Friday, 16 March 2007

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The Library of America Presents... (X-posted to the Valve) ...some “Xtre-heeemely Cheezy Sci-Fi Ga-haaarbage.” (Credit CR and Dr. Percival Cox for the words and music there.) The popular canonization of pulp writers—The Library of America doesn’t reflect academic sensibilities as much as one might think—will directly influence the way future generations of scholars view the latter half of the twentieth century, but how accurate will it be? I ask more as an historicist than a cultural anthropologist, and largely because Daniel Green’s recent post about the relation of literary language to the world represented through it has me thinking about turn-of-the-last-century debates on the verisimilitude of “realist” and “naturalist” works. To bandy in some gross overgeneralizations, the naturalist perspective is often shorthanded—via Tennyson—“nature, red in tooth and claw.” Jack London and Frank Norris did not represent the world as it is, but as it would have been were it not for the patina of civilization. Their work may not reflect or represent society, but it does register the fact that something shook the cultural landscape, and that this something related to the crumbling of anthropocentric conceit. Daniel invokes another metaphor, that of fiction as a window through which one peers into the past, but my three models—reflection, representation and registering—seem a more useful way to consider the relationship of literature to history. M.H. Abrams already covered reflection and representation, so I’ll focus on registering here. To pick a random example: I consider myself a literary seismologist, scouring the written record for subtle signs of a larger catastrophe. I sometimes dream of stumbling into the literary equivalent of “a gaping open wound in the earth’s skin,” but mostly I content myself with reading rock face for signs of deformities evolutionary in origin. The rocks will reveal their secrets, but only if one speaks the language. To choose another entirely random example, one cannot identify Silas Weir Mitchell’s influences without being familiar with the conventions of the historical romance; the development of the Darwinian and Lamarckian branches of evolutionary science; American politics, foreign and domestic, &c. Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker: Sometime Brevet Lt. Col. of His Excellency General Washington is less a window through which you can spy the nineteenth century prancing around in its unmentionables, and more an Ozarks—deceptively flat, its plateaus are all that remain of a mountain thrust high back when Bermuda waltzed into the Atlantic. Just as it takes a trained eye to look at flatland and see a mountain island surrounded by vast coral complexes, so too does it take a trained historicist to read a novel about the Revolutionary War and witness competing theories of physical and social evolution attempting to account for McKinley-era American imperialism. To return to the top now: thinking about the present in historicist terms affords me perspective I would otherwise lack, what with the contemporary moment being so contemporary and momentous. So, presuming the eyes who scan our outcrops are trained, what will they make of the twentieth century as represented in its pulpier moments. What...

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