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  • Rewriting the History of American Literature:An Interview with Gordon Hutner
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio) and Gordon Hutner

Gordon Hutner has worked to build a new literary history of the U.S. In 1989, he founded the journal American Literary History (ALH), and he has edited it since, turning it into a central forum in the field. In his own writing, he has called attention to the overriding majority of serious fiction that literary histories typically ignore, notably in his book What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 (2009).

Hutner’s first book, Secrets and Sympathy: Forms of Discourse in Hawthorne’s Novels (1988), surveys the novels of that canonical American author. Through the next decade, Hutner published several edited collections, including The American Literary History Reader (1995), drawn from the journal; American Literature, American Culture (1999), an anthology of two hundred years of American literary criticism; and National Imaginaries, American Identities: The Cultural Work of American Iconography (co-edited; 2000), also drawn from ALH. Alongside these, he has edited and introduced a number of works of American literature, including The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories by Abraham Cahan (1996); Immigrant Voices: Twenty-Four Narratives on Becoming American (1999); The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and The Gospel of Wealth (2006); and Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (2010).

Hutner attended Kenyon College (A.B., 1974) and the University of Virginia (Ph.D., 1982). At Virginia, he worked for six years as an editorial assistant on New Literary History, one of the first and most prominent of the new journals introducing literary theory to the United States during the 1970s and 80s. (Hutner recounts some of the lessons he learned from its long-time editor, Ralph Cohen, in a special issue of NLH, 39.4 [2009].) Hutner has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Kentucky, and University of Illinois-Champaign, where he is currently Professor of English.

This interview took place on 29 June 2012 in Gordon Hutner’s offices at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. It was conducted and [End Page 347] edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, Professor of English and of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Christopher Wike, a Ph.D. student in the Literary and Cultural Studies Program at Carnegie Mellon.

Jeffrey J. Williams:

You founded American Literary History in the late ’80s, which must have been a difficult time to found a journal. Since then, ALH has taken position as a prime journal in the field. Reflecting on your experience, how would you define the role of an editor?

Gordon Hutner:

I think the role of an editor is to be a broker, to try to bring forward and promote what she or he thinks of as the best examples of the most important new scholarship and criticism. My role is to weigh and give proportion to the work I see and that I’m learning about, and to bring it forward to our readers so that they can remain up to date with changes in the field, so that, when they move outside their immediate specialty, they can at least get an instructive sense of what others in nearby periods or methodologies are taking seriously.

Other editors will see it differently, especially if they’re endorsing a particular kind of criticism or they’re promoting a particular kind of methodology. That was never what ALH tried to do. We were labeled as a New Historicist journal when we came out, but I never thought that was particularly fair. If you go back and look at the very earliest issues, we were coming from a lot of different directions, although the New Historicism was probably the best of what was being produced at the time. The idea for the journal came up around 1987, and things were less settled then. People may have grown dissatisfied with deconstruction, but they hadn’t thrown it over; people were excited about Bakhtin, so there were other kinds of models besides New Historicism. But in American Studies, by around 1989, ’90, ’91, New Historicism prevailed as the leading methodology. It wasn’t the New Historicism of its earliest exemplars...