Thursday, May 03, 2007

On Twain, Arac, and Hypercanonization

Scott and Amanda's posts at The Valve's book event on The Novel of Purpose have inspired me to go back and read Jonathan Arac's Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target from cover to cover. I was struck while reading it at its consistent good sense and effective argumentation, and particularly at how brilliantly Arac compares and contrasts Twain and Stowe in one chapter, Twain and Cooper in another, and Twain and Flaubert in yet another. Yet I must admit to being disappointed he didn't go to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or Melville's "Benito Cereno," two other works that were receiving a lot of critical attention from people working in race and American literature in the '90s--and two authors whom he refers to several times as writing literary rather than national narratives mid-century. So in this post I was going to try to fill in some of the gaps in Arac's comparativist approach to Twain. But I had to get caught up on teaching two of my four courses that weren't cancelled despite it being Golden Week here in Japan, dealing with tech gremlins in the office, and recovering from the short trip we took to one of the onsens about an hour outside Fukuoka on Monday. Today we took onechan and imoto to their first amusement park ever and my head is still spinning from the 6 or 8 rides we took on those spinning cups. So on the five minutes before this day is over, let me make just a few points, in bullets.

  • I love the fact that a senior Americanist tried to write a book for a general audience--and particularly for the mainstream media It's really well written and well organized. Arac saves his most complex and ambitious arguments for his final three chapters, but even at his simplest and most direct, he's making important points about the limitations of AHF in its own time and in ours--and especially the weaknesses of the arguments of those who idolize the novel.
  • Still, as an attempt to introduce the debates in the then-relatively-new field of race and American literature to a wider audience, I find the book's limitations a bit annoying. Eric Sundquist's To Wake the Nations had come out years earlier and made a strong case for looking at Pudd'nhead Wilson as Twain's most interesting response to postbellum racial politics; plus his situating of Melville's "Benito Cereno" in the context of hemispheric abolitionist debates provided strong counter-evidence to Arac's characterization of Melville as a writer of literary narrative. Even though Arac gets into transnational contexts for Twain at the end by returning to De Voto's reading of AHF as the novel of the imperialist moment in America, he never gets into Twain's anti-imperial writings of the late-19th century. So there are annoying omissions and gaps.
  • Hawthorne presents more problems for Arac's anti-hypercanonization argument, for several reasons. For one, unlike Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter is still taught in high schools and colleges all over the country. Yet rather than fitting Arac's pattern of a literary narrative drafted into the service of Cold War liberal nationalism, Hawthorne's novel was the site of intense political debate since the 1940s--whether over religion, gender, sexuality, race, or nationalism depended on the decade--rather than idolization and defenses against attacks of racism. And Hawthorne's racial politics were a big deal in the last 14 years of his life, from the Compromise of 1850 to the midst of the Civil War. Plus, Eric Cheyfitz had already anticipated many of Arac's arguments in a brilliant essay critical of the two most influential readings of SL in the early 1990s, those by Sacvan Bercovitch and Lauren Berlant. Finally, as I've been arguing here and in my manuscript, Twain is not just messing with Sir Walter Scott in the evasion sequence of AHF; he's also contextualizing the compromise that ended Reconstruction and Hawthorne's literary and racial politics at the same time.

To be continued! (I hate backdating posts, but had to do it for the second time this week--you'll see why in a second!)

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