Robert Ferguson (Columbia University) wrote to me in an e-mail that the format for tonight’s MLA roundtable “American Literary Historiography, Then and Now,” which I am chairing, was not promising, given that we had seven people slotted to speak and then field questions — and only 1 hour and 15 minutes to do it in. in addition to maintaining a strict time limit on each speaker’s position statement (5 minutes, plus 1 minute to sum up), I’m going to forego making a statement myself, limiting myself to introducing my fellow participants — Morris Dickstein (CUNY Grad Center); Robert A. Ferguson (Columbia University); Gerald Graff (University of Illinois, Chicago); Walter Benn Michaels, (University of Illinois, Chicago); Shira Wolosky (Hebrew University of Jerusalem); and Rafia Zafar (Washington University) — and letting the audience know that I asked each participant to speak about one or more of the following questions: 1) What did you feel was the most pressing problem for the literary historian when you wrote your contribution to the Cambridge History of American Literature; 2) What do you feel will be the most pressing problem for the next set of literary historians who tackle your period or field? 3) What do you think the Cambridge History of American Literature as a whole has accomplished?
Were I myself to answer those three questions, I’d probably say something like this:
When the Cambridge History was first conceived in the early 1980s, a fair and progressive approach to U.S. prose writing after 1940 meant foregrounding the importance of texts written by African AmAs time passed, however, it became increasingly clear to me as the then-associate editor of the History that no account of American fiction after World War II could seem anything but hopelessly dated without an extended treatment of what I began to call emergent American literatures. (As associate editor, I was responsible for tracking our ‘coverage’ of the field and tracking changes in the profession and in what people were interested in talking about at conferences like the MLA and ASA). I began to argue that some of the most vital writing in American fiction after the Second World War is being done by writers who are conscious of belonging to groups that have been constructed as minorities by American culture and who, as groups, have less cultural standing than the Jewish American or the African American. I suggested that these other minority traditions needed to be included and needed to be included in a comparative way that made clear the structural affinities among them bodies of literature. I’d been reading Abdul JanMohammed and David Lloyd?s introduction to the volume The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse (1990). ‘Cultures designated as minorities,’ they wrote there, ‘have certain shared experiences by virtue of their similar antagonistic relationship to the dominant culture.’ In this statement, I heard echoes one of Raymond Williams?s model of culture as the interplay of dominant, emergent, and residual forms, with emergent culture serving as locus for the creation of ‘new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship.’ It was from this set of insights that my section on ‘Emergent Literatures’ in volume seven of the History was born.
"What tasks remain for the historian interested in the fields that I covered in the History? For the immediate future, I think it is important to promote the term emergent as a way of talking about U.S. multicultural literatures. I recently discovered that the term still doesn’t have much currency: NYU Press, which will be bringing out a revised, stand-alone version of the ‘Emergent Literatures’ section of the Cambridge History, has asked me to call the new volume something like Multicultural Literatures of the U.S.: An Introduction to Emergent Writing in the U.S. after 1940. ‘Emergent’ could be in the subtitle, but for the title, the marketing department wanted the more recognizable ‘multicultural.’ What I hope to get across more effectively in the revised version is that my use of the term ’emergent’ is a critique of multiculturalism as it is often currently understood. What the idea of emergent literatures teaches us, I think, is that the boundaries between literary traditions are permeable. Literary traditions want to contaminate one another, not remain pure (to use the distinction that Anthony Appiah makes in his recent book Cosmopolitan: Ethics in a World of Strangers ). A multiculturalism that seeks to keep the traditions I treat in ‘Emergent Liteatures’ separate and pure is missing the point.
"In other words, the idea of emergent literatures is about structure, not content. It’s a category that allows us to speculate, to put earlier traditions into a new position where we can rethink what it is that they mean. So when the next literary history of the United States comes to be written, I think it will need a section on emergent literatures. It may not have anything to do with emergent literatures as we understand them now, which are so interested in categories of identity: ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender. It may well have something to do with forms that we consider to be rear-guard today.
"I hope that my section of the Cambridge History has begun the process of getting this point across. As far as the History as a whole has concerned, I believe it has accomplished its mission of showing that literary history is best told as a set of overlapping narratives, arising from different perspectives and methodologies, some complementary, some competing. The Cambridge History is best seen as a set of conversations about U.S. literary history, in which beliefs about the nature and meaning of literary history are put to the test. Which beliefs will survive to be useful to the next generation of literary historians is something that we are still in the process of discovering."
[For a more detailed discussion of my section of the Cambridge History of American Literature, please see the transcript of a talk that a gave at Vanderbilt University last month called "Why Emergent Literatures Matter." For more information about the Cambridge History, click the CHAL link above.]