- Reading American Novels and Multicultural Aesthetics: Romancing the Postmodern Novel
While this study may help scholars outside the field of American multiethnic literature appreciate the diversity of this body of literature, Lou Freitas Caton’s Reading American Novels and Multicultural Aesthetics will ultimately be of greatest value to Romanticism scholars. Caton devotes the first half of his text to introducing his “broad argument for a post-metaphysics.” His “transcultural” dialectical criticism focuses on critical debates concerning aesthetics versus ideology and universalism versus ethnic specificity. With Samuel Coleridge’s “‘holistic’ theories [of] ‘unity in multeity’” (4) as a guide to his discussion, Caton asserts that cultural polarities in American literature, rather than being stultifying, can “[operate] as a vital dualistic exchange” that is akin to “romantic metaphysical thinking” (5). Caton believes his approach offers a “more integrative and larger perspective” (3) than has yet been achieved in American multi-ethnic literary criticism, though he admits that “the literary dexterity of sensing the exact dynamics of a romantic metaphysic within the rhetoric of multiculturalism do not reveal themselves easily” (5). This is, in many ways, demonstrated by Caton’s difficulty in productively drawing forth meaning from the texts via his universalizing method.
Caton strongly feels that in order to help broaden the teaching of ethnic literatures in college curricula, Romantic theories can “authorize the literature of various ethnic cultures to be appropriately taught by a nonmember of that culture” (28). He does not, however, explain why this approach is more useful for teachers than researching the cultural background and existing criticism of a text. Later in the book, Caton concedes that “no one disputes the logic that demands that a critic becomes familiar with the ethnic issues of a novel,” but he feels that the “ethnicity” should be “available to a nonmember of [the] ethnic group” portrayed in the novel. What is most important, asserts Caton, is the “much larger organic matrix,” or what he identifies as “the transhistorical . . . ‘human condition’” (105).
While Caton acknowledges that work like his that crosses “disciplines, cultures, and belief systems” can be perceived as contributing to “the problem of cultural appropriation, veiled postcolonial domination, and transgressive intellectual invasion” (28), much of his textual analyses nevertheless reflect his appropriation of the texts in service of his universalizing [End Page 228] theoretical approach. He does not provide a rationale for his choice of the five novels in his study—Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), Changrae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995), Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L. A. (1993), Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John (1985), and Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985). Consequently, their inclusion seems somewhat arbitrary, and suggests that they are chosen on the basis of being a representative text from a particular ethnic group that has received some critical attention.
The most problematic chapter is the first, on Silko’s Ceremony. While Caton has promised to “show how a Western reader can respectfully honor the diversity of another culture and still offer a viable nonethnic-specific literary interpretation,” he at times achieves the opposite effect, particularly in his apparent lack of appreciation for the contributions of indigenous critics. He charges that Native American literary critics have not adequately examined “diversity” nor “how the dynamics of similarity operates.” As a key example, Caton finds Paula Gunn Allen’s early study of indigenous American literature, The Sacred Hoop (1986), to be “hasty and ill-conceived” and decidedly “unhelpful,” as is “much Native American criticism” (101). Caton also feels that Silko’s novel “sometimes steers critics in the wrong direction” in terms of failing to elucidate the cultural tensions the protagonist, Tayo, is facing” (110), and that Silko herself fails to articulate how Tayo’s self-knowledge arises from the loss and restoration of his identity (115). Where Native American literary criticism cannot do the job, Caton then asserts, “it is in this lack that Coleridge can be of aid” (101); and where Silko falls short in explaining her character’s spiritual...