Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006)
ISBN 9780691114491. $35. 264 pp.
Justin Quinn (Charles University, Prague)
Payback time had to come sooner or later. In the mid-twentieth century, American scholars, among them F. O. Matthiesen, R.W.B. Lewis and Roy Harvey Pearce, began to construct the canon of American literature. This was contemporary with the establishment of the Salzburg Seminar and the Fulbright Program, which made professors of American literature cultural ambassadors. Most of these scholars were trained in the humanities and knowledge of the Classics would have been taken for granted. But the nationalistic turn instituted a different type of schooling for literary scholars, one that was focused on America as the fundamental framework for the understanding of literature. Since then, two generations have been educated under the rubric of American literature, and the thrill has been fading for at least the last fifteen years. The backlashes are well under way. Perhaps most importantly, there has been multiculturalism, which challenged the ethnic and racial criteria of Cold War American literature. Wai Chee Dimock’s ambitious book is another, different attempt to break the nation as a category for the understanding of literature.
Her work on nineteenth-century American literature was outstanding for its Marxist readings of classic texts, but the present book is disappointing as it merely offers a smorgasbord of provocations, none of which is thoroughly argued and researched. Indeed, if the argument and research were more thorough the book would be fifty times its length, as it covers the Asian and African antecedents and consequences of Thoreau, the Islamic contexts of Emerson, the Egyptian interests of Fuller, fractal geometry in Henry James, Ezra Pound and the Kantian idea of beauty, Robert Lowell’s translations from Latin, African dialects in American literature, and animals as fully ethical entities; and it does this in 243 pages.
The only guiding principle for her argument is that American literature should not be defined by the borders of the American nation, but has been always open to diverse foreign interests. The point is both provocative and banal. It is the former because ways have to be found to avoid nationalist readings of literary texts; it is the latter because a nation as young as the United States can hardly have created its culture ex nihilo. Instead of research and detailed analysis, Dimock’s book provides an awful lot of figurative prose of the following type. In the passage below she wonders what would happen if we broadened our horizons to include longer chronologies in our consideration of the continent’s literary artifacts:
What would American literature look like then? Can we transpose some familiar figures onto this broadened and deepened landscape? I would like to test that possibility. Using Islam as one of the lifelines of the world, I trace a thread spun of its migration, dissemination and vernacularization. Running through the terrain usually called ‘American,’ this thread will knit together kinships no doubt surprising to many. These owe their legibility to the deep field of time: its scope, its tangled antecedents and its ability to record far-flung and mediated ties. Scale enlargement, I argue, enlarges our sense of complex kinship.
There is real excitement in this prose, and the possibilities that it offers are genuinely attractive; however, to carry out the agenda suggested here would take scholarship that Dimock simply does not possess. Instead, what she provides is merely more figurative language about fabrics to compensate for its absence.
Perhaps the signal failing of a book that claims to discuss literature from such a wide range of languages is the utter disregard of the issue of translation. Nationalistic, indeed imperialistic, arrogance is Dimock’s bête noire throughout the book; but arguably that arrogance emerges in her cavalier attitude to the issue of language. There seems to be a scholarly presumption here that literature from Sanskrit to German is unproblematically available for analysis when she deals with English texts. One needs a scholar to speak with authority on Egyptian hieroglyphs or Sanskrit texts in relation to the American Renaissance, and not merely with the knowledge gleaned from a few weeks in the stacks. This is a type of professional competence that is taken for granted in comparative literature. Indeed, non-anglophone scholars of American literature spend their lives mediating between at least two languages and cultures, and Dimock’s conclusions will sound very obvious to them. The book, ultimately, displays the provinciality of American literary studies within the U.S.