Sunday, January 28, 2007

On Dan McCall and CitizenSE

I found Dan McCall's Citizens of Somewhere Else in the Seinan Gakuin library earlier this month, and I've had a chance to read it and begin to digest it. If you want a taste of the book and don't have access to a university library or online account, you can go to Cornell's 1999 profile of McCall or check out the views Google Books or offer you of it. What I have time to do today is respond to McCall's characterization of his project from the Cornell link:

Citizens of Somewhere Else draws on McCall's own expertise and that of major 20th century critics such as F.W. Dupee and F.O. Matthiessen--and it draws a pointed bead on more recent criticism from the post-modern, post-Freudian schools. McCall has little patience for psycho-babble from critics with a political ax to grind.

"Their political agenda controls everything," he said. "Now if you believe the literary critics, up means down, yes means no, you turn the text inside out. And these aren't just weird little people in obscure journals, they're anthologized all over the place."

McCall's own "agenda" is to stay focused on the author's intent, not what baggage critics bring to the text. This in part accounts for the deliberately conversational tone of the book.

"I want to reach anybody who loves literature. Maybe my tone is too chatty. My voice on the page is my voice in the classroom, that's the way I teach; you don't have to learn some new abstruse vocabulary. So I guess [the way I wrote the book] is a political gesture. It's meant to challenge...the modish modern critics."

Now, there's a chance McCall was misquoted. After all, the author of the profile, Franklin Crawford, misquotes his reading from "The Custom-House"--"As an accomplished orator, McCall still has plenty of flint in his hammer and he recites, with an undulating cadence, the melancholy passage from Hawthorne's preface : '"I am a citizen of somewhere else, I dwell in the realm of quiet..."'"--so there's a chance he got the above quotation wrong, too (it's not a good sign that he needed to insert both a bracketed clarifying paraphrase and an ellipsis to indicate he skipped some of McCall's words). But assuming Crawford at least got the gist of it right, I want to respond to it here today.

As I am trying to reach multiple audiences with this blog, within and outside the academy, I'm also going for a "deliberately conversational," even "chatty" tone, drawing on my years of teaching of Hawthorne and other authors, and prioritizing close readings of individual passages and intertextual relations between authors and texts here. So I have a lot in common with McCall's approach in his book. But I don't see the need to diss "modish modern critics" "with a political ax to grind" while doing my thing. Like Hawthorne in "The Custom-House," McCall here identifies the political with the guillotine in order to differentiate his project from it. Unlike Hawthorne in the preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter, McCall admits this move has a politics to it, calling the style of Citizens of Somewhere Else "a political gesture." This blog--and my book project--definitely has a politics, as well, but I'm going to avoid the kinds of cross-generational jostling you can see in McCall's rhetoric (not to mention the fallout from Alan Wolfe's 2003 "Anti-American Studies" TNR essay, which even Leo Marx joined in on). There's good and bad in any critic's work, much less any generation's, and having a chance to examine the ways in which Hawthorne's critics have read race in his works from the 1850s on hopefully gives me some perspective.

Now, if you go back and read my earlier posts on "The Custom-House," you'll see that I agree with McCall to a perhaps surprising extent when he argues that Hawthorne and James "defined themselves as living to some extent in the land of writing itself, the foster home of the imagination" (175) and that both made "a heroic effort to locate some America, some New-Found-Land whose spokesmen they so wanted to be" (185). Next Monday I'll explore in more detail McCall's reading of Hawthorne's "citizen of somewhere else" passage and its connection with other significant moments in his book. Then I'll turn to Lauren Berlant's The Anatomy of National Fantasy and suggest that there are more correspondences between their readings of "citizen of somewhere else" than Crawford's profile of McCall might lead you to believe.

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