- An American Bakhtin:Jonathan Arac, or, the Vocation of the Critic in the Age of the Novel
In his Preface to Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel (2011), Jonathan Arac reflects upon his more than forty year career as a literary scholar, critic, and historian, tying his own multifaceted project to the inspiring figures of Walter Benjamin and Edward Said, “two exiles, the Jew and the Arab,” whose critical thinking had fueled Arac’s scholarship. Arac refers especially to his personal experience, first as a university student, then as a professor, but in naming these two thinkers—two radically different, yet somehow mutually resonating cultural critics—Arac also registers the degree to which mixed, hybrid, or indeed “impure” strains of critical inquiry contribute to his own distinctive work. As Arac puts it, the phrase impure worlds “names a zone of inquiry and resource that has shaped my thought for a long time” (Arac 2011, vii). Indeed, one might go so far as to say that “purity,” in literature, culture, and society, is inimical to criticism, inasmuch as literature, a social institution, necessarily reflects and gives form to the heterogeneous elements that make up social experience in a distinct time and place. Benjamin’s kaleidoscopic analysis of the Paris arcades and Said’s contrapuntal, secular criticism offer examples of this critical vocation in practice.1 So does Arac’s new literary history of the age of the novel, an era in which that form’s heteroglossia and multiformalism, as Mikhail Bakhtin explored so evocatively, approximates the transformative diversity of the societies and cultures in which it is produced.2
With Arac, this commitment to “impurity” underwrites a methodological imperative as well, as he has consistently sought to trouble disciplinary distinctions, making connections between previously separate phenomena [End Page 411] and finding hidden affiliations among apparently unrelated writers and texts. It would be difficult to characterize Arac’s body of work, given the sort of professional, disciplinary, or subdisciplinary labels available to us. To be sure, Arac is an Americanist, particularly with respect to nineteenth-century American literature, and he has written influential articles and books on Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, and others. His book-length study of narrative forms in the nineteenth century United States, which appeared in the monumental Cambridge History of American Literature project edited by Sacvan Bercovitch and was later made available in book-form as The Emergence of American Literary Narrative, 1820–1860, confirms his status as one of the most prominent scholars of this period, place, and genre.3 Arac’s magnificent study of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as I will discuss at greater length below, is a powerful enquiry into the cultural value of a literary masterpiece in the twentieth century, as well as a sobering reflection on the role of literary criticism in national political discourse.4 In such works he has produced innovative readings and alternative histories of well-known texts, but he has also called into question the premises, methods, and practices of American literary studies as a whole, making Arac at once a leading Americanist and a leading critic of American Studies. Arac’s as yet forthcoming book, Against Americanistics, will undoubtedly serve as a critique of the all-too-national disciplinary field which imagines American literature by and for Americans, without paying sufficient attention to comparative, international, transnational, and postnational cultural practices.5 In “messing with American exceptionalism,” as he has promised, Arac’s revisionary approach opens up the literature of the United States to a more properly comparative literature, which may finally release the writers and texts under consideration from their long-term indentured servitude to a nationalist cultural program.6
Although Arac is an unquestionably influential scholar of American literature, he is also a scholar of British romanticism and Victorian literature, as well as the periods or genres of realism and modernism. Arac has, through a number of essays, made significant contributions to the study of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, and Carlyle, not to mention George Eliot and later writers. Were he inclined to remain in that particular geopolitical and literary historical zone, Arac would likely be...