Tuesday, 22 March 2005

Literature Must Serve the Needs of Emerging Fields, or, Why Theoretically-Inclined Literary Critics Don't Know From History Thomas M. Allen's review of the writings of William Gilmore Simms in a recent issue of American Literary History points to why so much literary criticism consists of little more than the endless iterations of well-established Left-Lit.-Crit. (LLC) talking points: Why Simms? The recovery of forgotten or neglected writers from the past has been one of the most visible trends in post-1960s literary studies. But from Kate Chopin to William Wells Brown, these reclaimed writers have typically represented historically marginalized groups. Their republication has been central to the establishment of various progressive movements in the academy, such as women's studies and African-American studies. Scholars in these emerging fields needed to create basic canons of writers who would serve as legitimate objects of study. In addition, bringing such writers back into print made it possible to offer undergraduate and graduate courses in these fields. For these sound reasons, the republication of neglected writers has almost always served a foundational purpose in legitimating self-consciously political, often insurgent academic fields. What, then, are we to make of the quiet effort currently underway to bring back into print an extensive selection of the writings of William Gilmore Simms? Sometimes called the "Cooper of the South," Simms was a proslavery South Carolinian whose historical romances, literary criticism, and social and political commentary seem distinctly out of place in the company of other recovered nineteenth-century authors. Consider the following lines: "Democracy is not levelling—it is, properly defined, the harmony of the moral world. It insists upon inequalities, as its law declares, that all men should hold the place to which they are properly entitled. The definition of true liberty, is the undisturbed possession of that place in society to which our moral and intellectual merits entitle us" (Simms Reader 246). Such sentiments are unlikely to find Simms many champions in the contemporary academy (though a few skeptics might note certain painful similarities between Simms's views and those of John Winthrop expressed in "A Model of Christian Charity," itself a staple of survey courses in American literature). Not only is Simms, by contemporary standards, an unapologetic reactionary, but his books do not serve the needs of any emergent field... I'm more than happy to enlighten Mr. Allen: Bringing back into print an extensive selection of William Gilmore Simms' immensely popular and influential writings allows future scholars--literary critics, historians, social historians, etc.--access to the immensely popular and influential writings of William Gilmore Simms. Alan Trachtenberg's recent defense of The Incorporation of America points to the necessity of republishing such works regardless of their non-participation in the utopian projects of contemporary literary critics: My aim was to place myself inside the expressive regime, to disclose by paraphrase, by irony and paradox, the substance and tone of consciousness. How did the artifactual world, literary texts and visual images as well as buildings and landscaped spaces (Central Park, for example), manifest subjective and collective understandings of the national world? It would be difficult to inhabit the "the expressive regime" of a...

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