Rewriting the history of American literature: an interview with Gordon Hutner.
Hutner's first book, Secrets and Sympathy: Forms of Discourse in Hawthorne's Novels (1988), surveys the novels of that canonical American author. Through the next decade, Hutner published several edited collections, including The American Literary History Reader (1995), drawn from the journal; American Literature, American Culture (1999), an anthology of two hundred years of American literary criticism; and National Imaginaries, American Identities: The Cultural Work of American Iconography (co-edited; 2000), also drawn from ALH. Alongside these, he has edited and introduced a number of works of American literature, including The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories by Abraham Cahan (1996); Immigrant Voices: Twenty-Four Narratives on Becoming American (1999); The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and The Gospel of Wealth (2006); and Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (2010).
Hutner attended Kenyon College (A.B., 1974) and the University of Virginia (Ph.D., 1982). At Virginia, he worked for six years as an editorial assistant on New Literary History, one of the first and most prominent of the new journals introducing literary theory to the United States during the 1970s and 80s. (Hutner recounts some of the lessons he learned from its longtime editor, Ralph Cohen, in a special issue of NLH, 39.4 .) Hutner has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Kentucky, and University of Illinois-Champaign, where he is currently Professor of English.
This interview took place on 29 June 2012 in Gordon Hutner's offices at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, Professor of English and of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Christopher Wike, a Ph.D. student in the Literary and Cultural Studies Program at Carnegie Mellon.
Jeffrey J. Williams: You founded American Literary History in the late '80s, which must have been a difficult time to found a journal. Since then, ALH has taken position as a prime journal in the field. Reflecting on your experience, how would you define the role of an editor?
Gordon Hutner: I think the role of an editor is to be a broker, to try to bring forward and promote what she or he thinks of as the best examples of the most important new scholarship and criticism. My role is to weigh and give proportion to the work I see and that I'm learning about, and to bring it forward to our readers so that they can remain up to date with changes in the field, so that, when they move outside their immediate specialty, they can at least get an instructive sense of what others in nearby periods or methodologies are taking seriously.
Other editors will see it differently, especially if they're endorsing a particular kind of criticism or they're promoting a particular kind of methodology. That was never what ALH tried to do. We were labeled as a New Historicist journal when we came out, but I never thought that was particularly fair. If you go back and look at the very earliest issues, we were coming from a lot of different directions, although the New Historicism was probably the best of what was being produced at the time. The idea for the journal came up around 1987, and things were less settled then. People may have grown dissatisfied with deconstruction, but they hadn't thrown it over; people were excited about Bakhtin, so there were other kinds of models besides New Historicism. But in American Studies, by around 1989, '90, '91, New Historicism prevailed as the leading methodology. It wasn't the New Historicism of its earliest exemplars; it was an Americanized version of New Historicism.
JJW: I can see how there are "journals of tendency" rather than field journals, whether of politics, like New Left Review, or of theoretical disposition, like Representations. But you mentioned that you started thinking about it in 1987. How did you come to start it?
GH: It's like applying for a job: it seems like the most impossible thing in the world, but you write a letter, people say let's see more, you give them more, and they say we want to meet you, and then they meet you, and then they bring you back and you meet their colleagues, and then here's a contract. It seems so simple when it happens. When I was doing it, it did not seem to me that I was going up against impossible odds.
The way it started was I had spent the year in Europe in '85 and '86 as a Fulbright, and when you're there, people see you as a representative American and you're responsible for all things American. I had the experience of having to summarize very briefly what was happening in American literary studies. It was also being away from things for a year--remember, this was before the internet--so I was able to look with some detachment at what was going on, and it seemed to me that what was missing was a truly vigorous and invigorating journal to investigate what was happening and what should be happening. If you had drawn essays on American literature that were dispersed over the academic community-an essay from Raritan, one from Representations, one from American Imago--you would have a pretty darn good journal, and I didn't see that the primary journal in the field, American Literature, was doing that. I thought they were too hidebound and not seizing the opportunities in front of them. So when I got back to the States, I immediately tried to talk my colleagues at Wisconsin into a collective that would edit this, but people didn't want to give up their scholarly agendas and devote time to such an endeavor, although everyone was willing to support me if I wanted to do it.
So I put together a proposal, and a friend of mine, who had been approached by Oxford University Press to edit a feminist legal journal, said Oxford was looking to acquire. At the end of the semester, after my grading was done, I called them up and said I had an idea and told them a little bit about it. Oxford was very interested in it, but from a marketing perspective it made no sense to enlist a global leader like Oxford University Press to do Wisconsin Studies in American Literature. University of Wisconsin Press was interested, and we would have gone with them, but they couldn't afford it. So OUP took a modest financial chance on it, and it came out in the spring of 1989.
JJW: What is modest, if I might ask?
GH: Let's just say that I would have been better off teaching summer school if I was looking for remuneration.
JJW: How did you go about shaping the journal when you started out? You ran a lot of review-essays, looking over the field, and you even had some interviews, with critics like Irving Howe and with writers.
GH: Well, I had help. In the first couple of years, Art Casciato was the journal's book review editor and we spent many hours in conversation about the aims of the journal. Bill Cain, Ross Posnock, and Dale Bauer were early supporters and enthusiastic interlocutors.
