Forum on World Literature (VIII)

Comparative American Literature

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Waïl S. Hassan, Comparative Literature

Comparative literature as a discipline has never taken its object of study to be self-evident or in any way fixed. There is no clearer illustration of the discipline’s constant self-reflection than the fact that the Bylaws of the American Comparative Literature Association stipulate that a “Report on the State of the Discipline must be issued at least every ten years” (V.1). Those decadal documents, beginning with the Levin Report of 1965, to the Greene Report of 1975, the Bernheimer Report of 1993, and the Saussy Report of 2004, have chronicled the changes in what it means to practice comparative literature—changes that have been so rapid and at times so controversial that the report prepared during the 1980s was so dissatisfactory to the chair of the committee charged with writing it that he decided not to submit it at all. This unique feature of comparative literature has prompted the author of one report to describe the discipline as “anxiogenic” (Bernheimer, “Introduction” 1), and another to argue that it is “defined by the search for its proper objects” (Saussy, “Exquisite” 12). And indeed, it is no easy task we define a field of study based on the conviction that conventional definitions are inherently problematic, a field of research that challenges precisely the ways in which fields of research are demarcated from one another.

Roland Greene insists that, far from being a sign of vagueness, this condition is rather “a virtue, even a privilege,” and argues that the “discipline has a great deal in common with those areas of scholarship that resemble crossroads more than bounded fields, such as anthropology, geography, and engineering” (212-13)—that is, disciplines that actively draw upon the findings of other disciplines, for instance the way engineering depends on physics, chemistry, geometry, mathematics, and geology, among others. Similarly, comparative literature since its inception has depended on scholarship in national literary traditions as well as on history, philosophy, sociology, and the arts. Greene argues that what has endured in the practice of comparative literature over the decades is its focus on the economies of exchange across established borders—be they national and linguistic borders in the case of traditional departments, cultural and imperial borders in the case of postcolonial studies, the gender divide that has preoccupied feminist theory, or disciplinary boundaries separating fields of study. In other words, what has given comparative literature its edge throughout the drastic changes which literary studies have undergone in the U.S. academy from the mid-forties to the present, according to Greene, is its insistence that the text be understood not as an autonomous artifact but as the product of complex negotiations of multiple contexts.

If this is hardly controversial today, it is because comparative literature does not simply draw on other disciplines, but often also sets the trends. As Haun Sussy argues,

Comparative literature has … won its battles. It has never been better received in the American university. The premises and protocols characteristic of our discipline are now the daily currency of coursework, publishing, hiring, and coffee-shop discussion. Authors and critics who wrote in “foreign languages” are now taught (it may be said with mock astonishment) in departments of English! The “transnational” dimension of literature and culture is universally recognized even by the specialists who not long ago suspected comparatists of dilettantism. “Interdisciplinarity” is a wonder-working keyword in grant applications and college promotional leaflets. “Theory” is no longer a badge of special identity or a mark of infamy; everyone, more or less, is doing it, more or less. Comparative teaching and reading take institutional form in an ever-lengthening list of places, through departments and programs that may or may not wear the label of comparative literature …. The controversy is over. … Our conclusions have become other people’s assumptions.
(“Exquisite” 3)

Needless to say, this success has not led to greater institutional power for comparative literature departments, which have not grown in size or influence, and Saussy jokingly suggests that a tax be “paid to the comparative literature department” by English and History departments “every time they cited Auerbach, de Man, Said, Derrida, or Spivak“ (4). Not likely to happen any time soon, I’m afraid, but donations are welcome!

In their institutional context, comparative literature departments have also thrived only when surrounded by strong “national literature” departments. Comparative Literature has historically depended on the idea of national canons but refused to acknowledge their sovereignty insofar as such sovereignty means that they were hermetically sealed from one another. Instead, comparative literature emphasizes points of contact across national and linguistic borders, which in fact it aims to destabilize. It challenges the structure that it inhabits and would not exist without. In that sense, comparative literature occupies a deconstructive position within literary studies, something that accounts both for its uncomfortable fit within the university—ever precarious, often incurring an odd mixture of incomprehension and suspicion, hostility and envy—and for the pioneering and innovative role it has played in shaping the study of literature over the decades.

