Reingard M. Nischik. Comparative North American Studies: Transnational Approaches to American and Canadian Literature and Culture.
German critic Reingard Nischik has for much of her career concentrated on Canadian literature (2007, 2008) and especially Margaret Atwood (2000, 2009), and these interests converge in her Comparative North American Studies. In 2014, she edited a volume of diverse and illuminating essays on Canadian and American literature, The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature, and the volume under review here serves as a complement to it. As Nischik is at pains to acknowledge, North American Literary and Cultural Studies is a field very much in formation and not widely cultivated, especially in North America itself, ironically or otherwise. Indeed, it has been in Europe, and especially in Nischik's own Germany and in Great Britain, that this continentalist orientation has been most apparent, rather than in the U.S. or Canada. (Germany probably has the highest concentration of academic North American Studies programs in the world, with representation at most major universities, for example, Freie Universitat [Berlin], Humboldt [Berlin], lmu [Munich], Gottingen, Freiberg, Marburg, Cologne, Jena.) An important impetus to the shaping of North American literary and cultural studies has been what she calls the "transnational turn" in American studies over the last couple of decades (1). At the same time, North American literary and cultural studies has marked an extension of the methods and interests of traditional comparative literature.
The opening chapter of the monograph summarizes developments in comparative North American studies, while chapters 2 and 3 investigate some comparative case studies in Canadian-American modernism and border literature, with emphasis on the short story in each instance. For reasons not entirely related to expediency, Nischik works here with a truncated view of North American studies, neglecting for the most part Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean but also Francophonic Canadian literature. (By contrast, The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature does consider Mexican and Quebecois(e) work.) At the outset, she makes the valid, if standard, claim that "American" describes rather more than just phenomena related to the United States; at the same time, she acknowledges that "North America" is not regarded as a "cohesive unit" by many North Americans, including, I would suggest, most Canadian and U.S. writers and literary critics (10).
While there is something approaching national and international unanimity on the exceptional quality and rich thematic range of Canadian literature since the 1970s--call it, too reductively, Canadian postmodernism--estimations of Canadian modernism have been rather more varied. In chapter 2, Nischik challenges Robert Kroetsch's well-known pronouncement in 1974 that "Canadian Literature evolved directly from Victorian to Postmodern," claiming modernism to be an important period within Canadian literary history (quoted 29). The case she makes is at best uneven. She offers comparative readings of short works by Hemingway and Morley Callaghan, and Sherwood Anderson and Raymond Knister. In each instance, her interpretations--mutual illumination (rather than influence) studies, really--are straightforward and unsurprising, linking modernist elements within each pair of writers, although the section on Hemingway-Callaghan covers familiar ground and demonstrates the difficulty of saying more about their relationship, and certainly about Hemingway's much studied "Cat in the Rain," than has already been said. Chapter 3 offers some of the most cogent exegesis in book, focusing as it does on borders and "liminal spaces" as depicted in a series of highly affecting short stories by an interesting range of writers, including, among others, Tim O'Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas King, and Alice Munro.
The second half of the study is devoted to Margaret Atwood, Nischik's candidate for the prototypical North American writer, an informed choice in many ways. Nischik explores here representations of Canadian-U.S. relations and popular culture--an exercise she terms, somewhat ponderously, "imagological"--with emphasis on Atwood's essays, novels (briefly), and comics. Insightfully, Nischik identifies focal shifts in Atwood's ideological evolution, as Atwood moves from early national and international stances to transnational and postnational phases in her later work. At fully a third of the core text, chapter 5 offers a highly detailed, well-researched reception study of two novels drawn from each of Atwood's early (late 1960s to mid-1980s) and middle (mid-1980s to 2000) periods. Attending to newspaper and other reviews of The Edible Woman (1969) and Surfacing (1972) and The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Alias Grace (1996), appearing in Canada and the U.S., Nischik develops an elementary but illuminating taxonomy of reception--reviews are positive, negative, or "neutral"-"impartial"--an examination that demonstrates that Atwood's reception in non-academic publications has been largely favourable, with The Handmaid's Tale, her most tendentiously "anti-American" and historically referential novel generating the most divided opinion, in Canada oddly rather than the U.S., given popular anti-American sentiment in that country during the Reagan 1980s. (The vast majority of American reviewers--over 90 percent--were favourably or neutrally disposed toward the novel.) Nischik concludes her study with an interview of Atwood on her perceptions of her popular reception; interestingly, and in contrast to Nischik's detailed study of the generally favourable treatment of Atwood's novels, Atwood herself perceives that same reception as less favourable than is empirically the case, although it should be noted that Atwood did not read the large corpus of reviews on which Nischik bases her conclusions. The interview concludes on a slightly curious note: echoing Carraway's estimation of Gatsby at the end of that novel, Nischik avers to Atwood that she "can be much superior to [her reviewers]. You [Atwood] are superior to them" (190). This seems a bit overly solicitous of Atwood's reputation, something that Atwood by no means seeks in the interview and to all appearances hardly needs.
