Monday, 17 April 2006

On "Useable" History: A Rant in One Long, Hoarse Howl In his 1985 Social Text article "History and the Canon," Paul Lauter writes the following sentence: The search of the social movements for a useable past led out this closed [canonical] circle. (94) The emphasis is mine. While I hate the entire sentence, I reserve special hatred for its emphasized phrase. I find the idea that what literary scholars ought to seek is "a useable past" offensive. Scratch that. I admit that previous historical models were slim on all things not pale and sans penises. Rectifying such omissions was of the utmost importance. Why? Because with more than half its content stricken from it the historical record is what those in the business call "beyond useless." It speaks only to those who were spoken for and rewards those whose skin or unmentionables are the social equivalent of a firmly raised and vigorous waved hand in a small classroom. Take a peek into my book: Undermining white patriarchal privilege? An unmitigated good. Why? Because undue attention on particular particulars skews the record. I want to know what happened, not what happened to popular pricks whose girlfriends and "girlfriends" were on the yearbook staff. That sort of selective memory compels tears from my eyes and small angry flecks of spittle from the corners of my mouth. I hate it. What many literary scholars fail to realize is that the sin is the sin no matter who commits it. To move to a central locale some work of marginal literature is to strip said work of its unique engagement with the majoritarian culture. Perhaps that work attempts, Tolson-style, to outwit Eliot at his own game. Or perhaps the work attempts, Toomer-style, to recast the marginal as central on its own terms. To segregate a tradition from its context in order to establish its gendered or racial or ethnic uniqueness is to refuse to hear its protestation for fear it'll be considered protestant. Protestant. The irony menaces like thick chunks of corrosive fog. I understand the impulse to create a tradition separate from that of your adversary. I do. I don't understand massaging it into some useful form for some contemporary struggle. That elevates the needs of the now above the sacrifices of the then. And it bothers me. Current you-never-saw-this-coming-type example? Feminist evaluations of S.W. Mitchell and "The Rest Cure." Is it malice or ignorance which drove scholars to ignore his incredible string of successes among women of extraordinary intelligence so that they might pillory him as the embodiment of paternalistic condescension? Does it matter? Yes. I'm no defender of Mitchell—the chapter whose slave I currently am does the man's reputation no favors—but I do balk at condemnations of his life and work on the basis of his misdiagnosis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Did he punt it? You need not even ask. Did he punt every woman he treated and is he therefore the epitome of all that is vile and patriarchal in nineteenth-century American culture? Nope. "The Yellow Wallpaper" may, as Paula...

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