- New England beyond Criticism: In Defense of America’s First Literature by Elisa New
Elisa New’s office at 12 Quincy Street, home of Harvard’s Department of English, lies just a “few steps” away from the Faculty Club at 20 Quincy. This might not seem cause for lyrical reflection, but 20 Quincy was the site of a home where the James family lived from 1866 to 1881, and New finds it “a source of constant pleasure to remind myself that 12 and 20 Quincy still stand together” (227). Though “the Yard had a more rural aspect in the days of the Jameses,” she observes, “the view from my building is otherwise much as it was in the 1870s, with little paths leading then, as they do today, from outside the campus in, and the in-and-out flow of foot traffic weaving Cambridge into the rhythms of the University” (227). In her recent book, New’s historical imagination allows her to share this and other pleasures of proximity with readers who marvel at the work of great New England writers, from William Bradford to Susan Howe, but whose places and prospects might be more remote from their objects of study and admiration.
New England beyond Criticism: In Defense of America’s First Literature might seem a curious title for such a generous project, but it likely derives from the book’s status as an entry in Wiley-Blackwell’s Manifestos series. The publisher’s version of the genre differs from those of Karl Marx and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, as does New’s. A manifesto, she insists, must be “a work of conviction and of emancipated passion. A manifesto must be ready to hazard drama, to suspend critical disbelief, to demonstrate, testify, and sometimes to marvel” (12). This definition explains how a series of exuberant but polite essays on familiar authors might constitute a manifesto. New seems aware of the stretch, but in her introduction, she gamely presents both title and subtitle as “provocations,” issuing an urgent call to reassess the place of New England literature in the current critical landscape and to challenge the protocols of professional literary criticism.
New focuses on issues of prestige when explaining why New England literature needs defending. The homes of historic writers may bustle with [End Page 928] tourists, but New England’s “prestige … in professional literary circles at least, has never been lower” (1). In the last half century, she argues, revisionist critics mounted a successful campaign of “unseating” New England as “the capital of American literary culture” (1–2). Armed with “ideological construction” as a “catchall phrase,” they sought to demystify “how New England’s special prestige had been constructed; by whom; and to what ends” (2, 3). Perry Miller and F. O. Matthiessen are only the best-known Harvard faculty who established a canon of New England works as the founding and enduringly excellent texts of a self-evidently American literary tradition, but these most formidable of critics and their canon have been put “in their place” (6).
In “defense” of this tradition, New points out that these revisionists wielded their own weapon of “prestige”: the “rarely questioned prestige of the very term ‘critical’” (7). As professional academic protocol, “the critical” is itself a kind of defense by which we gird ourselves against “enthusiasms too flighty (aesthetic or pedagogical, institutional or political) and from apprehensions amateurish or personal.” The “prestige of the critical certainly does not require us to cauterize all the surplus feeling that literary texts might evoke,” but in its readiness to “vet and correct,” its privileging of an aura of “probity and care,” professional literary criticism seals itself off from a “large and engaged” public of readers who freely (not naively) cherish a set of New England works and authors as the American literary tradition.
In framing her book as a “work of advocacy,” New overstates these premises (12). Ideological criticism and Atlanticism have less “unseated” New England than made it right-sized (arguably, it retains pride of place). She even approves of...