Timelines of American Literature.
The extent to which intellectual inquiry in American literature and history has been bifurcated by the dividing line of 1865 is evident in even a cursory survey of job postings and course descriptions. So when Cody Marrs and Christopher Hager argued "Against 1865: Reperiodizing the Nineteenth Century," they were rightfully celebrated for dethroning an idol whose veneration has obscured both the realism of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the sentimentalism of Little Women. But the academy abhors a vacuum, and the two soon found themselves "feeling self-conscious about being so publicly against something without clearly being for something else" (4). This eclectic volume of essays thus carries the burden of great expectations: the hope of enthroning a new date or series of dates as boundaries for Americanist fields of inquiry.
But Marrs and Hager offer something messier than a simple substitute for the division of literary history into antebellum and postbellum periods. Indeed, what the volume advocates for is not an outcome but a process: "a continuing reexamination of widely accepted eras and a scholarly conversation featuring multiple periodizing efforts" (4). Thus, the rock-star lineup of contributors to this collection offers essays proposing the re-orientation of American literature around Andy Warhol, Appalachia, and the Anthropocene; they conceive of the field anew by centering it on Confederate nationalism, cryptography, and captivity narratives.
Some of these provocative think-pieces are more persuasive than others, but that is to be expected. Re-periodizing American literature around the rise of home mortgages from 1922 to 1968, for instance, is a hard sell, given the alternative histories of land acquisition and use that might be displaced by such a formulation. But Adrienne Brown's reminder that mortgages reordered "racial categories by assimilating certain ethnic others and once immigrant bodies into whiteness while continuing to exile others" positions the mortgage melodrama more as an outgrowth of settler colonialism and plantation slavery than an attempt to overwrite those earlier systems (47). Still, I regard Gerry Canavan's proposal that "the calendar year 1973 represents the crucial hinge point for this sense of a transformed world, the dividing line that separates their period from ours," as a far more cogent call for re-periodization, at least in part because it replicates the (too) tidy sense of before and after offered by a date like 1865 (97). Although I cannot help but be cognizant, while reading such a book, that this binary approach to time glosses over the messiness of history, the fraudulent promise of clarity implicit in any attempt to identify watershed moments is alluring. So the next time I embark with students on my regular, quixotic surveys of American literature from its beginnings to the present,
I may well point to the year 1973 as a point of postmodernist demarcation signifying a birth year for the economic instabilities, extremely online sensibilities, and unending energy crises that characterize our current moment.
Of course, the sheer range of proposals in this volume means that it is difficult to conceive of even the most persuasive of these premises being adopted as the basis for a new, widely-accepted timeline. To be for such a variety of timelines seems also, necessarily, to be against the elevation of any one option as a replacement for the status quo Marrs and Hager challenged in their essay. This Limbo of periodic uncertainty seems like a productive space in which to write and conduct research, but its utility visa-vis the classroom is questionable, and their choice to include sample syllabi in the volume clearly signals that Marrs and Hager rightly view pedagogy as a priority.
My concern is not that students would not enjoy or benefit from courses on the Age of Warhol or the Cultures of Tactile Letters (Reader, they would!) but that the average undergraduate knows so little about history that they are unlikely to appreciate the nuanced views such visionary and revisionary courses offer. To wit: it might be difficult, for students who often cannot say with any certainty whether the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movements occurred, respectively, in the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth centuries, to appreciate that "the tragic timeline of 1865-1965 indexes not a radical break but a persistent continuity," as Michael Lemahieu argues with force and eloquence (211). The students that we all hope to teach, the ones who come into the classroom conscious of the canon's occlusions and eager for a reading list that will challenge their well-developed sense of what American literature is, would thrive in these courses. But if we begin by insisting upon a continuity between 1865 and 1965, their peers, who largely lack that knowledge, will leave the classroom with a rather muddied idea of what, exactly, happened in 1865 to begin with. In other words, I see these essays as smart interventions that should re-shape the syllabi of graduate courses but not, necessarily, the foundational realities of undergraduate education.
To the credit of Marrs and Hager, Timelines of American Literature includes an essay defending the very chronological boundaries that they question. Amidst chapters advocating for alternative timelines, Robert Levine forcefully defends
the virtues of something like an 1820-1865 periodization in American literary studies, arguing contra [Rita] Felski and [Gerald] Graff, that a delimited periodization can help students to explore connections between literature and history with some complexity, and that such explorations can open up (rather than shut down) ways of reading and interpreting literary works, both within and across temporal frames. (138-39)
This reification of chronological boundaries may work, as Susan Gillman suggests, to deepen "the structural inequalities shaping how departments of English and American studies look at and think about culture" (311). But every new timeline creates "new assemblages lend[ing] themselves to imperfect, incommensurate, uneven, asymmetrical units of analysis" (315). There is no single chronology, no infallible medium, that will guarantee the justice of our message, and this is, perhaps, the most important point that Marrs and Hager make.
Timelines of American Literature is a book that will lead to more thoughtful and inclusive teaching practices, and for that I am grateful. Readers--and more than a few writers--will also be grateful for the editorial work of Marrs and Hager, who have empowered their contributors to write in an innovative, engaging style. Birgit Brander Rasmussen writes in the style of Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God; Dana Luciano frames her critique of slavishly empirical environmental criticism as an angsty love letter; and Sandra Gustafson playfully @'s Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino, while urging her readers not to take themselves and their periodic preferences so seriously: "Have a cookie" (15). This is the volume of literary criticism we deserve, a book that frequently and blessedly abandons pretension without allowing its audience to lose sight of the stakes. It is an appealing, appetizing volume because writers like Gustafson consistently leave the reader wanting more--and chances are, if you give the reader a cookie, she is going to want a collection of essays to go with it.
ZACHARY MCLEOD HUTCHINS, Colorado State University
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|Author:||Hutchins, Zachary McLeod|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2019|
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