Nischik suggests that comparative North American studies has found a more fulsome agency in Germany, and Europe broadly, because scholars from those places approach the field "with less hesitancy because of their more detached exo-perspective on the minefield of Canadian-US cultural relations" (25). I am not sure that scholars in North America are especially timid and regard the field as a "minefield." There may be other factors at play. Arguably, there is greater provincialism among Canadian and U.S. literary scholars, but I think there is little perceived need for a specifically North American cultural consciousness that would lead a large number of scholars to foreground a comparative continentalist perspective. On the other hand, Europeans' preoccupation with continental identities is understandable. The ongoing postwar "European project" of political and economic integration is the result of efforts to dismantle age-old nationalistic and regional urgencies and fears in favour of a more pacific and economically productive approach to its own continental relations. Further, of course, population compression and magnitude and mobility have also contributed to a stronger sense of European continental identity than in North America or indeed anywhere in the world, with the obvious anomaly of Australia. Europe's evolving continentalist emphases are quite simply the exception globally.
The much-vaunted "world's longest undefended border" between Canada and the U.S. serves as a metonymic reminder that fewer political and cultural pressures exist within North America for continentalist perspectives--major trade agreements like the Auto Pact and nafta and other functional co-operative measures across various domains duly noted. That said, North American literary and cultural studies is clearly an emergent field of promise and is one in which European scholars are doing groundbreaking work. So, whither North American studies? As a Canadianist, Nischik understandably foregrounds the literature of her specialization, although this does give a certain one-sided emphasis to her overall project. I would note in conclusion, as an Americanist, that a number of contemporary American writers have indeed engaged border themes, broader cross-national issues, and, even, the very cultural, historical construction of the continent itself. One might cite, for example, various fictions of the peripatetic Richard Ford that make intermittent references to Canada--a country that he evidently likes and respects, especially its national health care system--but notably a recent novel, Canada (2012), set in the Canadian-U.S. West, which calls out for a continentalist reading. Further, the shifting geographies explored by Canadian-born, American-bred Annie Proulx in her rich oeuvre of novels and short stories have a continental reach, covering not only the U.S. but also a unique part of Canada, Newfoundland, in the award-winning The Shipping News (1993). Finally, William Vollman's Seven Dreams: A Book of Seven North American Landscapes is uniquely ambitious among efforts to understand, and problematize, North America as a geography and as a political and cultural entity. With its epic temporal-spatial sweep, ranging from the Vikings' landing in eastern Canada over a millennia ago, the proselytization of Christian missionaries in central Canada in the sixteenth century and beyond, the Jamestown settlement in the early 1600s, the Nez-Perce War of 1877, and Franklin's eternally "ill-fated" quest for the Northwest Passage in 1845, the seven works of this novel sequence--and five sprawling novels have been published to date--have, like no other, sought to understand the historical origins of that which we have come to know as "North America" and would seem a foundational text for North American Literary and Cultural Studies. Indeed, Reingard Nischik's important early contributions to this nascent field, along with those of others such as Winfried Siemerling (2005, 2010) and Gillian Roberts (2013, 2015), lend early and important encouragement to other Canadianists and Americanists to seek out new insights in their respective national literatures by thematizing continentalist interests therein, but also those of their neighboring literature.
University of Alberta
Nischik, Reinhard M., ed. The Canadian Short Story: Interpretations. Rochester: Camden House, 2007.
--. Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2009.
--, ed. History of Literature in Canada: English-Canadian and French Canadian. Rochester: Camden House, 2008.
--, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester: Camden House, 2007.
--, ed. The Palgrave Handbook of Comparative North American Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Roberts, Gillian. Discrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border. Montreal: McGill-Queen's up, 2015.
Roberts, Gillian, and David Stirrup, eds. Parallel Encounters: Culture at the Canada-US Border. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier up, 2013.
Siemerling, Winfried. The New North American Studies: Culture, Writing, and the Politics of Recognition. New York: Routledge, 2005.
--, and Sarah Phillips Casteel, eds. Canada and Its Americas: Transnational Navigations. Montreal: McGill-Queen's up, 2010.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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