American Literature 71.4 (1999) 831-832
Are there distinctive, informing characteristics of “our” American literature? With the advent of multiculturalism, queer studies, and comparative work on the Americas, an effort at defining the “Americanness” of U.S. literature might seem a quaint relic of the past. In American Declarations, Bush bravely attempts to resurrect the question of Americanness. Drawing on the formulations of Northrop Frye, Bush argues that a dialectical tension between “freedom” (radical declarations of rebellion against “satanic” forms of oppression) and “concern” (conservative declarations of dependence on regenerated Christian community) informs what he terms “the underlying myth of America” (4). In part 1, “Building the Myth,” Bush analyzes “the general tension between myths of concern and myths of freedom” (29) in Hawthorne’s “Endicott and the Red Cross,” which emerges as Bush’s paradigmatic text. He then discusses similar tensions in David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, and other nineteenth-century writers. Though Bush is to be commended for a canonical revisionism that links writers as varied as Walker and Lincoln, one might question the value of understanding all of these writers as performing similar cultural work. David Walker, for example, seems to me rather ironic in his rearticulations of Jefferson’s “Declaration” and prepared to abandon the myth of the U.S. in favor of a black diasporan revolutionism.
In part 2, “Misreading the Myth,” Bush describes specific moments of “American Declaration” that (so he claims) have become mythologized as revolutionary occasions. Specifically, he discusses Emerson’s best-known essays of the 1830s, Twain’s notorious remarks on genteel Eastern culture at the 1877 seventieth birthday celebration for Whittier, Sinclair Lewis’s attack on U.S. provincialism in his 1930 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and Lionel Trilling’s reflections on the “terrifying” nature of Robert Frost’s poetry at Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday celebration in 1959. Bush provides nicely detailed accounts of these occasions and an especially interesting analysis of the ways in which JFK’s conservative reading of Frost is just as compelling as Trilling’s. But as in part 1, there’s a predictability to the argumentation, as Bush insists that all of the writers under consideration are “deeply conservative thinker[s] who maintained thoroughgoing allegiance to America’s myth of concern” (115–16).
Bush seems oddly unaware that a number of recent (new) historicist accounts of U.S. writers have tended to emphasize writers’ implications in dominant cultural ideologies and practices. In some ways what is most needed are convincing recuperations of radical and oppositional perspectives. Though Bush is to be applauded for his unfashionable effort to put religion at the center of U.S. cultural studies, his book would have been more persuasive had he critically interrogated (rather than simply taken as a given) the notion of “the American idea” (16) and had he more thoroughly engaged recent, post–Northrop Frye studies of U.S. literature and religion.
Robert S. Levine
University of Maryland