Sunday, 08 October 2006

An Unnamed Meme: Minds Stuffed with Stuff (Useful & Otherwise) Normally, my life only surfaces on this blog after being twisted by some formal constraint designed to transform tragedy into hilarity. The Neurophilosopher tagged me with a meme general enough to accomodate a number of things I would've posted were this one of those blogs, so I'm running with it: The Trivial Yesterday, I had lunch with Kevin Drum. The hostess seated us next to Danny Bonaduce. When I pointed this out, Kevin didn't recognize the name. Ninety percent of what I know falls under the category of "Useless Information." Headquartered near The Corey Ian Haim Collection of the Foibles of Former Child Stars is The Center for the Study of the Positioning of David Wright Relative to the Third Base Line. Thanks to a generous grant from The Society to Prevent Panic Attacks and Binge-Drinking, the Center has collated an entire season's worth of data and is set to release its findings in a report tentatively titled "By Far Too Far: He Should Move Two Feet to His Right." This desire for trivial information extends to my academic work. Instead of focusing on major figures of actual artistic merit, I have chosen to write about the Coreys of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Popular authors like Silas Weir Mitchell, Winston Churchill and Thomas Dixon wrote pedantic historical novels in a style I'll call "stilted" when I'm feeling generous and much, much worse when I'm not. Admirable though the desire to work on noncanonical literature may be, I suggest others distinguish works justly from those unjustly forgotten before devoting three years to studying them. The Not Entirely Unintellectual I believe that minds work best when crammed full of on-going narratives. Not quality narratives—at least not necessarily so—but a brain full of bookmarks helps keep a mind healthy. What do I mean? What happened on the last episode of House? Battlestar Galactica? The last issue of Y - The Last Man? The Runaways? You see where I'm headed here: earlier print cultures forced people to track hundreds of characters as they danced through serial entertainment. Movies are events—forceful but quickly forgotten. They aren't lived with the way serials are. I throw my body on the couch and my brain kicks into overdrive: "Where are we? What happened to him? Her? How did he react? How did she? Why are we here?" Question piles upon question until I've sorted through everything and form a reasonable approximation of the present in media res moment constituted by the splash page or opening credits. With a novel, the involvment is intense but fleeting. Even the longest novel is only inhabited for a few days tops. You can re-read it, but re-reading brings a different set of critical faculties into play than does the up-to-now reconstruction a serial demands. Plus, those moments when you distinctly remember Greg House slugging it out with a fifty-foot tall cybernetic Godzilla? Priceless. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the first book I took myself too seriously for...
American Unexceptionalism; or, Claybaugh's "Towards a New Transatlanticism" When you work on evolutionary theory in America during the 1890s, you can't help but notice how many of the folks you're reading aren't American: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (nope), Charles Lyell (nope), Charles Darwin (nope), Alfred Russel Wallace (nope), Herbert Spencer (nope), August Weismann (nope), Thomas Huxley (nope), Louis Agassiz (nope), &c. When writing about the influence of evolutionary theory on American literature, you sign a bloody compact with the discipline: I, _________, swear to write only about American literature and American literary history. If I, _________, choose to write about any thought originating beyond these blessed shores, I promise to relate it to American liteature and American literary history. Under no circumstances will I, _________, write about the influence of foreign literatures upon American, unless it be the pernicious influence of French naturalism, in which case I will coyly hide my hatred on this heart emblazoned on my sleeve. I could prattle on about "American Exceptionalism" and its legacy in American literary studies, but I'd rather accentuate the positive here.[1] By "the positive," I mean Amanda Claybaugh's brilliant new article, "Towards a New Transatlanticism: Dickens in the United States" (Victorian Studies 48.3). In it, she discusses the importance of treating Anglo- and American literatures in English as belonging to—though by no means being equal partners in—a literary culture which cared little for national boundaries. As I mentioned earlier, I'm by necessity a proponent of this idea; after all, it is difficult to talk about the influence of evolutionary thought on American culture without recognizing that the majority of contributions to both come from England, France and Germany. We have our homegrown thought—our Emersons and Thoreaus, our Hawthornes and Melvilles, not to mention our most uniquely American minds, the Douglasses and Stowes—but for the most part American writers aspired to write homegrown thought transplanted, roots and all, from foreign soil. Treating American literature as a tradition unto itself severs its from those roots and that soil in ways this historicist thinks unnatural. So when I read Claybaugh's essay, I couldn't help but admire how skillfully she articulated my unspoken reservations: [T]he nineteenth-century literary world took for granted the existence of what I will call "literature in English." This category is never fully articulated or defended, but it underwrites most contemporary reviews. From time to time, reviewers would remark on national differences, but their more usual practice was to discuss at least some American works interchangeably with British ones. This is true, for instance, of George Eliot's reviews during the 1850s. In one, she notes in passing that American literature is characterized by "certain defects of taste" and "a sort of vague spiritualism and grandiloquence" (200), but in many other reviews she reads British and American authors alongside one another without alluding to national difference at all, pairing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Robert Browning and Walt Whitman with Alfred Lord Tennyson. Thirty years later, critics continued to do much the same thing. Indeed, their reliance on the category of literature in English...

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