Above all, I wanted things to be fresh, and I wanted things that were of more than passing interest. The field seemed to me wide open. We did a few interviews. I remember one scholar found letters from Emma Lazarus to Henry James that hadn't been collected. I thought that was a great catch. Every now and again we would run a cultural history piece or some obscure literary scholarly pursuit that had resonance. Occasionally something like that comes over the transom; sometimes it comes up in conversations with people.
JJW: If you think back to the first few years, was there a particular character the journal had through the early '90s? Are there different phases that you can mark?
GH: In the first several years we were probably more eclectic than we are now. We were probably more venturesome in terms of extra-literary concerns. I think we've published work from fourteen different academic disciplines. Stuff was coming in the mail all the time, and the identity of the journal hadn't been set yet. Nowadays, we get essays because people think it's a fit in ALH. I'd rather sift through lots of different kinds of material than be pigeon-holed. We didn't want to become a parody of ourselves! Sometimes I wish people were doing more various things than they are, but that's an academic mindset that has also helped us. Also, it's my job to scour conferences and the like, looking for people who are doing things that are a little bit different, and keeping the journal supple that way.
JJW: When you started it, you had worked with or you were familiar with two different journals. I know you were familiar with Kenyon Review, judging from the piece you wrote on it, "Reviewing America" (American Quarterly 44 ), and I assume because you went there as an undergraduate. And in graduate school at the University of Virginia you worked on New Literary History as an editorial assistant for nearly six years, from '75 to '81. It seems to me that one way to describe American Literary History is that you combined both of them.
GH: Something like that. I also wrote anonymous reviews for Virginia Quarterly Review, published at Virginia as well. It has since become a better journal than it was then, but I liked the idea of a journal that brought together letters and social criticism, such as it was, or history and politics. While I wasn't trying to invent a journal that negotiated these three journals, I did find some of their influence enlivening.
There was no room anymore for a Kenyon Review-style journal, and I didn't have the wherewithal to propose a journal that would work for the '80s and '90s along the model of a VQR. I was interested in literary academe; I was interested in Americanist scholarship, so I could bring my experience from NLH to bear on shaping a new sort of journal.
I don't know that the Kenyon Review was so crucial to the origins of ALH. It was not so much a model but an experience of reading that I've had and that I wanted to build on. I always admired Ransom as an editor, and I think he gets a bad rap that he never outgrew his agrarianism, which he certainly did. If you look at his career only up until I'II Take My Stand (1930), you'll have a very incomplete idea of who he was. He was susceptible of influence. Trilling had influence on him, as did a professor of philosophy at Kenyon, Philip Blair Rice, who was on the masthead until he died tragically in a car accident and was always trying to clue him in on European philosophy. Adorno, for example, appeared in Kenyon.
JJW: In my reading on literary journals, I realized that it was a permeable membrane between Partisan Review and Kenyon. All the same writers wrote for both, although Kenyon was a little more literary.
GH: A little more literary, a little less given to creating a homology between radical politics and literary modernism.
JJW: What did you learn from NLH?
GH: A great deal. Sometimes I think back on some of the essays ! read as a proofreader for the journal that became classics in the field-I was having the experience of reading them even before the people who were much better suited to understanding them and using them were reading them! I think most of all it gave me a penchant for examining premises, for looking at our assumptions. But it solidified my temperamental disinclination against monism. I saw so much that was so good in such a variety of ways and began to develop an ideal of what a journal might do. I remember reading for Ralph Cohen (the founding editor of NLH) essays on hermeneutics and reception theory as well as essays by Russian formalists, the Prague school, and by scholars like Robert Weimann, who was up to something very, very interesting. Had deconstruction not taken American academe by storm, I wonder what would have been the fate of that particular direction. That was probably the kind of reading that was most influential for my ideals, which were different from my practice.
He had an incredible international range, Ralph Cohen did; he could find work from Poland, Hong Kong, Australia, Egypt, virtually anywhere in the world, and I didn't presume to imitate that.
JJW: It seems like a good attitude for an editor to have, pluralistic and venturesome. Even if you have a particular taste, you have to be open to other tastes.
GH: At least you should be curious. Does a good editor need a Whitmanian soul? I don't know. It's interesting that in the early reviews of the journal's proposal, one of the reviewers pointed out that its risk was that it would become merely eclectic. But I never saw "eclectic" as a dirty word, and I was happy to do that. I think what happened was that I stumbled into a scene where a lot of people were trying to forward particular agendas.
JJW: I can see how eclectic does not mean it's not just a grab-bag, but you're open to what's striking in the field.
GH: That's what I did learn from Ralph Cohen: that people should see what else is going on. If you are a particular kind of critic, you are going to be asked at various points in your career to know something about some other methodology. You'd better get a good example instead of some cartoon version that you could draw on. That's what I saw the journal performing. It's supposed to educate people about various approaches, various periods, new emphases as well as serving their specialty.
JJW: What were the main currents of the work you published through the '90s?
