restricted access The End of American Literature
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The End of American Literature
Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Editor and Publisher (bio)

"It was not a street anymore but a world."

This is the opening line of Don DeLillo's 2007 novel, Falling Man, but it could also be the opening line of the new millennium.

Bruce Robbins says this sentence can be read as a description of "lower Manhattan in the chaotic minutes after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001." But so too, he continues, can it "also be read as a description of Falling Man itself, and perhaps of the contemporary American novel in general." "So read," resumes Robbins, "the sentence would suggest that the American novel has recently become more worldly, whether because of 9/11 or in response to larger causes that 9/11 stands in for."

While Robbins calls this proposition "gently self-congratulatory, hence open to doubt," still he says "there are also reasons for taking it seriously." And Robbins, and many other critics of late have taken this proposition very seriously. So seriously in fact that some contend that "American literature" would be more accurately phrased "American world literature."

Christian Moraru, for example, in a recent issue of ABR (36.5), argues that the phrase, "American world literature," "calls on us to listen carefully, in the phrase itself, for the rustle and rumors of worldliness in the US and vice versa." "Should we do so," says Moraru, "we might further wonder: Is this literature a worldly thematics, literature 'about the world' rather than about 'us' ('US'), about the 'American world'? Or, is American literature becoming a subset of world literature?"

While seeing the world on the street of lower Manhattan amidst the chaos of the World Trade Center attacks, and finding the world or "worldliness" in greater degrees in post 9/11 American fiction is one way to read the phrase "American world literature," it would not be the kind of change that occurred "on or about September 2001."

This change is not merely a shift to a more "worldly" (or global, international, cosmopolitan, transnational, and so on) thematic in American fiction, as each of these can be convincingly traced back to various works and authors in the history of the American novel, if not back to its very "invention" (to borrow the term used by Paul Giles). The change that occurred "on or about September 2001" is more substantial and the break with the past potentially more radical.

To view this change and see better its break with the past, one needs to go back not to New York City on September 11, 2001, but rather to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 31, 1837. For it was on this date that Ralph Waldo Emerson walked onto the stage of American life, declaring "[t]he world is nothing, the man is all." It was an entry that arguably set American literature on its non-worldly course.

Much like 2001, 1837 was not just any year in American history. Rather, it was, by some accounts, "the worst year the United States of America had ever experienced." "Society," writes Emerson in his journals in May of 1837, "has played out its last stake; it is checkmated. Young men have no hope. Adults stand like daylaborers idle in the streets. None calleth us to labor. The old wear no crown of warm light on their grey hairs. The present generation is bankrupt of principles & hope, as of property." This leaves Emerson to wonder aloud, "Is the world sick?"

By August of 1837, the month Emerson steps onto the stage of American life, says literary historian Larzer Ziff, "the price of cotton had fallen by almost one half; mobs had demonstrated repeatedly in the streets of New York and, in response to the inflated prices of food and fuel, had looted the city's flour warehouses; the major banks had suspended specie payments; and the sale of public lands in the West had fallen by some 82 percent." Add to this the fact that since 1790, the first year of the US census, the number of people in the United States subject to slavery was increasing by approximately 30% per year, with...