperative to newness is uniquely American, the United States certainly has a history of such declarations.

Accustomed to a narrative of linear progress, I am thus humbled every time an occasion, such as an anniversary of a journal, prompts me to look back at some of the founding moments of my chosen field of study. I am of course reminded of the changes in critical terms, practices, and assumptions: Foerster would scarcely recognize the field he pioneered. But I am also surprised by what has persisted: the recurrent themes and debates about what constitutes “American literature,” about how and why it should be studied and taught, and about the relationship of the field to a “crisis in the humanities.” The self-conscious declarations of independence in the manifestos of a new field throw into relief both the changes in and persistence of the endeavor we continue—perhaps (still) tentatively—to label the study of “American literature.” I offer this meditation on two such founding moments against the provincialism of time. [End Page 63]

the origins of “american literature”

The first conference of early American literature scholars took place in the Palmer House of the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Chicago in 1965, against the backdrop of rising social unrest. The year 1966 witnessed the formation of the American Literature Section of the MLA out of the American Literature Group (ALG), which had been founded in 1921, in response to the relative absence of the field at the annual meetings of the MLA and in the pages of its journal, Publications of the Modern Language Association. While the idea of an “American literature” is inevitably bound up with national politics, these founding moments attest to the jaggedness of the connections between national and institutional politics. The manifestos on the study of American literature (including founding editorial statements), moreover, show how debates about the field concerned the nature of literary study more broadly, and they attest as much to persistence as to progress.

The idea of an “American literature,” expressed as a wish, followed closely on the emergence of the nation. Noah Webster was not alone in recognizing the role of cultural forms in defining an identity for the nascent political entity. Calling for an “America … as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms,” he sought at once to declare cultural independence from England and to unify a diverse group of people that had already formed themselves into discrete entities. Similar struggles are evident throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as self-proclaimed literary nationalists founded journals and published anthologies and literary histories designed to promote the expression of a national culture in arts and letters.

Universities sporadically offered classes in American literature from the early nineteenth century, but they appeared more consistently in the last decades of the century, when, as Michael Warner documents, the study of literature was just beginning to professionalize. Founded in 1883, the MLA represented the bid for legitimacy among professors of modern languages, with philology as their dominant approach (Warner 2). Barrett Wendell, who offered Harvard University’s earliest American literature classes, manifests the beginning of a shift in emphasis in his A Literary History of America...


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