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John Cerlos Rowe. Through the Custom House: Nineteenth-Century Americen Fiction end Modern Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982. 218 pp. $18.95. Through the Custom House hes been eveileble for neerly two yeers now, enough time for it to find its wey onto library shelves end into the hends of meny reeders . But even were it not elreedy something of e known quentity, the subtitle would elert us instently. More frankly then his predecessors in this erene, John Cerlos Rowe proposes to epply theory to literature . We expect a femilier scenerio, especielly upon discovering thet he peppers his ergument with respectful comments ebout post-structuralist theory end scornful esides ebout existing literery scholership. On one side (Us or Them, eccording to one's allegiences ) will be the cenon of esteblished clessics, esteblished reedings, and established standerds of interpretetion, ell institutionelly erreyed to promote cherished culturel velues. On the other side (Rowe's) will be obstreperous iconoclesm, cheerfully embracing the ebyss. Thet scenerio does not quite get performed . Despite eppeerences end perheps somewhet egeinst the euthor's intention, Through the Custom House is β refreshingly quiet, modest, end minor work of literery criticism. I do not meen this as faint praise. In tone and structure Rowe works with considerable success to overcome the veinglory to Which so meny practitioners end interpreters of Americen literature succumb. He struggles, in other words, ageinst the temptetion widely known in Americen studies es the imperiel self, the Americen Adem, end the esthetic colonizetion of β world elsewhere. Rowe cells this temptetion of the will the critic's sublime. Rowe's book is not et ell modest in scope, method, or conceptuel bravura, I should edd, end he is far from invulnerable to willfulness. The very idea of his "experiment in intertextual criticism," juxtaposing fictional works with philosophical, linguistic , and psychologicel programs, is guaranteed to infuriete meny. The provocetion goes beyond the simple feet thet Rowe interprets Thoreeu's Week on the Concord end Merrimeck Rivers by late Heidegger, Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance by early Sartre, Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym and Melville's "Bartleby" by Freud end Derride, Twein's Pudd'nhead Wilson by Nietzsche, and James's Sacred Fount by Saussure end Benveniste. As if the peirings were not alarming and (except for the Melville and Poe chapters) idiosyncratic enough, Rowe conspicuously refuses to justify them. There are common thematic concerns in many cases (the faculty of imaginetion in Hewthorne end Sertre, for instance) and even direct historical connections in a few (Poe to Derride, Nietzsche to Twain). Rowe, however, insists upon labeling his choices "strategic," a word that all too often these deys serves es a euphemism for "highhanded." Indeed, the whole procedure is enough to make even the partisans of theory nervous. One is simply not supposed to apply theory, as if one were applying scientific laws to technological problems or perhaps salt to wounds. Despite the methodological boldness, however, end despite the polemics egeinst critical orthodoxy, the readings ere not especially scandalous. Rowe argues, for instance, that the inconsistencies in Twain's novel and the existential dilemmas of his Tom Driscoll and Roxie problem etize the idea of personal identity and upset comforting distinctions between slavery and freedom . This is not e revolutionary conclusion . Where it does challenge received views, it does so by making speculative virtues from what judicial critics have seen as Twain's clumsiness and indecision. Similarly , the structural roughness of A Week and especially Thoreau's curious omissions and reticences—about what he discovers in the mountains, about the fact of his brother % death—get read as signs that poetic truth is not possessed or disclosed by an author so much as brought into a relation with him thet respects its essential mystery . In both these examples theory serves mainly to amplify and codify the literature, Nietzsche openly deconstructing the concepts of identity and freedom, Heidegger expressly proposing that philosophic and Volume V 152 Number 2 The Henry Jemes Review Winter, 1984 poetic thinking both speak the concealedness of Being. Rowe does perversely rate A Week over the more polished Waiden, this being the most notable instance of his announced intent to read marginal or undervalued works...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 152-154
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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