Invited to consider "the relation between early Americanist work and theory" and how this relationship "can inform studies in later periods," we considered two different projects. Taking "theory" in a universal sense, we could survey, categorize, and highlight the insights and innovations of the field. Such an approach—not unimportant—could usefully discern patterns and explore continuities and discontinuities with criticism from later periods. But an alternative project seemed more illuminating—namely, to consider the status of "theory" itself in relation to early American literary criticism. As we will argue, our "theory" is not quite that of other sub-disciplines, and it is this unusual formation that in part explains not only the isolation this roundtable has been organized to address, but also a sense of dispersal in the field itself. Two domains have seemed of particular importance. Our interdisciplinary situation, such as it is, is profoundly overdetermined by our (often muted, often repressed) relationship to the field of history. This unspoken apprenticeship in the guild of History has been compounded by our particularly odd form of canonicity—specifically a weak, late, and partial canonization, resulting in a counter-canonical impulse that diminishes our theorization of textuality. Both of these factors remind us that the renaissance of early American studies occurred at roughly the moment when "theory" triumphed in the literary curriculum, and as something commonly called "cultural studies" seemed gradually to take its place. A clearer assessment of this situation, we hope, may at least help us figure out what kinds of dialogue can occur with other literary scholars.
Michael Zuckerman has suggested that no subfield of US historiography has achieved the same level of prestige and institutional authority as early American history—a situation related in part to the US Bicentennial and its commercial aftermath. As early American literary studies experienced its renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, then, it did so alongside a parallel field of tremendous institutional prestige, strength, and influence. It was precisely this cachet that provided cover for historians to mount a series of progressive critiques of the most monumental domains—most notably novanglocentrism and the story of the Founding Fathers. The flourishing of scholarship on slavery, on women, on Native American life; the proposal of different transnational spatial paradigms turning attention to the south, west, and east; even the return, in the form of the republican synthesis, to the history of revolutionary political discourse, all provided salutary models and materials to literary critics. The result was a dual legacy for the literary junior partner. On the one hand, the professional logic of the discipline, encouraging new contexts and archives, became a model for the dispersed research projects of literary scholars, who embraced the program of challenging the very paradigms that had earlier seemed constricting. On the other hand, however, the republican synthesis articulated by Bernard Bailyn, Gordon S. Wood, J. G. A. Pocock, and others—largely discredited among historians by the 1990s—found new life as a readily assimilable critical framework focused on discourse.
The literary analysis of the eighteenth century, in particular, could pick up where the historians had left off, refining and complicating the account of republicanism. Presented by the synthesizers as a deep and lived ideological configuration, republicanism offered literary scholars an epistemic shift that could be revealed not only in official political discourse, but also in popular print media like newspapers, periodicals, and novels. This was not all. Republicanism, its variants and contraries, appeared everywhere: in the texts of narrowly specialized constituencies (e.g. doctors and midwives, educators, theologians, naturalists) and in the commonplace book, diaries, and private letters, reaching both the public and private spheres. Here, the traditional genres for literary analysis vied for attention with a seemingly endless web of material unlocked for study as discourse. Historiography thus simultaneously stimulated a practical model of canonical dispersal, while consolidating, in its synthetic strategies, an approach to texts compatible with various Foucauldian modes of ideological analysis. Historians may not have dictated what to study—on the contrary, they encouraged the search for new areas—but they occupied a firmly orthopedic position, whether assigning events and eras historical significance, providing the parameters for period synthesis, or setting the...