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APOCALYPSE THEN AND NOW: HISTORY,MYTH AND THE AMERICANIMAGINATION Robert Clark. History and Myth in American Fiction, /823-52. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984. x + 186 pp. Douglas Robinson. American Apocalypses: The Image of theEndof the World in American Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1985. xviii + 283 pp. Robert Adolph Hereare two more contenders, mostly focusing on the American Renaissance, gomgfor the knock-out, large-scale interpretation of major American fiction. The firstis a middleweight Marxist attempt to place the superstructure of the romances ofCooper, Hawthorne and Melville in proper relation to their base in whatever contemporarycapitalistic Yankee evils-imperialism, racism, class oppressioncometo hand, as revealed in current events. The second is a decidedly heavyweightsurvey of apocalypses in American fiction, fortified with its own very elaboratesuperstructure (not in the Marxist sense here) of high-powered contemporarycritical theory. The starting point of Robert Clark's History and Myth in American Fiction, 1823-52 (no rationale is offered for these dates) is that that seemingly apolitical genre,the romance of Cooper, Hawthorne and Melville, was actually a reflection of the primitive capitalist ideology of its time, with its attendant racist and imperialisticobsessions, as acted out in the political events of the day. When these authors'"described their works as romances they were reluctantly conceding to criticaldemands that their works be mere entertainments and therefore politically irrelevant,'' but ''a failure to understand their politics becomes a failure to understand their central literary significance'' (ix). The heroes of Romance are heroesof Ideology, that is, the system of thought of the Bad Guys in power to Justifytheir staying in power, except that in Romance the ideology is depoliticizedand becomes Myth, or rather mythic discourse, which is not the same 280 Robert Adolph as the ideological kind, but nonetheless serves its purposes, and indeed hasfooled almost all prior critics of the American Renaissance into thinking that Romance is only mythic and has none of the political content which is in fact its ''central literary significance.'' The first, and most obvious, difficulty that Clark must overcome is thatthe heroes of Romance, most notably the "white innocent" (12) like Deerslayer. Hester PI\ynne,Ishmael and Huckleberry Finn, seem to be quite alienatedfromthe very world around them whose ideology they presumably sustain. Clark answers this objection by showing that the romancers both undermine and upholdthe establishment at the same time by turning concrete political evils, such asthe banks and other capitalistic enterprises, into depoliticized abstractions like "Civilization '' from which their heroes light out for the ostensibly non-political territories of a perfectly regenerated world where the values of the true Amenca held by both the establishment and the romancers are to be found. How, exactly, are these inversions and depoliticizations accomplished? Clark tackles thisproblem (rather unconvincingly, to my mind) chiefly by unquestioning recourseto. first, Freudian theories of the dream, in which, like myth and Romance,the significance of everything in "real" (read "economic" or "political") life1s reversed; second, to Saussurean linguistics, which demonstrates how easily,in certain social contexts, signifiers float away from any real connection withtheir objective signifieds, and indeed become reified into signifieds themselves (thus real farmers become the ''sturdy yeomen'' of agrarian myth); and finally (intrue Marxist fashion) to the economic situation facing American writers of the period, in which nationalistic expression was the only way they could make a living, compelling them to disguise their criticism of the "real conditions" of American life, which of course (to a Marxist like Clark) were marked chiefly by injusticeand inequalities of all sorts. By opting for the shadowy, ambiguous twilight discourse of Romance, Cooper, Hawthorne and Melville attempted to undermine what Clark calls the language of Factualism or Common Sense based on Lockean empiricism and associated primarily with the Whiggish and right-wing Democratic world-view of the establishment and the Tocquevillean tyranny of the majority. Against all these, the romancers, all at least in certain moods left-wing Democrats, found themselves opposed. Clark reads the Leatherstocking novels. The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick as, in effect, examples of a sort of samizdat in which establishment discourse and thought are deconstructed through such characteristic devices common to both Romance and underground wntingas allegory and symbolism...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 279-286
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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