GH: I can point to particular moments in our development. One such moment was an issue I was very proud of and which has never gotten its due, largely because of a printer's mistake: in 1992 we produced a special issue on the quincentennial of Columbus which was supposed to be called "Towards an Inter-American Literary History." The printer dropped that subtitle, so it never got special issue status. But if you go back to that issue, you'll see that it was in many ways our opening toward hemispheric studies. I think we have a fairly good reputation in that field, and this was part of it. (Robert Levine and Caroline Levander guest co-edited another version, twelve or thirteen years later, and produced an even better issue). Carolyn Porter's landmark essay-review on the field also suggested a sort of formal welcome to Chicano(a) scholarship. Early on, we pressed forward with essays on Asian-American literature, Native American, and African-American literature as well. In our very first issue we published Susan Schweik's essay on Japanese internment camp poetry, and that opened the window for lots of other valuable studies.
In the middle and late '90s, it was more our challenge to keep things fresh. We were starting to get mainly New Historicist criticism, and it was beginning to seem a little redundant; we could fill the journal up for two or three years with this fascinating reading of this or that text, all beginning with a charming coincidence. But the journal was dedicated to doing more than that, and I had to keep trying to open it up. In terms of period, there wasn't enough work at that time about the early era; indeed, the field was just about to undergo an exciting renascence, so we had a special issue on eighteenth- century studies. In the late '90s we published "The Situation of American Writing 1999," which I cribbed from something the Partisan Review did in 1952. We sent a whole host of established writers-poets and novelists-a series of questions, and astonishingly, at least to me, about 30 responded!
JJW: If I recall, you had short pieces from Madison Smartt Bell, Annie Dillard, Stuart Dybek, William Gass, Gail Godwin, Rachel Hadas, Samuel Delany, and a bunch of other people.
GH: They were short except for Samuel Delany, who wrote a mere thirty-one pages.
JJW: To go back to my idea of phases of journals, how would you periodize the kinds of work you found?
GH: I'd let somebody else do that. We can point to landmark events or landmark essays or special issues, but these are just happy guideposts that are also a little unreliable, because the norms are germinating and some of what you see in the issues in the '90s might be residuum from the '80s, some might be right on top of what's was happening or going to happen next, and some may be ten years ahead of time. So it's hard for me to periodize it.
JJW: Let me ask you a different way: if you were going to teach a course, what history of the field would you give? How would you give a sense of what the field was like from the late '80s up to the present?
GH: I would probably approach it in terms of the rise and decline of New Historicism. I think I would look at several exemplary careers and along the way suggest how different scholars have approached the field-what kinds of questions they ask, how did they develop their archives, what did they see as their crucial next step. I think these would be good to ask because we're in a time now where people are searching for new paradigms.
Virtually since I began the journal, I've heard the rumor that the next big thing after gender, race, and class would be religion. Yes, there has been a flourishing of religious studies, but it is by no means the big thing. I don't think we're likely to see a great big thing again for a long time, although for some Digital Humanities might obtain. Remember, the New Criticism, for example, didn't just happen. It took a while to establish its orthodoxy, and that was in a much more slowly moving academic environment. The difference between then and now is that the revisionist projects of twenty-five and thirty years ago have established their own orthodoxies and their own revisionisms. There's no longer a single methodology governing our practice. And that's a good thing, but it militates against the establishment of a new, unitary vision. For the past fifteen years we've been hearing about the New Formalism, but has it developed either a critical bite or pedagogical value? One of the things that kept New Criticism alive for so many years was how well it worked in the classroom, especially in a world before paperbacks were widely available. This was something everybody could be taught to do.
One of the problems, as you know from teaching theory over the years, is that it's awfully hard to teach people a methodology as sophisticated as some of the ones that get practiced, and it doesn't work as well in an undergraduate classroom. It seems that the dominant model for teaching criticism is the sampler-here's a little bit of this, here's a little bit of that, and a little of this other thing. Our newer scholars need to find their paradigm in ways that scholars of the late '60s, '70s discovered gender, race, and class. I'm excited to see what they're coming up with.
JJW: I did see that you published, in the first issue of ALH, an essay by Lauren Berlant and an essay by Ken Warren, who were both assistant professors at the time. That has to be gratifying to have published people before they were established.
GH: Yes, it was. I was very excited to publish Lauren's essay on The Blithedale Romance. It's been one of the happier happenstances that so many people who turned out to have distinguished careers published either first or early on in ALH. Lora Romero, Priscilla Wald, and Kirsten Gruesz too. And it still happens.
JJW: So, while you might publish a spectrum of approaches, where do you think the field needs to go?
GH: I get that question all the time, and I don't have an answer. It needs to go where it's most fertile. It seems to me that there is still a lot of literary history to write. There are still a lot of things we don't know about and could. We don't really know as much as we could about American literatures in relationship to global concerns. We're grateful for interventions like Wai Chee Dimock's Deep Time, but we're not yet sure how that's going to play out with the more American literature we read into it. So I'd like to see more about that. We just did an issue on sustainability, even as American Literature also had an issue on ecocriticism in the works; I'd like to see even more. We also had a symposium on literature and economics. So there's more room to pursue the public applications, if you will, of doing literary history. I don't think there's any shortage of topics.
