- Auto-Ethnography as Literary Critique
In Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment, Juliana Spahr asserts multiple times that the book should not be read as a scholarly monograph, pur et dur, but as “an autobiography about how my education told me that certain forms of literature were autonomous when they were not and how long it took me to realize this” (110). In her conclusion, she reasserts this position, writing that the text is an “auto-ethnographic project, an attempt to describe the way literature circulates in the very scenes in which I also circulate” (191). Read in this way, Spahr’s conversational tone and digressive flourishes embody an auto-ethnographic style, creating a space wherein she turns her subject matter, American literary nationalism, outward facing. The book thereby straddles the expectations of an ivory tower audience and the persistent call to render scholarship more accessible through the public humanities. Spahr is largely successful in creating an informal, stylistic atmosphere for this hybrid readership as she struggles with how literary autonomy seems to always be already infiltrated by nationalistic agendas that reach back into the global cold war and how the CIA influenced postcolonial (especially African) national literatures. Owing to this personal struggle for (and ultimate failure of) literary autonomy, Spahr’s text is pervaded by a tone of inevitability, which I suggest points to a certain US-pessimism, given the challenge to American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century. [End Page 582]
In response to how Spahr declares her positionality through auto-ethnography, my review will pull from my own expertise as a scholar of postcolonial African literature. This approach means I cannot speak as rigorously about how Spahr intervenes into American literary studies debates as much as I can speak to how she engages postcolonial studies. In this sense, my review will discuss how Spahr tracks literary autonomy through American Cold War cultural diplomacy, with special attention given to her discussion of African postcolonialism. This approach is designed to capture how Spahr’s argument is both enabled and hemmed in by the methodological reduction to an Americanist and anglophone context, despite her perspicacity with regard to reading literary nationalism abroad. Yet the push to read American literature as world literature is precisely the opening necessary to demonstrate how postcolonial studies is neither geographically nor conceptually “far away” from American studies―or vice versa. Through the analytic of the Cold War, Spahr demonstrates how these two seemingly disparate fields should increasingly be read side by side.
The main point Spahr returns to time and again throughout the book’s four chapters concerns literary autonomy, a topic about which she “became more and more of an absolutist” as she wrote Du Bois’s Telegram (17). Spahr asserts “that it is obviously impossible to have a totally autonomous literature, that literature always has commercial pressures, whether they come from the market or from patrons, that literature is so integral to nationalism that it almost always has some form of governmental support.” In each chapter, Spahr traces how she has grappled with literary autonomy during her own career, reading this politico-aesthetic struggle first through “literatures of resistance,” then “avant-garde modernism,” “movement literatures,” and finally the “national tradition.” Each chapter can thus be read as highlighting a piece of how Spahr uses auto- ethnography as literary critique.
In chapter 1 Spahr focuses on the multilingualism of American English, examining her own experience living in Hawai’i and teaching students who speak Hawai’i creole English, as well as how other American minority groups (Native, Korean, Chinese, Chicano) embed their alterity qua autonomy into a perceived monolingualism in order to subvert it. Chapter 2 turns to the interface between orality [End Page 583] and modernism by relying on Pascale Casanova’s theoretical framework in The World Republic of Letters (2004), again drawing from Spahr’s experience with Hawai’i creole to analyze canonical modernists such as Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot, with particular attention given to Stein’s Tender...