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  • On Foreign Grounds:Toward an Alternative US Literary History, Archive, Methodology
  • Peter Mallios (bio)

There is a certain irony in the tendency of the term transnational to draw attention to what it negates—that is, to the continued significance of the national.

Ulf Hannerz, Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places

There is more wool and flax in the fields.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

This essay argues for the importance of the question, "What is US 'American literature?"' and for a sharp break with predominant modes of answering it. It does so to introduce the Foreign Literatures in America (FLA) project, a new online, open-forum digital archive, inspired by, but not reducible to, an alternative approach to conceiving US "American literature." FLA is a multipartner endeavor, developed in conjunction with the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities (MITH), with funding from various sources and in consultation with the Library of Congress and faculty from universities worldwide. The project is a digital laboratory platform for the construction and use of archives concerning the [End Page 352] reception of non-US American authors and non-US-authored literary texts in the US. Below, I describe first the alternative conception of US literary history giving rise to the project. Its particular conjunction of global/transnational impulse and national framing follows one of many plural possibilities of reimagining literary history that may be realized through individual FLA archives. Then, I consider the enterprise in closer detail, attending to a) its implications for US literary studies, b) its value as a project emphasizing questions of reception, and c) the opportunities it offers for combining humanistic with computational and quantitative methods. FLA thus prompts and facilitates multiple tiers of questions concerning "American" literature, its conception and historicity, and fresh methodologies intertwined with its horizons of conceptual possibility.


The transnational turn in US literary studies has come significantly to define the field through certain forms of double consciousness. On the one hand are the familiar transatlantic, hemispheric, transpacific, ecological, geographical, temporal, and other transnational approaches, which have radically displaced the idea of the nation as an analytic frame. On the other, the continuing significance of the nation-state, both in any modern global calculus and as a factor in the constitution of domestically located local space, has renewed the intensity of the "national" and expanded its vantages, contexts, and tenacity of critical engagement. The field ever feels this twoness. It is predicated on a sense of dual citizenship (of the world in certain respects, and necessarily engaged with the nationstate in others) and characterized by gifts of second sight. The unreconciled and very real differences of the field's two constitutive poles rely for much of their value and inventiveness on the friction and counterpoint that runs between them.

Curiously, the category of US "American literature," or at least the mode in which its elements are genetically conceived, remains relatively stable. The various transnational approaches to US literary studies have pointed to but not succeeded in generally revolutionizing the fundamental premises of conceiving what US American literature is, however rich the alternative frames and contexts they yield. Transnationalisms often continue, or at least abet, a received mode of conceiving the literary domain of the national in a manner that undermines the usual productive tension that more generally defines the double consciousness of the field. This is why US "American literature" remains such a stubbornly, even maddeningly, intelligible category—on the job market, in conventional [End Page 353] departmental conversations, and across "American literature" anthologies and library series, notwithstanding significant differences in their selection principles. One finds the same pattern in recurrent idioms of US Americanist scholarship and book titles, and often in the very transnational criticism whose emphasis on extranational "flows" and "circulations" one might expect to prompt a mutation in the genetic coding (that is, contents, composition, construction) of US national literature in its own terms.

Traditional conceptions of US "American literature"—say, from Emerson to Alfred Kazin's On Native Grounds (1942) and through the governing inclusion principles of the Library of America—define their literary object and compass in terms of the US citizenship, or relatedly, the US nationality or proto-nationality of...


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