- Comparative North American Studies: Transnational Approaches to American and Canadian Literature and Culture by Reingard M. Nischik
German critic Reingard Nischik has for much of her career concentrated on Canadian literature (2007, 2008) and especially Margaret Atwood (2000, 2009), and these interests converge in her Comparative North American Studies. In 2014, she edited a volume of diverse and illuminating essays on Canadian and American literature, The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature, and the volume under review here serves as a complement to it. As Nischik is at pains to acknowledge, North American Literary and Cultural Studies is a field very much in formation and not widely cultivated, especially in North America itself, ironically or otherwise. Indeed, it has been in Europe, and especially in Nischik’s own Germany and in Great Britain, that this continentalist orientation has been most apparent, rather than in the U.S. or Canada. (Germany probably has the highest concentration of academic North American Studies programs in the world, with representation at most major universities, for example, Freie Universität [Berlin], Humboldt [Berlin], lmu [Munich], Göttingen, Freiberg, Marburg, Cologne, Jena.) An important [End Page 127] impetus to the shaping of North American literary and cultural studies has been what she calls the “transnational turn” in American studies over the last couple of decades (1). At the same time, North American literary and cultural studies has marked an extension of the methods and interests of traditional comparative literature.
The opening chapter of the monograph summarizes developments in comparative North American studies, while chapters 2 and 3 investigate some comparative case studies in Canadian-American modernism and border literature, with emphasis on the short story in each instance. For reasons not entirely related to expediency, Nischik works here with a truncated view of North American studies, neglecting for the most part Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean but also Francophonic Canadian literature. (By contrast, The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature does consider Mexican and Québécois(e) work.) At the outset, she makes the valid, if standard, claim that “American” describes rather more than just phenomena related to the United States; at the same time, she acknowledges that “North America” is not regarded as a “cohesive unit” by many North Americans, including, I would suggest, most Canadian and U.S. writers and literary critics (10).
While there is something approaching national and international unanimity on the exceptional quality and rich thematic range of Canadian literature since the 1970s—call it, too reductively, Canadian postmodernism—estimations of Canadian modernism have been rather more varied. In chapter 2, Nischik challenges Robert Kroetsch’s well-known pronouncement in 1974 that “Canadian Literature evolved directly from Victorian to Postmodern,” claiming modernism to be an important period within Canadian literary history (quoted 29). The case she makes is at best uneven. She offers comparative readings of short works by Hemingway and Morley Callaghan, and Sherwood Anderson and Raymond Knister. In each instance, her interpretations—mutual illumination (rather than influence) studies, really—are straightforward and unsurprising, linking modernist elements within each pair of writers, although the section on Hemingway-Callaghan covers familiar ground and demonstrates the difficulty of saying more about their relationship, and certainly about Hemingway’s much studied “Cat in the Rain,” than has already been said. Chapter 3 offers some of the most cogent exegesis in book, focusing as it does on borders and “liminal spaces” as depicted in a series of highly affecting short stories by an interesting range of writers, including, among others, Tim O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas King, and Alice Munro. [End Page 128]
The second half of the study is devoted to Margaret Atwood, Nischik’s candidate for the prototypical North American writer, an informed choice in many ways. Nischik explores here representations of Canadian–U.S. relations and popular culture—an exercise she terms, somewhat ponderously, “imagological”—with emphasis on Atwood’s essays, novels (briefly), and comics. Insightfully, Nischik identifies focal shifts in Atwood’s ideological evolution, as Atwood moves from...