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Monday, 09 October 2006


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Luther Blissett

Scott, that sounds like a great article -- I'll have to check it out. I've been attracted to, while too often disappointed by, "transatlantic" research. Gilroy's *Black Atlantic* sets the tone: lots of metaphors of "networks" and "nodes" and "exchange," but not a lot of material connections. Or, you get works that make all material connections ("then the author went to New York, then he went to Bristol, then he went to Kingston, then to Savannah") with little higher-order insight. I've mentioned Ian Baucom's *Spectres of the Atlantic* because it often does a fine job of tying the material connections to theoretical insights, but he goes off the deep end too often with trendy discussions of Badiou and Agamben and Spivak.

Ultimately, though, even "literatures in English" winds up being a form of exceptionalism. Whitman used Italian opera as much as Hopkins. Henry James was more French than British in his influences. Emerson was a German Romantic at heart, even if in the tradition of sloppy Coleridge-style German romanticism. A sophisticated mapping of "world literature" seems necessary, and I think the routes on those maps will look very different depending on whether one's looking at individual authors and influences, genres, social conditions, historical forces, technology, trade, and so on.

Scott Eric Kaufman

You read my mind, LB. I had Black Atlantic open in a window and was all set to link to it before realizing that that would necessitate me writing three times as much as I'd committed to writing tonight. So yes, you're dead on: I think this is an expansion, long overdue, of the material connections between cultures on Eric Williams' triangle. In her article, Claybaugh argues—convincingly, to my mind—that we can't treat American abolitionist rhetoric as separate from English ... and that we can't talk about British labor reform without talking about its American advocates.

I'm also on board the larger unexceptionalism you hint at here: that's why I mentioned the work in England, France and Germany. I could throw Italy in there, as Lombroso had an impact on American sociology. The problem, from a contemporary perspective, is that we underestimate the erudition of the people we study. We assume our limitations to be theirs and "scholarize" thusly. What I mean is, you can talk about Henry James' French influences, but I can blather on forever about brother William's cosmopolitan mind ... which would be fun, but in the end we'd be espousing the same sound point: American Studies as currently constituted (i.e. as pertaining to periods before American Studies circumscribed what was acceptable as scholarship in America) ain't quite what it ought to be.

Rich Puchalsky

I wonder what Canadian scholars do? I remember reading some Robertson Davies novel or other in which it was clear that he was trying to add to the creation of a Canadian myth of national literature. I thought that subject was too little addressed in the recent WBM-fest; the way in which the existence of nations as social facts reinforces the existence of diversity cultures.

Someone, somewhere since I started reading the Valve wrote that in the age of the Web, every nation no matter how small would have its own "best writer", that everyone would have to at least pretend knowledge of in order to consider themselves hip. Does anyone remember who that was?

Scott Eric Kaufman

I'm half-remembering that particular comment about every-nation's-writer, but can't place it either. That said, there's some truth to the idea that any circumscribed place, given a population large enough to produce genius, will produce one. So while there may not ever be "The Great Novelist of Irvine," there'll probably be "The Great Novelist of Orange County." (Or maybe there already has, in Dick?) One idea I've batted around to no avail is whether some cultures are more amenable to works of genius. Ireland, for example, seems to have had a larger genius output per capita than most comparably sized locations; this, no doubt, has to do with education, population density and the quality of the education...which implies a tradition, which breeds familiarity with genius, which means Hey! It's the canon wars!

I've rambled, but I think the question an interesting one; were I able to think instead of merely typing the letters t-h-i-n-k tonight, I'd work it over some more. (All these damn historical romances dull my brain, I tell you.)

Rich Puchalsky

Well, even leaving out dicey theories of cultural influence on literary production (Irish writing not from Irish education but from Irish storytelling folkways), there is some commonsensical economic theory about how different geographic areas tend to specialize in different occupations.

If you make buggy whips, say, it's easiest to put your factory in the middle of other factories making buggy whips; skilled labor pool nearby, cross-fertilization, financiers familiar with the business, routes to customers, etc. Given that most literary scenes probably involve a high degree of people learning from other people, I don't see why something of the same might be true, and that once an area develops writers for whatever historically accidental reason, it produces more. Other areas have their geniuses go into something else.

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