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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 161
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Philip Fisher, Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 290 pp.
Taking aim at multiculturalists and identity-politicians, as well as at their conservative critics, Fisher suggestively brings assimilation back to center stage in the drama of American history—assimilation defined, not as the substitution of one culture for another, but as the "subtraction of culture" altogether. With its catchy generalizations, spare footnotes, and sparkling readings of selected postbellum and modern writers and artists—among others, Whitman and Twain, Eakins and Winslow, West and Hemingway—this volume offers itself as "a deliberately provocative, fresh account of American culture drawing on the idea of creative destruction." Fresh may be too strong a word, however, as Fisher argues that the matrix of American culture has always been its valorization of the new and obsolescent over the old but durable, of the future at the expense of the past, echoing countless theorists and historians of American culture from Emerson and Tocqueville through Boorstin and Handlin.
Michael P. Kramer chairs the English department at Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of Imagining Language in America and coeditor of the Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature.