- Where in the World Is US Literature?
Where is US literature relative to "the world"? How do Americanists understand "the world"? How does shifting our understanding of "the world" transform the study of US literary history? Or, does simply posing the question of US literature and the world imply a dissolution of the field? Are operative concepts of the "Americanness" of American literature rendered obsolete once the question of "the world" is posed?
There was a time when such questions belonged to American studies. That time has passed. On the occasion of the death of one of the most eminent and earliest practitioners of the field, Harvard literature professor Daniel Aaron, the historian Richard Pells argued that the defining mission of American studies during the period of its foundation—"to explain America to the world"—was destroyed by New Left populism. Pells bemoaned the rise of specialization and the splintering of American studies. Even for those more sympathetic than Pells to the multiethnic approaches that now preoccupy the discipline, the 1980s-era shift has signaled a retreat from the problem of "the world" as it had previously been posed.
In recent years, however, "the world" has reemerged in studies of contemporary US literature, especially in discussions of the novel. Many such projects are informed by debates in comparative literature, a field in which wrestling with received canons of "world literature" and shattering a default Eurocentrism remains an ongoing project of considerable urgency and difficulty. A major voice in redefining comparative literature is Gayatri Spivak, whose masterful essay "Rethinking Comparativism" proposes a comparativist project with a "worldly future"; this approach makes "lingual memory" and [End Page 379]the "irreducibility of idiom" central objects of inquiry. Spivak treats the close examination of linguistic particulars as the genealogical remnant of comparatists' 1960s-era interest in archetypes or traveling topoi, and she urges a close consideration of translingual effects, a project that necessarily also tackles "the task of undoing historical injustice toward languages associated with peoples who were not successfully competitive within capitalism—with the added proviso that these languages attempt to establish an interconnection among themselves through our disciplinary and institutional help" (613). Spivak's worldly comparative literature, in short, attends to both the micrological level of idiom, as it were, and the macrological reign of capital, largely bypassing the "nation-centered and culture-centered frontiers of the United Nations" (614). Since a national culture model often organizes US literary studies, Spivak's approach to worldliness entails a major shift for Americanists.
The most resolutely Spivakian transformation of US literary history might consist of the close reading of a specifically American idiom within English in tandem with an examination of distinctively American formulations of multilingualism. Some impressive studies of this sort already exist; one thinks immediately of Werner Sollors's edited volume Multilingual America(1998), Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch'ien's remarkable Weird English(2004), or Matthew Hart's Nations of Nothing But Poetry(2010). It would be exciting to see even more work considering US writing in the context of world Englishes. This promising line of inquiry is not the place, however, where the encounter between "America" and "the world" most often occurs in the US academy.
Instead, four other approaches prevail—each involving a particular interpretive practice and displaying its own limitations. As Spivak urges, all of these approaches displace national culture as an object of analysis, but I contend that it is necessary to change the conversation still more assertively if contemporary problems arising at the juncture of the US and the world are to be addressed. After surveying the reigning positions, I offer one suggestion for making such a change.
The first approach to reading US literature relative to the world understands this literature as a form of domination. In...