- American Literature as World Literature ed. by Jeffrey R. Di Leo
American Literature as World Literature is a dynamic anthology with thirteen essays that push beyond traditional comparative literature geographies and genres to ask how American literature is uniquely worldly.
Di Leo’s lucid introduction to the volume articulates some stakes and complications implicit in its aim. Because of America’s trans-imperial literary roots—and even the transcontinental nature of the term “American”— American literature is obstinately resistant to simplistic, progressivist grand narratives and uniquely ripe for rethinking as world literature. The result is a refreshing departure from conventional Eurocentric models of comparative literature, bolstered by the volume’s varied disciplinary perspectives—from English to comparative literature to philosophy. This shift from the center dovetails with changes that the Bloomsbury world literature series is undergoing more broadly. While the series previously focused primarily on established European literatures and genres, Di Leo’s American Literature volume was closely followed last year by an anthology on Brazilian literature, and the forthcoming iteration will investigate modern Indian literature.
Reading American literature as a world literature means expanding the American canon along two different axes in Di Leo’s framing: first, it means examining the broad, entangled linguistic and imperial legacies that have coalesced to form the nation. More unexpectedly, it also involves a radical expansion in the literary objects that merit study, following the recent work of Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Scholars in this volume consider television series alongside political novels, and physical objects alongside textual ones. These new geographies and objects fall in line with the position Di Leo stakes for the volume within a touchstone division between Pascale Casanova’s [End Page 421] “world republic of letters” and the opposing theories in Wai Chee Dimock’s recent anthology of American literature. While Casanova’s republic requires literary texts to gain favor in established world centers of culture—usually Paris—Di Leo aims to align this volume instead with Dimock’s vision of “networked” world literature that emerges not from hierarchical centers but from tangential departures from the existing corpus (10).
The anthology’s first section on “World, Worldings, Worldliness” delves directly into this tension between national canons and new world networks. Throughout the section, the impetus to reexamine and expand the canon often paradoxically means bolstering the corpus on particular canonical authors who merit reexamination. In the case of the first essay by Paul Giles, this opening to world networks occurs against the explicit will of the author himself: despite Henry James’s skepticism of “global” perspectives, Giles examines his transcontinental correspondence with Samoa-era Robert Louis Stevenson to illuminate the global conceptions within James’s work and argue for an ambiguity and doubleness in reading it as a world literature. Lawrence Buell’s essay is the most pertinent to the notions of representational “worlding” that were famously deployed in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s postcolonial theory and have recently become useful for new materialists. His essay draws out the conditions and qualifications that render the haiku and Whitmanian “catalogue rhetoric” as readily sharable and widely disseminated forms of environmental representation (56). Finally, Di Leo’s own contribution offers a bleak but trenchant reflection on the post-9/11 processes by which a new American fear-driven ignorance of the world arose simultaneously with the impossibility of studying American literature in isolation from the globe.
Part 2 goes a long way toward instating nontraditional literary objects as key to understanding “Literature, Geopolitics, Globalization” in American cultural production. Essays by both Peter Hitchcock and Emily Apter use diverse forms of media to argue that the concept of cultural imperialism requires rethinking in this era of cultural institutional devolution. Together they touch on such territory as folk and country music, urban history, a Smithsonian literary exhibition, political TV serials, and literature new and old by Benjamin Disraeli, Anthony Trollope, Don DeLillo, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a similarly inventive generic reexamination of more typical literary objects, Christian Moraru’s essay describes the methods of “planet-writing...