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Canons and Contexts$
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Paul Lauter

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780195055931

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195055931.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 26 November 2021

The Literatures of America—A Comparative Discipline

The Literatures of America—A Comparative Discipline

(p.48) The Literatures of America—A Comparative Discipline
Canons and Contexts

Paul Lauter

Oxford University Press

An image has long haunted the study of American culture. It limits our thought, shapes our values. We speak of the “mainstream,” and we imply by that term the existence of other work, minor rills and branches. In prose, the writing of men like Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow—to name some of the central figures—constituted the “mainstream.” Others—writers of color, most women writers, “regional” or “ethnic” male and female authors—might, we said, be assimilated into the mainstream, though probably they would continue to constitute tributaries, interesting and often sparkling, but finally of less importance. They would, we tacitly assumed, be judged by the standards and aesthetic categories we had developed for the canonical writers. At best, we acknowledged that including in the canon writers like Wharton, Cather, Chopin, and Ellison might change somewhat our definition of the mainstream, but the intellectual model imposed by that mainstream image, this Great River theory of American letters, has persisted even among mildly revisionist critics. Such critics have continued to focus on a severely limited canon of “major” writers based on historical and aesthetic categories from this slightly augmented mainstream. The problem we face is that the model itself is fundamentally misleading. The United States is a heterogeneous society whose cultures, while they overlap in significant respects, also differ in critical ways. A normative model presents those variations from the mainstream as abnormal, deviant, lesser, perhaps ultimately unimportant. That kind of standard is no more helpful in the study of culture than is a model, in the study of gender differences, in which the male is considered the norm, or than are paradigms, in the study of minority or ethnic social organization and behavior based on Anglo-American society. What we need, rather, is to pose a comparativist model for the study of American literature. It is true that few branches of academe in the United States have been so self-consciously indifferent to comparative study as has been the field we call “American literature.”

Keywords:   Aesthetic standards, Black Arts movement, Cane, Domestic fictions, Explication de texte, Frontier, Letters, Mississippi, Native American, Puerto Rican

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