I could conceive of an issue on medicine as well. We have to take the next step from a standard literary history of medicine; we want to train literary critics to work on such topics as narrative and how that applies to medicine. The new scholarly work on genomes makes an important contribution to that too. It's not a matter of trying to figure out what kind of disease Dimmesdale has, though that can be interesting.
JJW: It strikes me that a new generation of Americanists is coming up now. People like Buell come from a slightly older generation, and Berlant and Warren, people in their fifties, are no longer the challengers but established, with a new generation behind them.
GH: I'm from the generation between Buell and Berlant, and part of the journal's success was that it reached out to people a few years older and a few years younger than its editor. As far as a new generation is concerned, they've come up! There are people in their thirties and forties, and they've done their second books. In fact, we're doing a special issue in 2013 called "The Second Book Project," in which fifteen or so people lay out the premises for their forthcoming second books. Since it only took twenty-one years to write my second book, I thought it was something worth investigating, especially given its weight in academe. But in any case, the so-called younger generation has clearly arrived. When I think now that I'm as old as the people I was eager to supplant back in '88, '89, I especially want to make the journal receptive to younger scholars and am always looking around to see who's doing what and what their ideas are.
JJW: I wanted to ask you about What America Read, which came out in 2009. As I take it, What America Read is a recovery project figuring out the literature that a middle-class audience was actually reading in the first half of the century-not popular literature, but more literary fiction, on the one hand, but not avant-garde on the other. So part of your project is simply to fill in literary history that got put aside in making a modernist canon. Does that sound accurate?
GH: First, I was engaged in a different research project, but the more I read into it, the more I came to understand that we were writing literary history from an extremely limited, partial shelf, based on very, very few books. I was doing research and I kept seeing how this book or that book was called the best book of the year, the greatest book since Huckleberry Finn, and I had never heard of it; I'd never heard of the authors. And the more I researched them, the more I came to see that these books were largely forgotten not because of gender or race, but because of class, in this case the middle class. This was the literature for, by, and about the middle class, and it was what most educated American readers actually read and the books that were being talked about in one print venue or another. They were modern without being modernist, so I thought of it as modern realism, which I think is different from nineteenth-century realism. The patron saint of these novels was William Dean Howells, and the book even begins with the obituaries of Howells and how people talked about him as structuring critical values.
In any case, it was great fun. I read dozens and dozens and dozens of books that did not really submit to any kind of close reading that would show them as having some power of instruction that you could not already see on the surface level. I don't think they were written for that purpose, nor was I clever enough to devise a new methodology to make them yield their buried treasures; they were written to be accessible. They were written to help the middle class negotiate the threats to modernity, so they take on every social issue you can imagine, even issues that still concern us, like adoption and addiction. These concerns are all over the novels of the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s, the era that I talk about.
So I saw that as an opportunity to make an intervention. This was the era that had been written about by so many Americanists, and by so many diverse hands, and yet the great plethora of books, a whole species of fiction really, had been untouched as a species. How is that possible? Here's a small example: do we need a hundred books on Faulkner and not a single book or two on T. S. Stribling? Maybe we need a hundred books on Faulkner to get us to a right and just appreciation of Faulkner, but surely we can have a study that includes Caroline Miller, Hamilton Basso, Lillian Smith, or Stribling, or some other Southern writer to give us at least more of the context of what Faulkner thought he was doing and who he thought he was writing against. Or who were the people who were learning from him and then taking him in a different direction or at least domesticating his direction? Since he was not yet canonized, who were the Southern writers that were being praised ahead of him? I wanted to know, among other sorts of questions.
The thing I quickly became aware of is the sheer level of condescension that these writers invite. I remember as a graduate student being told, when I chose my dissertation topic on Hawthorne, that major scholars write on major writers. (Well, I didn't want to be a minor scholar!) So, the more I inquired into these writers, the more I came to see how they were labeled as middlebrow writers. The more I inquired into the label "middlebrow," the more I saw that it was a disguise for what I came to call the "anti-bourgeois prejudice," and it is one of the safest social prejudices we can have. In many ways we learn that from the French tradition of "epater la bourgeoisie," but the bourgeoisie has never had the same kind of power and cultural capital in this country that it had in France, so our disdain for the bourgeoisie is to some extent a posture, especially if you consider how many English professors come out of the middle class. This idea of hating the middle class keeps us from understanding the mindset of the middle class. People think of it as totally static, when I think it's anything but that; the middle class is always assimilating its antagonist and domesticating it and incorporating it. That's an interesting process spread out over forty or fifty years. I tell it as a decade-by-decade story to see how America transforms itself from 1920 to 1960, but obviously it has an even larger span watching how the novels take on social anxieties.
Originally I wanted to go on until 1969, but then the book might never have gotten written, and also the position of the novel changes in the 1960s, when it is no longer the primary medium.
JJW: It's remarkable to see the broad band of novels you talk about in the book. It seems as if it's the big table in the middle of the room that no one pays attention to; they pay attention to the small table in the corner.
