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American Quarterly 55.3 (2003) 507-513
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Rediscovering Literature in a World of Texts
Susan M. Ryan
University of Louisville
MYRA JEHLEN'S READINGS AT THE EDGE OF LITERATURE TAKES UP AQUESTION THAT all who work in English departments (or who, whatever their institutional placement, treat belletristic texts in their scholarly writing) would do well to consider: Why return to literature? That is, now that the boundary between literature and history has been notably blurred, if not eroded, in academic discourse, such that all manner of texts are made to speak to one another, to inhabit the same intellectual terrain, why restore literature's exceptionalism? What can literature do—or what can we do with it—if we attend, once again, to its distinctness?
This book's defense of the literary rests on the premise that, as Jehlen puts it, "form is the essence of literature" (5). Form in this account is not divorced from content (or history or politics) but is instead "an embodiment of ideas, attitudes, and emotions," the means by which an author expresses an understanding of or reorganizes a real-life problem (5). This "formal unfolding of knowledge" is, for Jehlen, especially complex in American literature, whose authors engage a troubling set of contradictions; among those she foregrounds are Twain's impulse to question racial hierarchies but then retreat into their reassurances and Franklin's attempt to balance the attractions of "infinite ambition" with the imperatives of modesty (6, 8). What interests Jehlen particularly is literature's engagement with its own limits, its artful attempts to [End Page 507] express the inexpressible. These moments, at which the unsayable is somehow said, mark the "edge of literature" invoked in Jehlen's title.
The provocative claim toward which all this is tending is that literature's relevance—indeed, its very survival as a culturally and intellectually meaningful category—depends on the presence of a material history, a space outside of textuality. Jehlen asserts that history's linguistic turn—that is, the movement toward a historiography that emphasizes discourse rather than external events—threatens literary study more than it does historical inquiry, a claim that some traditional historians would no doubt dispute. The "edge of literature" takes on a second meaning here, insofar as the boundary in question depends on the presence of a material reality against which it presses and on which it comments. By recuperating a history that is not (just) textual, Jehlen argues, we can restore to the study of literature its most potent critical tool: the analysis of how ("by what means and to what ends") literary texts transform "the real" (10).
Jehlen's ninth and tenth chapters usefully clarify her dispute with recent historiography—so much so that I found myself wishing they had appeared earlier in the book, prior to the literary readings that rely on the conception of history being worked out here. The first of these, "History before the Fact: The Underdetermined John Smith," meditates on the ways in which revisionist discursive history, in its emphasis on the unreliability of all colonial narratives, can collapse into a different, but no less limiting, version of certainty. When historiography's "material referents" drop from view and its skepticism with regard to written sources transforms into the conviction that all accounts by Europeans, which constitute nearly all extant accounts, are false, then the work comes to operate only within its own logic, without answering to any responsible notion of history (169). Against this narrowing of possibilities, Jehlen offers a reading of Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia—or, more precisely, of an episode in that history, the coronation of Chief Powhatan—that attends to the openness of his narrative. Borrowing from Bruno Latour's work in the history of science, Jehlen writes that Smith is "represent[ing] history before the fact," an "underdetermined" history that, like Latour's notion of "science in the making," is "uncertain, apparently redundant, and contingent" (176). 1...