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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 901-903
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The story of the postnational turn in American studies is by now a familiar tale. A field once guided by its faith in the singularity of U.S. history has, by hook and crook, turned its critical energies against the ideals of exceptionalism [End Page 901] and mythic integrity that formerly provided its analytic foundations. Widely accepted in theory, the new postnational imperatives of American studies are still being translated into practice. At first glance, Paul Giles's contribution to this still evolving project—an examination of literary interactions between Britain and the United States—feels like something of a throwback. Since when did the so-called international theme in Henry James return to the self-proclaimed critical cutting edge? But this is precisely Giles's gambit: to take canonical scenes of literary nation building, often interpreted in circular fashion as evidence for the existence of the national identity they would adduce, and to read these scenes instead from a comparative angle of vision, defamiliarizing them by focusing upon their necessarily transatlantic entanglements.
The chapters in Virtual Americas don't exactly add up to an argument. Diverse in method, the book bounces its postnational presuppositions against an appealingly uneven ground of inquiry that encompasses matters ranging from Melville's asymmetrical reception in Britain and the United States, to Henry James's protosurrealism, to Lolita's allegorical connection with the founding documents of the American Studies Association. At its most incisive, this method can yield exciting results. The chapter on Frederick Douglass is hands-down the best in the book: it rereads Douglass's famous change of opinion on the U.S. Constitution and his coincident break with William Lloyd Garrison through his connection to British antislavery movements and, in particular, through his relationship with Julia Griffiths, who emigrated from England to manage the accounts of the North Star. This innovative approach to the paradox of Douglass's nationalism potentially reframes the entire conversation about this pivotal moment in his career—explaining, for instance, why Madison Washington, real-life slave rebel and hero of "The Heroic Slave" (1853), can only begin to embody the principles of the American Revolution when his feet touch British soil. Also of note is Giles's shrewd take on Robert Frost's Cold War poetry, which emphasizes the oracular technique through which Frost gave voice to the national public in whose name he spoke, marking in the process the boundary line between the enlightened national preserve and the unpredictable darkness at its margin.
There are limitations to Giles's nation-to-nation comparative approach, most evident at the level of the archive. It is strange to find a book so invested in the transatlantic diffusion of surrealism concentrating its energies on the unlikely candidates Henry James and Robert Frost without even mentioning the names of usual suspects like Aimé Césaire, Alejo Carpentier, and Wifredo Lam. Such omissions should be chalked up to the residual influence of the nationalist canons that Giles proposes to critique, an influence noticeable not only in his selection of texts but also occasionally in his analyses, as in the moment when he presumptively positions C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways (1953) on the American side of the perceived transatlantic divide in Melville studies. No doubt, it's difficult to locate someone like James when your [End Page 902] principal coordinates are "British" and "American." These issues are symptomatic of a larger problem with the book, namely its willingness to articulate itself almost exclusively in relation to an earlier formation of American studies without so much as referencing the histories of coincident fields such as black studies and ethnic studies, fields that, it should be noted, were transnational from their point of origin. Virtual Americas conveys its own postnational imperatives in a manner that unintentionally elides these competing intellectual genealogies, genealogies that should be absolutely essential...