GH: Because the small table is a curio and takes more sophistication to appreciate. The big table doesn't test our powers of connoisseurship. On the big table, however, is the literature against which the people we canonized were writing, and it is largely invisible. Look at how we write literary history: we write it as a history of these great experimental or exceptional works or we read the books as exemplifying a context, though it is counter-intuitive to expect one book to stand for so much cultural discourse. If we don't go for those, we go for what we think of as popular literature. The books I read were not popular per se; they seldom sold in six figures, but they sometimes did very respectably and sold 50, 60, 70,000 copies. (Only if they were picked up by book clubs, which several were, did they begin to get into the higher range.) But what would be the point of closely reading a handful or two of those? The whole point is that there are hundreds of them, so if you only read nine or twelve, then you're telling people these are the only ones that they really have to know. And somebody else can come by and say, "no, you missed out on this book, it's really just as important or more important."
That's not a debate I wanted to enter into. These aren't great classics that we're doomed to ignorance if we don't know about. But as a group they become interesting. Their plots are not all that intriguingly unique. What is the similar story they're telling, with nuances and variation? People need to know about that and that these books are addressing questions that we want to talk about--interracial love, anti-immigration worries, things like that. Or, in their collective appeal, they might give more nuance to normative values than we might have supposed.
JJW: One interesting thing that you show in the book was how the novels explicitly deal with cultural politics, contrary to how we might assume they were staid and conventional. They might not be sophisticated in technique, but they are not simple in their themes.
GH: And remember, they were largely written in a world before TV. So this was a perfectly respectable home entertainment, to go home after work and read an intelligent novel. You didn't want too much resistance, you didn't want James Joyce; you wanted a good story, but you wanted something that was going to engage you. That's the kind of book you would give to somebody else and say, "here, this is interesting and important, you'll enjoy it."
JJW: So how did you come to do the book? Your first book is, as you said, a study of a major author, Hawthorne, and there's a chapter on each of the novels.
GH: I was researching a book that looked at what I thought were the strikingly coincident careers of Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser, especially between 1905 and 1925. I was reading about them in contemporaneous histories, and they would always be in the section, "Modern Writers," and there would be a subsection "Wharton, Cather, Dreiser, and Lewis" or "Dreiser, Wharton, Hergesheimer, and Cabell." They'd be next to each other and you'd see that people of the time thought of them in kindred ways. So, from Wharton and Dreiser, I became interested in what I called the "ideology of taste," and that led me to the further inquiry into the fiction that the writers we study were compared to. And the more novels I read, and the more reviews I read, the more I saw that there was a story to tell and a history to write. So that's what I set about doing.
To go back to your question from before, I think there's a lot of literary history still to write. It doesn't have to be middle-class centered; I just think we're too satisfied with the received history. Think of how busy an industry we have, yet we have two or three paradigms of historiography- the canonical one, and something like the anti-exceptionalist or the anti-state history and their various permutations. But we keep writing the same history or some variant. I think we need more theories about American literary history than the ones we have.
JJW: To locate your approach on a map of the current field, I would compare it to Walter Benn Michaels' and Franco Moretti's. What you are doing is not dissimilar to Michaels insofar as he is saying that there is too much attention paid to identity and not enough to class. He is primarily making an abstract argument-he only uses a few examples to illustrate his theoretical points-whereas you do the legwork to look at a large pool of literature that looks at class. Where would you place yourself?
GH: In the first place, I wouldn't put myself in such redoubtable company. You're talking about two of our leading scholars who are in the business of creating paradigms that other people find influential and important. But I've learned from both of them, probably more from Michaels than from Moretti. We all are in Michaels' debt. Even people who strenuously disagree with him learned a whole way of undressing a work from some of his middle and late '80s essays, and from Our America as well. They may not like the turn in his writing towards poverty, but I would never gainsay the urgency of Michaels' convictions in this respect. And because he's arguing against what has become an orthodoxy, it's important for him to be as strenuous as he is. It's an important argument that needs to be tested and circulated, as any antinomian argument has to be if it is to get its teeth.
JJW: As far as Moretti, it seems to me that your work is similar because he argues that we have this mass of novels that nobody pays attention to, and you carry out case studies of these American novels that fill that argument out. He's more interested, as you say, in building a paradigm, whereas you're more interested in drawing a picture of particular works. You're not quantifying them but giving them more texture.
GH: I think that part of his project is a dissatisfaction with the perceived triviality of close readings, and in this Moretti has found a kindred spirit in the Representations special issue on "surface reading." People are looking to find a different way to approach these texts and create something meaningful out of their interpretative work. I am interested, however, in looking at a broad swath. For me, a literary history that looks at five novels spread out over fifty years seems contrived. I understand how it has to be that way or why many first books are written that way; you write a dissertation and the coin of the realm is, "Can you write close reading?" so it's the skill that allows you to enter the guild. Once you have a job, you have to show that you can do this work without the benefit of a master, so you revise the dissertation and make a book. Then you get privileged status in the guild, and you get tenure.
But the second book is the research side of the profession's great winnowing stage. People who have been academics as long as you and I have, have been on a hiring committee fifteen or twenty years ago and have seen seen how a particularly promising graduate student did not achieve his or her potential. What happened? They wrote their first book and then they had nothing more to say, or they wrote their first book and only had pretty much the same thing to say for their second book. Or they could not overcome the contingencies that plague us all. Only a very few have written a second book that is a new step, a new direction. Maybe that's what the profession is monitoring: who is going to make that next step?
