- French Contributions
French Americanists have devoted a good deal of critical attention over the past two years to the problem of canon formation and to the reception histories of American authors, especially Henry James's reception in Europe. Important studies have appeared on Transcendentalist writing and the visual arts in the decades before the Civil War and on Elizabeth Bishop's elusive poetry. French scholars also continue to exhibit interest in Southern writers, with a collection of articles devoted to such figures as Elizabeth Spencer, Kate Chopin, George Washington Cable, Ellen Glasgow, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Shirley Ann Grau. I have been particularly struck by the interest in multiethnic literatures, including slave narratives and Native American writing. The variety of critical approaches confirms the vitality of American Studies in France.
a. 19th-Century Literature and Visual Arts
A major work on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and the artists Frederic Edwin Church and William Bradford highlights recent French scholarship. While we might have assumed that little could be added to what we know about Transcendentalism, the essays collected in François Specq's Transcendence: Seekers and Seers (Higganum Hill, 2006) are nothing short of dazzling. The volume commands attention because it reassesses famous Transcendentalist masterpieces (Emerson's Essays and Thoreau's Walden) and because it introduces such comparatively [End Page 465] neglected works as Thoreau's "Chesuncook" and Melville's "The Piazza" and "The Encantadas." Specq contends that they deserve attention and that "re-entering the canon through the side doors might provide new insights" into the period.
The study is divided into four sections: "American Wilderness," "Thoreau and Emerson," "Melville," and "Visions of Empire." Specq has deliberately organized the volume to "decenter" readers familiar with the subject. "Frederic Church's America" juxtaposes the imaginary world of Church's paintings with Thoreau's world of experience. In "Thoreau's 'Chesuncook,' or Romantic Nature Imperiled: An American Jeremiad" Specq notes Thoreau's refusal to equate personal renewal with national regeneration. He devotes the second section of his study to extended analyses of Thoreau's nature writing and Emerson's literary ethics. In the third section, Specq ponders over Melville's later works, including The Piazza Tales and Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant (although, as he allows, the author of Moby-Dick did not share the idealism of Emerson and Thoreau). Specq concludes the collection with a meditation on American imperialism, "Quest for the Sublime and Rhetoric of Empire in Bradford's The Arctic Regions." Elsewhere, Specq analyzes the relationship between Walden as place and Walden as text in his thoughtful article "(Un)Framing the Mind: Where on Earth Is Walden?" (ESQ 52 : 319–38). He artfully contends that the purpose of Thoreau's book was not to describe or transcribe experience but to mediate between self and world, between space and place, and between writer and reader.
Nathaniel Hawthorne inspires one noteworthy article by a French scholar. In "Consuming Tragedy and 'the Little Cannibal' in The House of the Seven Gables" (ATQ 20: 481–47) Michèle Bonnet reads the romance through the lens of Kant's idealism.
b. Reading Practices, Theory, and Criticism
Some of the best work this year focused on the effort to assess the response to Henry James's subtle writing. The Reception of Henry James in Europe, ed. Annick Duperray (Continuum), collects 20 essays that document the ways James was translated, published, and reviewed on the continent, notably in France, Italy, and Germany. Some pieces are devoted to the cinematic and operatic adaptations of James's works. In her judicious introduction (pp. 1–14) Duperray describes the interest translators developed in James's novels, essays, travel writings, and letters before she summarizes the critical trends in the European response to "the master." Two of [End Page 466] the essays in the collection deal specifically with the response to James in France. In "The French Reception of Henry James" (pp. 15–35) Jean Bessière and Miceala Symington chronicle the French translations of James's fiction and its frequent comparison to the writings of Marcel Proust, Paul Bourget, and...