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  • What Good Can Literary History Do?
  • Jonathan Arac (bio)

Literary history is good for different users in different ways. The readers that publishers may have in mind in commissioning projects, editors in accepting them, or authors in planning and writing them, include the student, the scholar, the nation, the world. I will eventually touch on all of these. I start by focusing on literary history within the professional circuits of literary study and conclude with thoughts concerning work that aims not to be primarily defined by field, discipline, or professional interest, even as it too addresses literary history.

In these reflections "literary history" will mean literary historiography, that is, writing about literary history by later scholars, not the work of primary producers. A crucial shaping tension in literary history spans the range from literary history as narrative to literary history as reference archive, history as story to history in the library. Related to this but not identical is the difference between organization by the encyclopedic principle of alphabet—the Oxford Companion model—and organization by chronology (which includes not only narrative but also the Oxford Annals model). The best-known institutional compromise negotiating this tension is the multi-author sequence of self-contained topics in chronological order.

Another fundamental tension within literary history involves the relationship between part and whole. Asked to name a major work of literary history, most of us would name avowedly partial works. We would likely name either studies limited to a specific period of time, such as Perry Miller's The New England Mind (1939, 1953), Cathy N. Davidson's Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (1986), F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), and Nina Baym's Woman's Fiction: A Guide [End Page 1] to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820–70 (1978); or else works with extended chronological range but limited to a specific theme, such as Annette Kolodny's The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (1975), Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964), Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), and Sacvan Bercovitch's The American Jeremiad (1978). Much of the criticism that American Renaissance has attracted in the last 25 years arises because its size and power make it seem total in its claims, but its prefatory remarks make clear that Matthiessen imagined no such thing. He understood his work as one among a range of possible histories. Fredric Jameson's slogan "always historicize!" (9) exercises such power because the claim of history urges us toward the unreachable totality, so that to invoke history is always to ask for more.

The tensions between part and whole also include such considerations as article versus book, which in turn engages the relation of journal to book. In less than 20 years, American Literary History has published far more pages than are contained in any existing history book, or even book series, on its topic. In the range of possible essays, some seem headed straight to the reference archive (the early issues of American Literature and New England Quarterly are full of such pieces), whereas others propose the story of a whole "new literary history" (to invoke the title of Ralph Cohen's immense intervention, a journal begun in 1969). Michel Foucault's "What Is an Author?" did not simply say that we should stop thinking about authors; it historicized what developments in experimental writing—by Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, Jorge Luis Borges, and the group known as Oulipo1—made it possible newly to conceive as the "author function" (125). I do not know why no one has taken up the challenge to write that history at length, which would not require accepting Foucault as gospel. The same may be said for Roland Barthes's "From Work to Text." More recently, Franco Moretti has written an essayistic manifesto for the study of world literature and has edited an immense collective undertaking that instantiates the character of his claims...


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