A World Elsewhere, by Richard Poirier
Richard Poirier’s ambitious essay is another in the sequence of interpretive schematizations of American literary and cultural history appearing over the past fifteen years. These books—some now established as the common wisdom of academic criticism: Marius Bewley’s The Eccentric Design, Charles Feidelson’s Symbolism and American Literature, R.W.B. Lewis’s The American Adam, Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, Roy Pearce’s The Continuity of American Poetry, Charles Sanford’s The Quest for Paradise, Loren Baritz’s City on a Hill, Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, Edwin Fussel’s Frontier—present a phenomenon worth considering at large. They constitute a distinct class and contemporary symptom.
For one thing, they are the product of different circumstances from those supporting the comparable books of an earlier generation, like Van Wyck Brooks’s America’s Coming-of-Age (1915) or Constance Rourke’s American Humor (1931). Then the determining impulse came from new movements in art and letters, during the anni mirabiles of high modernism, and from the related surge of progressivist hopefulness in politics and social action. The provenance of these more recent critical syntheses has been much more narrowly academic. What has brought them into being is, basically, a set of academic circumstances: first, the encouragement to a closer reading of individual works given by the so-called “new” criticism; second, and more important, the accidental separation in most universities of the study of American literature from the rest of the curriculum and the emergence of something called “American studies” or “American civilization” as a separate subject, creating courses of study, granting degrees, and defining a field for professional inquiry and advancement. And through the postwar spread of grants and fellowships this development has reached foreign universities, producing in the 1960′s a second run of syntheses by English and Commonwealth scholars: D.E.S. Maxwell’s American Fiction, Tony Tanner’s The Reign of Wonder, A.N. Kaul’s The American Vision, Douglas Grant’s Purpose and Place.
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