Toward an Archaeology of American Modernism: Reconsidering Prestige and Popularity in the American Renaissance
- ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
- Washington State University
- Volume 49, Numbers 1-3, 2003 (Nos. 190-192 O.S.)
- pp. 161-177
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Toward an Archaeology of American Modernism: Reconsidering Prestige and Popularity in the American Renaissance DAVID M. BALL AMERICAN RENAISSANCE AS AMERICAN MODERNISM Is there a demonstrable link between the literatures of the American Renaissance and the inception of literary modernism ? Critical commonplaces describe the American scene as a theater of sweeping technological modernization without a corresponding cultural and imaginative shift, nurturing the economic will at the expense of the artistic and resigning to obscurity those artists not strong enough to exceed its horizon. According to these formulae, American contributors to literary modernism arrived late on the scene, well after the innovations of Flaubert and Baudelaire indicated one widely recognized starting point of the modernist tradition. Even recent scholarship that questions such assumptions and begins to probe the importance of American letters in modernist genealogies gives little attention to nineteenth-century American texts.1 Thus Michael Hoffman and Patrick Murphy, telling the conventional history of American modernism in one of the few collections of essays on the subject, underrate their own enterprise when they maintain that "one finds American modernism deeply implicated, although a bit belatedly, in what was happening elsewhere."21 contend that we can productively reassess the literature of the American RenaissanceÂ—not only the midcentury works of the five authors championed in F. O. ESQ \V.49\ 1ST-3RD QUARTERS \ 2003 161 Susan Warner, from the frontispiece to Anna B. Warner, Susan Warner ("Elizabeth Wetherell") (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, I909); and Herman Mehille, from Rodney Dewey's 1861 photograph. Melville portrait by permission of the Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF AMERICAN MODERNISM Matthiessen's seminal American Renaissance but also the popular literature of the eraÂ—by applying the critical vocabulary used to describe contemporaneous modernist developments across the Atlantic.3 Recognizing this simultaneity offers a compelling counternarrative to the received history of a modernist turn unique to continental literatureÂ—and provides a new approach to the rich, manifold literatures of mid-nineteenthcentury America.4 One of the most forceful theories about the rise of modernism has emerged in Andreas Huyssen's idea of the "great divide." What Huyssen means by this divide is the gulf modernist authors perceived between themselves as the bearers of "high art" and popularized fields of literary and artistic production , the growing trend toward mass culture in mid-nineteenth -century life. It is exactly this divide that has come under increasing scrutiny in reconsiderations of the American Renaissance: contemporary scholarship has begun to revalorize gendered, enslaved, and indigenous voices that earlier generations of critics largely neglected. Work remains to be done, however, relating the new discoveries in these recovered texts to the wealth of scholarship already centered in the American Renaissance canon. Examining the dialogic relationship between privileged texts and denigrated narrative traditions5Â— sentimentality, abolition, temperanceÂ—can help us better understand both popular and canonical contributions to American letters and how they may correspond to a transatlantic conception of modernism. Limitations of space allow me to explore only one of these connections: the proximity of Susan Warner's 1850 novel The Wide, Wide World and the discourse of sentimentality to Herman Melville's 1852 Pierre; or, The Ambiguities . 6 III THE RHETORIC OF FAILURE In order to establish these intertextual relays, I am proposing "failure" as a keyword employed by American Renaissance writers to negotiate the putative divide between "high" and "low" literature. For example, the critical binary of suc163 DAVID M. BALL cess and failure is central to Nathaniel Hawthorne's notorious critique of the literary tastes of his day: "America," he wrote in 1855Â» "is now wholly given over to a d-----d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trashÂ—and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed."7 Most critical attention has focused on Hawthorne's first gestureÂ—his vitriolic dismissal of popular sentimental literature by such women as Susan Warner and Maria Susanna CumminsÂ—while relatively little attention has been paid to his establishment of "success" as a category that literary endeavors must heretofore shun. Hawthorne here deploys a reversal of the conventional understanding of "failure" and "success" as...