As I see it, American literature has been on the way to becoming comparative literature for a long time now. English departments in this country have always housed two national traditions, British and American literatures, something which by itself does not mean that to study American literature is do comparative work. This is not just because British and American literatures are in the same language, but more importantly because it is still possible to study American literature as a self-contained tradition, without reference to other traditions. This is much less the case now with British literature, in part because of the Naipauls and the Rushdies, but also because postcolonial studies has rendered it nearly impossible to speak of Victorian or Modernist literature without reference African, Asian, and Caribbean writing. In fact, serious arguments have been made about the postcolonial Middle Ages, postcolonial Chaucer, and postcolonial Shakespeare. In the meantime, Irish and Scottish literatures have claimed postcolonial status vis-à-vis the English canon. I am not saying that British literature has become comparative literature, but only that the ramparts have been breached. If, as Saussy contends, the most characteristic feature of comparative literature is its adverbial epistemology, its sine qua non procedure of reading comparatively, of insisting not on the thing in itself and for itself, but on the thing in relation to other things, within a carefully constructed analytical framework of analysis (“the grounds for comparison”) then British literature can be said to be no longer a prisoner in the fortress of Englishness. Empire provided the impetus to consolidate a notion of Englishness and a national literary canon that can function pedagogically to sustain imperial power (Vishwanathan, Gikandi), but in doing so empire also ultimately laid the grounds for undoing precisely what it had sought to construct.

Wai Chee Dimock’s call to study American literature comparatively is based on the recognition of the relationship between a hermetically sealed national canon and imperial aspirations. That is why she begins her book by referring to the U.S.’s latest imperial misadventure in Iraq, and specifically to the destruction of the Iraqi National Library. She calls for American literature to be studied “across deep time,” so that American identity be could reconceived in relation to, rather than in isolation from (and hence in opposition to) the heritage of the world, beginning in this case with the very Mesopotamia whose cultural legacy the marines and their Pentagon commanders did not care to protect, out of ignorance, indifference, and imperial arrogance. Her point, I think, is not that Americanists should abandon Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller, James, Pound, and Lowell, or even the idea of an American tradition, but rather to read those canonical figures—indeed to read the tradition itself—in relation to other figures and other traditions; that is to say, to read American literature from a comparative perspective. So I don’t see a contradiction between her programmatic introduction and the bulk of her book, in which successive chapters read the writers I’ve just named in relation to Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Latin literature, Hafiz, the traditions of Islam, Dante’s Commedia, and Chinese and Caribbean authors. Rather than discarding the national tradition and becoming Egyptologists and Sinologists, Dimock calls upon Americanists to abandon the notions of American exceptionalism, isolationism, and Manifest Destiny on which the study of American literature has been predicated, and to proceed instead from the premise that American literature belongs within, and is shaped by, complex negotiations with other traditions—all porous and contaminated with one another—in the context of the entire world’s cultural heritage.

The final point I want to make here is that Dimock’s is only the latest effort to internationalize American literary studies. Her formulation is new, but similar arguments have been made, for instance, by John Shields in his book The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self, and differently by Werner Sollors in his work on multilingual American literature (1998, 2000). Since this touches specifically on my own work on Arab-American literature, I might add that whereas Dimock and Shields argue for comparative American literary studies that place American literature in the context of the literatures of the world, ethnic literatures of the United States demand an expanded sense of “American literature” that, if taken seriously, would turn American literature into comparative literature without ever going abroad. Consider, for example, that Arab-American literature since the late 19th century has been written in at least three languages—Arabic, English, and French (Hassan). Moreover, the fact that some of the earliest slave narratives, such as that by Omar ibn Said, were written in Arabic calls for African American literature to be studied comparatively, and not only in the sense that Henry Louis Gates meant when he argued, in the The Signifying Monkey, that “anyone who analyzes black literature must do so as a comparativist, by definition, because our canonical texts have complex double formal antecedents, the Western and the black” (xxiv); it is also multilingual. Indeed, Marc Shell and Werner Sollors’s anthology of multilingual American literature includes works written in eighteen languages. The national, in other words, is always already multiple and polyglot, and American literature, if by that we understand not the restricted canon of old but the totality of American literature in its ethnic and multilingual diversity, is a prime example of that. So to answer the triple question about “literary methodology today,” whether it is “National? Comparative? Global?,” I would say, yes, all three at once.

Works Cited

Bylaws of the American Comparative Literature Association.

Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

---. “Introduction: The Anxieties of Comparison.” In Bernheimer 1-17.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: writing identity in the culture of colonialism. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

Greene, Roland. “Not Works but Networks: Colonial Worlds in Comparative Literatures.” In Saussy 212-23.

Hassan, Waïl S. “The Rise of Arab-American Literature: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in the Work of Ameen Rihani.” American Literary History 20: 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2008), forthcoming.

Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

---. “Exquisite Cadavers Stitched from Fresh Nightmares: Of Mimes, Hives, and Selfish Genes.” In Saussy 3-42.

Shell, Marc and Werner Sollors, eds. The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature. New York: New York UP, 2000.

Shields, John C. The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2001.

Sollors, Werner, ed. Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature. New York: New York UP, 1998.

Vishwanathan, Gauri. Masks of conquest : literary study and British rule in India. New York, Columbia UP, 1989.


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