- Themes, Topics, Criticism
One of two widely visible features of this year's scholarship is the engagement with some notion of the postmodern. Whereas American literary studies once nearly defined itself under the overlapping rubrics of modernity, modernization, and modernism, more and more now those terms have come to seem incomplete without a "post-" prefix. Not only does postmodernism continue to be used in characterizing the latest phase of culture, but it increasingly gets used to reinterpret the past in relation to this new sense of the present. To be sure, postmodern culture continues to be understood in confusingly various and possibly incompatible ways. But whether the emphasis is on new styles of representation, the positionality of knowledge, or the vicissitudes of late capitalism, some sense of postmodernity seems on its way to becoming an indispensable theme.
The other widely visible feature this year is the continuing influence of cultural studies, which has made itself felt particularly in enlarged ambitions for literary scholarship and a correspondingly formidable methodological challenge. Leaving aside internal debates within cultural studies—about how best to characterize group identities or to foster social and political change, for example—one unanimous aim of such work is to bridge the gap between interpreting texts, mainly but not exclusively literary, and making broad social and historical claims about life in these United States. The challenge is hardly a new one, but the discipline's last concerted attempt to meet it, during the cold war, now commands little respect. If studying the nation's constitutive myths, symbols, and images did once provide a respectable method of operation, so the argument now goes, it did so only by postulating a more or less coherent, singular American mind, which is the very subject position that contemporary critics are most loathe to celebrate or occupy. [End Page 439]
Abandoning the fiction of a unified national subject or an Emersonian Central Man has left literary studies without any widely sanctioned procedure for linking texts and contexts. At the moment, and by default, the typical method seems to be hopeful juxtaposition. Literary explication gets put alongside sociological and historical explanation in the hope that the two will chemically react, forming some genuinely new cognitive compound and not a mere mixture of methodologically incommensurate claims.
The methodological challenge is conspicuous in Elizabeth Young's Disarming the Nation, an ambitious study of how the Civil War influenced women writers and how they influenced our conceptions of the war. Young proposes that the literature of the Civil War has always seemed quintessentially masculine, a judgment she seeks to complicate or overthrow by examining the writings of white and black women from the 1850s to the 1930s. Yet her proposition about the war's literature is explicitly based on military and political writings, not literature in any narrower sense, so it is unclear how the one can revise the other. The writers she considers do not often directly address the masculinist and militaristic stereotypes that Young contests. Moreover, for a critic seeking to challenge nonliterary, often nontextual, images and ideologies, the Civil War may be a uniquely unpromising topic, for it is one war that poetry and fiction have notoriously neglected. As Young acknowledges, the classic studies of Daniel Aaron and Edmund Wilson anticipate her broadest conclusions: that the war was conspicuously disregarded by canonical male authors, but that it did get copiously represented in diaries, memoirs, and journalism, including many texts by women. Young provides detailed readings of a number of texts, some well-known but many obscure both now and in their own times. The readings are often ingenious, and Young isolates several important recurring themes. Codes of female politeness, for example, both thwart and enable women's intervention in otherwise masculine spheres. Yet the readings contribute little to a reinterpretation of the war's impact. Such fascinating but neglected writings as Mattie Jackson's autobiography can hardly be said to have shaped public understanding, except as an instance of what the public has egregiously overlooked.
Demonstrably more representative or influential works raise a different [End Page 440] challenge, one that Young is far from alone in facing. She examines Uncle Tom...