Narrative Detours

Introduction: The Genealogy of the Modernist Canon

This essay proceeds as a "local study" in the history of the modern novel, using the instance of Henry Miller's Paris narratives and their ambiguous place in our received tradition to test the grounds of a literary history attentive to the formation of literary values, tracing their genesis and legacy in dissent as well as assent. How can we, as literary historians, recover from the "texts" we examine a sense of the past that is something more than a linear genealogy of "great, influential works" around which lies a disordered library of "lesser works," "curiosities," and "failures" into which we periodically venture to "invent" new "usable pasts," new genealogies of "great works"? My local study of a most controversial novelist, who for so long and for so many highly charged reasons has been held at arm's length from the Modernist canon, is intended to suggest the outlines of an answer. If attention to the aesthetic discourse within which coalitions of writers and critics vie for the authority to promulgate "the tradition" discloses a heretofore unsuspected density and coherence to Miller's narrative and aesthetic polemics, such an approach is likely to do the same for other apparent "detours," past and present, from the literary genealogy New Critical modernism traces back to Homer. At stake is not simply Miller's "place" within a divisive twentieth-century literature, but our understanding of other alternatives to New Critical modernism, less controversial, whose polemical engagement in "serious" novelistic discourse yet remains concealed beneath the literary and critical consensus first forged in the 1920s and 1930s.

Two relatively recent developments in literary scholarship signal a renewed need for literary history as an integrative mode of analysis, even as they undermine the premises that once made literary history a matter of checking biographies, tracing influences, and constructing of these the literary genealogies of Great Writers and Great Works. The first is the "deconstructive" critique of hermeneutics, which has dispossessed the text of that isolate, self-contained structural integrity of meaning which the New Critics viewed as the key to interpretation and cultural value. Perhaps more important, the second development is the renewed interest in the values and techniques of those works from which high modernism and New Criticism maintained a studied distance: realism, naturalism, ethnic/local color, and proletarian literature. Feminist scholarship, with its search for difference in writing and its desire to recover women's experience, has participated in and energized both these developments. The result on all scores has been an "information explosion" in literary studies which, I believe, awaits a renewed sense of literary history to weigh, distribute, relate, and assimilate; for only a sense of history, and not the theoretical imagination, however "decentered," can juggle the simultaneous and sequential proliferation of competing views and values which the current "explosion" discovers to be constituent of our literary past and present.

Yet in the face of this task, literary history remains in quest of its own grounds. How does one locate the meaning of a text and its relations to other texts when meaning seems no longer a property of the text and every text appears an "intertext" equally related and unrelated to every other text? Where does one place the "canon" and how does one recognize its imaginative power when a vast body of once "marginal" works and literatures are subject to an increasing scrutiny which has had the effect of making the "canon" suddenly appear "marginal" itself, a preoccupation of a few individuals and institutions dwarfed by the onward rush of popular culture and history? This essay explores the possibility of a literary history in the current critical landscape: one capable of asking not what or how texts mean, but what they have meant; one capable of describing the literary and interpretive acts whereby the aesthetic hegemony of New Critical modernism was first forged and then sustained in the face of many alternatives. To find such a capability is to make it possible to ask a new, distinctively historical set of questions concerning the "meaning" and "place" of Miller's expatriate narratives. How must we read Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn in order to understand them in dialogic relation with other modernist "experiments" such as Joyce's Ulysses--more simply, how did Miller's narratives speak to the contemporary struggle to define the nature of modern literature? And, in turn, how must we narrate literary and critical history in order to explain how among many competing modernist "experiments" some, but not Miller's, became Modernist "monuments"? It is through these two questions and their interrelation that I hope to retain for this essay in the history of the modern novel some of the rigor of "close reading" lost to more sweeping accounts, and as well to lend broader and, I intend, unsettling implication to such a local study of a "minor" modernist.

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