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Impure Worlds

The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel

Jonathan Arac

Publication Year: 2010

This book records a major critic's three decades of thinking about the connection between literature and the conditions of people's lives-that is, politics. A preference for impurity and a search for how to analyze and explain it are guiding threads in this book as its chapters pursue the complex entanglements of culture,politics, and society from which great literature arises. At its core is the nineteenth-century novel, but it addresses a broader range of writers as well, in a textured, contoured, discontinuous history.The chapters stand out for a rare combination. They practice both an intensive close reading that does not demand unity as its goal and an attention to literature as a social institution, a source of values that are often created in its later reception rather than given at the outset. When addressing canonical writers-Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Keats, Melville, George Eliot, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Ralph Ellison-the author never forgets that many of their texts, even Shakespeare's plays, were in their own time judged to be popular, commercial, minor, or even trashy. In drawing on these works as resources in politically charged arguments about value, the author pays close attention to the processes of posterity that validated these authors' greatness.Among those processes of posterity are the responses of other writers. In making their choices of style, subject, genre, and form, writers both draw from and differ from other writers of the past and of their own times. The critical thinking about other literature through which many great works construct their inventiveness reveals that criticism is not just a minor, secondary practice, segregated from the primary work of creativity.Participating in as well as analyzing that work of critical creativity, this volume is rich with important insights for all readers and teachers of literature.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xiv

The year 1968 dramatically conjoined culture and politics in Paris, Prague, Mexico City, and many other parts of the world. In my own life as a student, the year framed my first encounter with two great critics, one on the page, one in person, whose work continues to provoke and sustain my thinking...

I. Politics and the Canon

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1. The Impact of Shakespeare: Goethe to Melville

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pp. 3-23

This chapter was composed for a standard reference work, so it fulfills obligations to facts and coverage, but it also enacts a generic impurity. It generates new thinking by developing an argument and the claims that undergird this book. I argue that literary history operates discontinuously, by what I...

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2. The Media of Sublimity: Johnson and Lambon King Lear

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pp. 24-33

In dismissing the nineteenth century’s ‘‘semi-ethical criterion of ‘sublimity,’ ’’ T. S. Eliot in 1919 banished the sublime from the canonical discourse of literary modernism. Starting in the early 1970s, however, following the work of Harold Bloom, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Weiskel, the sublime...

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3. Hamlet, Little Dorrit, and the History of Character

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pp. 34-46

The upshot of the theory movement, contrary to what many have understood, pointed toward finding what it will take to forge a new literary history. From Fredric Jameson’s slogan, ‘‘always historicize,’’ to Michel Foucault’s genealogies, to the critiques of traditional (teleological, periodizing...

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4. The Struggle for the Cultural Heritage: Christina Stead Refunctions Charles Dickens and Mark Twain

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pp. 47-61

The received cultural values with which we academic literary intellectuals most closely involve ourselves are the values of the ‘‘cultural treasures,’’ the canonized masterpieces, for which we serve our students as intermediaries.1 In the years between the first and the second world wars, the established canon and its transmission faced strenuous challenge and probing discussion...

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5. The Birth of Huck’s Nation

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pp. 62-76

My book ‘‘Huckleberry Finn’’ as Idol and Target was written to challenge dominant commonplaces of American literary study and education.1 This chapter arose from an invitation to develop the book’s perspectives for an international interdisciplinary discussion concerning the relationships between...

II. Language and Reality in the Age of the Novel

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6. Narrative Form and Social Sense in Bleak House and The French Revolution

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pp. 79-93

Juxtaposing The French Revolution (1837) and Bleak House (1852–53) allows us to define why Charles Dickens at his best can feel like Thomas Carlyle, and to describe the literary mode that history and the novel share in Victorian writing. Although Dickens wanted to have ‘‘Carlyle above all’’ present...

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7. Rhetoric and Realism: Hyperbolein The Mill on the Floss

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pp. 94-110

My title does not signal a contrast between rhetoric taken as empty and deceitful words and realism taken as the novelist’s attempt to present life ‘‘as it really was.’’ Rather, it suggests the cooperation of rhetorical self-consciousness in making the modern Western tradition of prose fiction. The...

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8. Rhetoric and Realism; or, Marxism, Deconstruction, and Madame Bovary

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pp. 111-124

The terms of my title suggest certain kinds of questions that are asked nowadays by serious critics of novels. These questions were not asked, or considered serious, in America when the premises of New Criticism still dominated the agenda, not even by critics like Harry Levin or Lionel Trilling...

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9. Baudelaire’s Impure Transfers: Allegory, Translation, Prostitution, Correspondence

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pp. 125-154

Charles Baudelaire lived in a world even more aware than our own of rapid transformations in every aspect of life. The very term ‘‘modernity,’’ which figures importantly in his writings, only came into the French language during his youth. By the time he published Les fleurs du mal, in 1857, he had...

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10. Huckleberry Finn without Polemic

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pp. 155-168

Everyone thinks they remember the story, but the voice is what really lingers. Huckleberry Finn, the preteen boy who narrates the novel, and his companion, Jim, a runaway slave, are floating on a raft down the Mississippi in the American South of the 1840s. Jim is in danger of being captured and...


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pp. 169-194


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pp. 195-210

E-ISBN-13: 9780823248940
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823231782
Print-ISBN-10: 082323178X

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 708566791
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Impure Worlds

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Subject Headings

  • Fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Politics and literature -- History -- 19th century.
  • Literature and society -- History -- 19th century.
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