- Historicizing the Contemporary:A Response to Amy Hungerford
Rarely has the case for revising the agenda for studying contemporary American literature been made as cogently as Amy Hungerford's meditation "On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary." She crystallizes several of the liabilities with which that practice has developed and points to historical grounds for the shifting of demarcations. Indeed, the definition of the contemporary as a historical subject has proven elusive. For 40 years or more, the postwar period was still going on, and until the fall of the Berlin Wall, one could not say for sure whether the postwar era was even over, leading various anthologies to describe the contemporary as post-1950, -1960, -1970, or even post-1980. It is one thing to say that with the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989, a new literary period solidified, a period simultaneously as coherent, malleable, and durable as, say, 1865–1914, but it is another to separate it from the work that goes on now.
To really get at the interest of Hungerford's vision, it is necessary to ask why the contemporary has been such a déclassé period among literary historians, why it is in need of the kind of critical resuscitation that the Post•45 collective augurs. My own view is that the contemporary has gotten dissed for so long and for so many bad reasons that practitioners of its study have created rationales misshapen by the very set of critical premises they might deplore.
Not a member of Hungerford's generation, I can still bear witness to the problems. In 1970, I could have taken—but did not—a year-long course in Contemporary American Fiction at the college that practically invented New Criticism, except the department there would not assign it majors' credit! (Which was not the reason I declined it.) At Kenyon College and I presume elsewhere, the thinking was, of course, that the contemporary was, in a word, too easy, since it did not pose the same sorts of problems of [End Page 420] interpretation as reading Troilus and Criseyde or Astrophel and Stella ostensibly did. Plus, as sentient citizens of the culture, English majors were presumed to face no great obstacle in picking up the interest and challenge (if there was one) of the contemporary on their own. Instead, the assumption went that once students got their mettle tested with Milton and Melville, they would be quite capable of distinguishing for themselves what is worthwhile and what is not in contemporary writing. Or, more sympathetically, the argument went that scholars and literary historians simply did not know yet what contemporary writing would prove interesting to the future and what was merely ephemeral, despite the enthusiasm with which critics of the day might regard it.
The problem with the first self-serving rationalization of an older literary history is that English majors and nonmajors were clueless; their years of reading the canon did not fit them for reading anything other than canonical work. (One way of tracing this is in the number of younger readers who point to Allen Ginsberg as their favorite contemporary poet—contemporary of whom? Not the students, nor even their teachers, but their teachers' teachers!) A still more pointed way of putting this is to say that literary academe failed miserably, almost completely, in the one extramural mission entrusted to it that it might have been able to sustain: the creation of a book-reading, book-buying public. Instead, academe disdained the assignment. Or, we redefined the subject so convolutedly that a contemporary fiction course, for example, became eight indecipherable novels and a Toni Morrison, books that virtually no one, besides the like-minded kids who were slated to go to grad school, would ever read, much less buy, on their own. In this sense, critics of the contemporary follow the example of Americanists from decades ago who first formulated a canon in response to their Brit Lit colleagues' complaint that if American literature was a subject at all, it was a pretty easy one. So our predecessors looked unhesitatingly to propound their case on the basis of the literature's complexity or its...