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  • A Response to Jonathan Arac
  • Jonathan Elmer (bio)

The twentieth anniversary of American Literary History invites both a retrospective view and an opening to the future, a sense of where we might be headed. Jonathan Arac has achieved this with characteristic elegance, offering us both a sketch of the past 20 years of literary scholarship against which the accomplishments of American Literary History can be measured, and some provocative observations that he leaves for others to take up. One focus of Arac's essay is the uncertain impact of the Cambridge History of American Literature (1994–2005), something he contrasts with the manifestly transformative role played by The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), and indeed of American Literary History itself. Such a contrast seems to imply that this past generation of literary scholarship has been less interested in interpretive syntheses, no matter how brilliant, than in renovated archives and local interventions. Arac reminds us to distinguish, when talking of "literary history," between literary historiography—the stuff of the Cambridge History—and the works of "primary producers." We cannot do without this distinction, it seems to me, but we should also acknowledge that the work of anthologists, like Paul Lauter and his team at Heath, trouble this distinction. As useful as the editors' headnotes are in The Heath Anthology, the impact of that work of literary scholarship on my teaching and writing has come more from the juxtapositions that the selections themselves bring to light, the implicit historiography involved in selecting some texts and leaving others out. The anthology constructed by Michael Warner and Myra Jehlen, The English Literatures of America, 1500–1800 (1996), embraces this function openly, exploiting the power of juxtaposition at all levels of its presentation.

The more one thinks about the distinction between history and historiography, between "primary producers" and "later [End Page 12] scholars," the more it looks like a twist in a braid rather than a separation into piles. After all, the "primary producers" themselves are often formidable historiographers in their own way, their works both participating in an ongoing literary eventfulness and commenting on that eventfulness; their "primary" presentations are at the same time after-the-fact representations of traditions that are summarized—faithfully or iconoclastically, as the case may be—by their works. I'm introducing "eventfulness" where we might expect "history" in order to follow through on Arac's important point that to talk about history implies a concept of the event: to talk about literary history implies a concept of "literary event." He asks how we might know when a "literary event ends." If we accept the idea that a literary event must comprise not only its moments of composition and publication, but also its reception by an audience, then it seems that there is in principle no end to a literary event. It is necessarily addressed beyond its present context, indeed beyond any empirically verifiable context, as Jacques Derrida argued long ago: "All writing, therefore, in order to be what it is, must be able to function in the radical absence of every determined addressee in general" (315). To the extent that a literary event is necessarily tied to this function of writing, in Derrida's sense, its coming-to-pass can never be fully inscribed in any temporal context.

The implications of this observation are literally beyond reckoning for anything we might call literary history, and thus also for the questions that seem most pressing to Arac, namely, what is literary history good for? (Which is also to ask, I take it, what good we, as literary historians, might be able to do in the world.) Arac suggests that a "major task for those who wish to compose innovative and timely literary history" will be confronting questions like this: "What do masterpieces have to do with a good life far more widely shared than it has been in any society that we know of?" It's a striking turn of phrase, a purposeful embrace of what may seem the suspicious, and certainly out-of-date, concepts of the "masterpiece" and the "good life." Walter Benjamin and Edward Said are Arac's guides at this moment, when he reminds...


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