We need such books to explore what it means to do literary history. And that is, I think, how the field advances. Most first books don't do that, largely because of the provisional circumstances under which so many have to be written.
JJW: In What America Read, you stop at around 1960. I understand why, as you mentioned before, because the culture changed, and TV probably became the primary channel of cultural politics. How do you see the novel after that? Where is it now?
GH: That's a good question. If you look at the history of criticizing American fiction since that time--let's call it the end of the "living novel," the end of the idea that the novel is the "bright book of life"--we focus on postmodern masters for the most part, and my great dissatisfaction with contemporary American fiction is that it tends to fetishize a mere handful of careers: Pynchon, DeLillo, Roth, and Morrison. As a result, we've pretty much lost what else has been written in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and now into the twenty-first century, a lack of historical density we would probably not afford any other period. So my new scholarly endeavor is to look at twenty- first-century fiction, and to do that, I've had to try to come to terms with the novel's declining place in the culture. Unlike others, I don't turn my attention to film or TV, even though one is tempted to. I don't really know those media well.
Of the books discussed in What America Read, I had dozens and dozens of reviews to read. Everybody would be talking about one novel or another, from season to season. In fact, one way of participating in public culture was by having an opinion about a new book. We're not just talking about newspaper reviews, since you also had criticism in opinion magazines and belles-lettres magazines and journals. We don't have that any more. We have blogs; we have all kinds of impressions and reactions, but these are seldom written with the detachment or the deliberation of criticism. So one of the ways I develop an archive of what novels to read is to look at prizes. I'm not interested in studying prizes to see how power replicates itself; I don't even care who "wins." I just take the finalists from what I hope is a diverse range of prizes in order to narrow the possibility that I'm leaving out any great books of our time.
Naturally, I look at the big prizes, the ones everybody knows-the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award-but I look at other prizes as well-Asian-American Writers' Workshop Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, or the Orange Prize (a British competition for women writers in English, where an American shows up occasionally). Out of that I've built a repository of about 150 books for the first ten or eleven years of the century. What engages me about them is their sheer variety, on the one hand, and their susceptibility of classification, on the other.
I dislike essays about post-9/11 novels that make you think that the decade is defined by three or four books- about which there is no consensus of critical opinion, except that they happen to be among better books about 9/11. You could argue instead that 9/11 has not really had as much of an influence as we all thought it was going to have. We thought it was "the end of irony," we thought it was going to reshape how the culture understood itself. There's a great deal that has changed in our culture as a result of 9/11, but has it changed the shape of novel production? I don't think so.
So my new project is to look at all these novelists and see what is the shape of fiction in our time. In the beginning, I rather drearily assumed I was just going to do what I did for What America Read and compile the reviews, but we don't have the review culture that we once had. That much has changed since 1960. So now I'm more interested in typologies, and the book will have, say, chapters on the way these novels group themselves according to some very familiar as well as some new categories: regionalism, race and ethnicity, the historical novel, the international novel, and so on. One thing to remember is that postmodern novels tend not to win prizes, so most of these books constitute what one might call post-realist novels. I don't know of a prize that's given to the best postmodern novel. Occasionally, one such writer slips in, like Foer or Eggers, but there are very few.
It's striking that, from year to year, the novels that enthuse contemporary scholars generally don't emerge as finalists. The question becomes who's on these prize boards. Not English professors. No one imagines that we have much to contribute to the conversation. They are largely made up of other novelists, and publishing professionals, and occasionally a librarian, depending on the kind of award it is. Once in awhile, a daily reviewer joins in, but largely it's the judgment of other novelists. There's a great deal to be said about how well other novelists evaluate their peers, but there's less to be said about how well novelists understand the historical tradition in which they're writing. That's not what they get paid for understanding, and they don't really care about it very much. One of the disheartening things about "The Situation of American Writing" was how few writers were able to connect themselves to a tradition in American writing. They hadn't read much American fiction, certainly hadn't read criticism, and were walking around with distorted versions of literary criticism from the 1980s. No one referred to anything called New Historicism, much less any of our other developments, and sadly many had only seemed to read their friends. They dismissed criticism as either unintelligible or merely political. So that's an interesting problem. They have a great deal to teach us, but there are some things they're just not interested in, and that's an opportunity for a literary historian still to make an intervention.
JJW: One of the things you're also an historian of is American criticism, and you did an anthology, American Literature, American Culture, which carries the history of American criticism from Crevecoeur to Lawrence Buell. How do you see the history of American criticism working itself out?
GH: The anthology was American criticism as cultural critique. There was very little formalism in there. I wanted to focus on the tradition of American cultural critique via literary study: that's the principle of inclusion. It begins in the eighteenth century, of course, but I think it comes together in the nineteenth century, when we're dealing with questions of what is America and what is American literature. I think this endeavor of trying to define America via an engagement with its literary production is a crucial tendency and what we do best. We didn't invent explication de texte; we didn't invent close reading; we did make it amenable to the masses, but this is not our national genius, as the Europeans say. What we are good at-and I think you see this in what used to be called moral criticism, which later got absorbed by the New Historicism and ideological criticism and we can still see in cultural studies and a variety of ethnic and race-based criticism-are questions about American creed and deed. So I wanted to isolate that tradition and celebrate it.
