The New Orthodoxy: Ideology and the Institution of American Literary History
Portland State University
I am not wise enough for a national criticism.- Emerson, “The Poet”
Ah! The old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them.- Beckett, “Endgame”
The failure of the recent series of articles in this space to provoke a lively response need not be a “cause of curiousity” as the editors of American Literature observe. The debate over the future shape of American literary studies has, so far, aroused less excitement than might be expected because it has offered so few surprises. Even as they take part in the general critique of the scholarly tradition that now seems to be in full swing in the profession at large, the debaters, despite their anti-establishment posture, have been transacting business as usual. In their very act of dissenting from the tradition of American literary scholarship, they are reenacting the most traditional- even obligatory- gesture in American letters. And that ritual questioning can only seem doubly conservative when, even before the questions are quite clear, official answers are already on the way from the Columbia and Cambridge University Presses.
My aim, in this short space, is simply to suggest that the revisionary forces poised to “reshape” the field actually represent a New Orthodoxy in American literary studies that is finally only a revised version of the old. As the variety of opinion offered in the works of its proponents- scholars like Paul Lauter, Annette Kolodny, Emory Elliott, Myra Jehlen, Jane Tompkins, and Sac-
American Literature, Volume 59, Number 4, December 1987. Copyright 1987 by the Duke University Press. CC 0002-9831/87/$1.50