The Politics of Literary History
Because of the profound skepticism that has characterized the field of literary study over the past decade, perhaps the only appropriate response of those asked to write and edit a new literary history of the United States should have been to decline on theoretical, political, and philosophical grounds, and out of motives of self-preservation. The chances of provoking the ire of some leading theorists, feminists, and even Anglophiles who still insist that there is no American literature may simply outweigh any desire to provide students and general readers with a new tool for studying our national heritage. One cannot embark on such a project today without an awareness of the intellectual and professional risks involved in seeming to privilege a particular approach to literary interpretation, to define the canon of American literature, and to publish a large volume- written by many, but not all, of the leading scholars- which will appear by its very ambition and imprint to make some final and authoritative statement. The arguments of negative reviews are already formulated in the criticism of recent years. Why take such a risk? Surely not for financial remuneration or professional advancement, for which there are far wiser investments to be made. There must be some stronger inducement for over seventy busy critics to divert time from their own endeavors to assume such a disputable task. Perhaps attention is that, at bottom, scholars and critics are teachers.
A version of this paper was presented at a session of the American Studies Association meeting in San Diego, November, 1985.
American Literature, Volume 59, Number 2, May 1987. Copyright 1987 by The Duke University Press. CCC 0003-9831/87/$1.50