JJW: As I take it, one thing you did in that anthology was counter complaints that critics are too political, instead saying that politics are actually inherent in American criticism and it has consistently dealt with cultural politics in one form or another.
GH: Right, we've always been political. The idea that we're too political comes from what looked like a status quo position, the New Criticism and the reign of formalism. Then, what's all this political stuff? This political stuff was everything that was going on before the New Criticism--not just Partisan Review or the New York Intellectuals' circles of the '30s and '40s, but prior to that, from the young intellectuals of the turn of the century all the way back to the Young America movement of the mid-decades. It never stops, and you could perhaps point to Noah Webster as the fount.
JJW: In the introduction to American Literature, American Culture, you mention the "choices and compromises" that an editor makes in making selections. That could be an editor's motto. What were some of the hard choices or compromises that you made with the criticism?
GH: Some essays you want to do, but they're just too expensive to get permissions for. Some, you feel they've lost their currency and no longer retain their urgency.
JJW: It ends with Buell and his essay on whether American literature is postcolonial. If you were to extend that today, what are some things you might add?
GH: Obviously, I'd want to add essays about transnationalism and environmental writing. I would want to do a fuller representation of changes in queer criticism, changes in ethnic writing, and changes in feminist writing. I think we would probably have an essay on the cultural work of the new formalism as well. I would try to ascertain the ones that I thought were not only the most influential but that put the case as well as it could be put.
JJW: When you're an editor, people sometimes have strange attitudes toward you. I find that they sometimes think you are a potentate and they're a little afraid of you or they're obsequious, or they think you're a servant, taking care of their laundry. And neither is right.
GH: Well, we're a little bit of both and not fully either. The potentate is a serious misapprehension. It presumes that there's this random universe over which only one person's voice carries. We're the last word on a subject, but that word is usually shaped on our lips by the power and persuasiveness of readers' reports. It's usually shaped by such concerns as how much space we have, what are we already committed to publishing, what we have just published, pedestrian things like that. Sometimes you have to pass on an essay that could be accepted because you simply don't have the space. Some editors do keep accepting things but then there is a two- or even a three-year wait for the essay to come out. We work on a much narrower margin. Sometimes it's a scurry to get the right essays put together in the issue. The point is that some of the decisions I'm making are virtually being made for me.
There are occasions when you exert your own authority. I think ALH readers don't want to waste their time and subscription money with essays that are negligible or inconsequential, but that have some purchase on either the immediate subject-that it is going to enter the critical literature on that subject-or has some larger value for the field. So we're less interested in a reading of a particular novel, even a good one, that doesn't really extend the confines of the three words in our title. There are other journals for which the essay might be a truly excellent fit. Authors may think they're being rejected because they're not worthy or because I'm blind and stupid. In some respects I've been blind and stupid, but the idea is that publishing articles is more of a matching game than anything else.
JJW: Although before you said that there wasn't a particular kind of essay that fit ALH.
GH: I don't think those two statements, in their intention, are in contradiction. We're always looking for something that departs from prevailing wisdom or summarizes so well the prevailing wisdom that it is going to enter as a decisive statement about that prevailing wisdom in the field or in the subfield. Also, we look for essays in a subfield that open up to readers outside the subfield- if this is the one work of nineteenth-century African-American literary criticism that they're going to read that year, let it be this one and not some other, because it either is a new departure that's worth tracking or it crystallizes so well general arguments that are circulating.
JJW: One way you keep the journal fresh is having special issues or clusters in issues. How do those come about? As we talked about, in '99 you had the issue with writers, and in '09 you had a twentieth-anniversary issue with people reconsidering neglected critical books from the past decade. I thought that was an especially interesting idea, since books rarely get noticed after they first come out. How do you come about those? And do you have any coming up?
GH: We had a whole year of issues for the twentieth anniversary, including the retrospective book reviews. We'll do that again, maybe for the thirtieth. They're forays. Sometimes it's taking a chance. Sometimes these things are timely and necessary; sometimes they're not, but they can be valuable. Recently we had a special issue on "Medieval America," coedited with Larry Scanlan, a medievalist. It came to me as I was thinking about transatlantic studies, and one of the things I thought was missing was a broader history of it. We basically think of transatlanticism as a seventeenth- century phenomenon or with a nineteenth-century inflection, as an English-American exchange or a triangulated exchange with the slave trade. There are other countries, other national traditions involved in transatlantic modalities, and we've done an inadequate job bringing those in. Occasionally you hear of somebody working in the Dutch tradition, or in the French tradition, but we're generally at a loss to know how to integrate this kind of writing. And that's what I'm trying to say-there's so much more literary history to do. In any case, "Medieval America" came out of that, because I found that they were really interested in this question, and we developed it from the end of the eighteenth century all the way through the twentieth century. I thought it was a lively issue; one or two essays by medievalists were some of the best things written on American literary subjects in a long time.
