Tuesday, 10 October 2006

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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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Predict the Birth of Christ? Check. The Epidemiology of Anthrax? Check. There's nothing like the present to click the past into place. Take the following exchange, from a terrible 19th Century American novel, between a proto-neurologist narrator describes and his poet-sculptor friend. Said the poet-sculptor: "At that moment I became aware of a black figure on my left side. It was literally shrouded from head to foot; even the face and th e extremities were hidden. At first I was surprised, and then by degrees a deadly fear possessed. I was motionless, and it did not stir. I turned to face it, but, as I did so, it moved so as to keep relatively to me the same positon. The whole act, if I may call it that, lasted, I should say, a minute. Then an agitation seized the form, as f it were convulsed under its black cloack, and a faint glow, like phosphorescence, ran along the lines of the drapery, and it was gone." "As he lost [the black figure]," said [the proto-neurologist], "he felt a violent pain over his left eye, and this was one of his usual attacks of neualgic headaches. It was merely the substitution of a figure of a cloaked man for the lines of zigzag light which usually precede his headaches, and are not very rare. One man sees stars falling, one a catharine-wheel; but the appearance of distinct human or other forms in their place is a recent observation." When I stumbled across this passage, I wondered whether the part of the poet's brain responsible for both the headache and the "cloaked man" was the left temporoparietal junction. Stimulate it and you'll feel a shadowy presence following you. Could the proto-neurologist have pinpointed a defect within the left TPJ of the poet-sculptor? We'll never know, of course. The author of this novel, Silas Weir Mitchell, was himself a proto-neurologist, and he claimed to have based the poet-sculptor on his friends and patients in equal measure; so the possibility of something scientifical being recorded in this passage remains. To my chagrin, it seems the impulse to transform literature into science still roosts high in my rafters, its cackles audible across the years. Whatever else it is, literature is not evidence in the scientific sense. The words are an intercessory of something-we-know-not-what, and to treat them as scientific evidence would put us league with those who think evolution "just a theory"—same mistake, only from the other direction. And yet: I remember walking to Latin IV—a.k.a. Publius Virgilius Maro, Virgilius & Vergil 101—after finishing up my Microbiology & Man midterm. I had spent the entire two days previous studying for the midterm and had barely had time to skim through the third book of the Georgics. I prided myself on always being prepared for my classes, so I seriously considered bailing. But there were only five of us in the class, so my skipping would put serious pressure on the other students, and I considered two of them close friends. So I put all truant thought...

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