But the sad truth about special issues these days is that they're not so special. I think what happened was there was an explosion of the archive and there were all these subjects that needed to be addressed. But then it's awfully hard to gather seven or eight essays on one subject published in a reasonable time framework. Maybe three or four of the papers came from an MLA panel or an ASA panel, and another three or four papers came from a symposium I host here, and then one or two came from the pipeline. But the reason for me that special issues are not so special is that online, people don't page through the issue in its entirety, so they don't see how you put essays next to each other, expanding or qualifying each other or building some kind of historical or thematic narrative, because they just click on the one that seems most interesting to them as, after all, you'd expect them to do.
JJW: I think that, because of the high number of journals, in the '80s journals started using special issues basically as a marketing technique to distinguish them from other journals. And there is special issue fatigue.
GH: Right. Very few of them are truly special, like the Critical Inquiry one of 1985 on "'Race,' Writing, and Difference," which is probably the single most influential special issue, with the possible exception of the Kenyon Review's 1943 special issue on Henry James, the centenary issue on Henry James, because it gave birth to the James industry of academic criticism, which in turn helped to secure the formalist criticism of fiction for the next couple of decades. They didn't have books and books about Henry James before that, or aesthetic studies of the American novel for that matter. Similarly, Gates's "'Race,' Writing, and Difference" was a watershed and also gave prestige and a kind of coherence to the various critical questions that the essays take up in their turn.
There is fatigue, but from the point of view of authors, I think that special issues are considered a good way to get your essay accepted. From the point of view of an editor or a journal, a special issue advertises an interest in a topic. That tells future students in the field that the journal is hospitable to that kind of submission, and that's part of the business.
JJW: I noticed, in going through your run of issues, that you feature reviews, and you've definitely tried to be a journal of record through reviews. The reviews are not small ones shilling for a book, but review-essays that give an account of the field.
GH: We call them "essay reviews" to distinguish them from review-essays. We put the essay before the review because we want authors to prosecute a thesis about the field that the books help them to unfold. So we want our reviewers to use the books to constellate the field. To this extent, we're not really interested in covering titles as much as we're interested in covering topics. Of course we miss a lot of books--good books, excellent books sometimes--which is unfortunate. I can speak along with everyone else: you want your book to be reviewed everywhere it can be, but the fact is that very, very few books get reviewed in more than a couple of places. Why only a few critical books get a really wide reception, I'm not sure. I don't think that the ones that do are always the most important books of the day.
The sad truth is that as a profession we don't do a good job vetting the new scholarship. We don't do a good job of saying these are the books you need to know, these are the books that are less consequential, though you might learn something from them. That's what is great about American Literature, that they do cover the waterfront and offer a plenitude of reviews about what's being produced. When we started ALH, we very much were aware of the need for something like what we did. We learned it from an annual that's no longer in business but that used to come out of Virginia Tech called Review, and they did have longish pieces on the whole range of British and American literature, though these tended to be more omnibus essays than thesis-driven essays. It's awfully hard to get people to do the latter. Some people can do it, and others just don't have a mind for it. They have a grasp of the books, but they're not as good at cobbling them together into a way of making an argument. And that's what we look for.
JJW: In something I read, you mentioned that we need an online magazine that reviews all our books.
GH: I wish I could make ALH the engine for that. It would be nice to have it under the ALH imprimatur.
JJW: Really? You would want to do that?
GH: We have our place in the profession, and maybe it could extend in that direction, but it might be time for somebody to start developing something else. We were born of the 1980s, and my study of journals suggests that most have a trajectory of around thirty years. Very few can go, like New Literary History, for forty years under one editorship. It's not so much that they peter out, but they risk becoming static. Sometimes you want that quality: many journals exist to provide credentials for scholars coming up, so it's important that they remain a stable entity. But as far as shaping critical paradigms, it's basically a twenty- or thirty-year span. Sometimes, a great journal like Critical Inquiry flourishes because of its collective approach and its intramural nurturing of editorial vision. But an individual editorship must be dedicated to always being willing to reascertain the journal's mission. So it's time for somebody else to get started and surpass us for the next couple of decades, though we will not go quietly.
JJW: Looking back, are there any mistakes that you made that you would do differently now?
GH: Over the years, I've accepted essays that I had second thoughts about. But I'm not awash with regrets about essays that I championed or was enthusiastic about and that have turned out to be understood as examples of what not to do or models of failure. A couple of times I declined essays that have won prizes or have earned prominence, but while I'm glad for those authors, I don't consider those decisions mistakes.
One of the things that's hardest to come to terms with is that you're putting out a product, you're doing it four times a year, 800 pages a year, and you're going to make mistakes. Essays are not always going to work the way you thought they were going to work, and you have to look at the sum total of what you've done.
JJW: On the flipside, is there anything that, when you look back, that is a particular pleasure? Sometimes you don't even know at the time you are doing it, but you realize it was a good move later and it has turned out really well.
GH: I think, like a lot of people, some of the smartest decisions I've made and things that have consoled me are things I decided not to do- opportunities that have come up, maybe a job offer or maybe a publishing project I chose not to pursue. In the two decades when I was writing What America Read, there were more than a few opportunities to put it down and do something else. I'm glad I didn't take those opportunities, and I'm glad I finished it.
I hope I stay on course with the book on the twenty-first-century novel. A couple of other ideas have competed for my attention, and I trust that I won't look back with regret that I decided not to do those things either.
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|Author:||Williams, Jeffrey J.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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