9. Conclusion: Only the myth lives in myth

Outside Modernism's narrow genealogy

What Feidelson called "the distinctive spirit of the literature of our day," what I have called "New Critical modernism," was never the aesthetic program of any but a minority of writers and critics. Nevertheless, it has so dominated this century's view of its literature and the literature of centuries past that only recently have literary institutions--by which I intend not only the academy, but also the more wide-reaching literary magazines and reviews--attempted to name what "myth" and "symbol" and "irony" derided. If amidst these recent developments we find ourselves in a better position than either Miller or Feidelson to imagine the historical outlines of twentieth-century British-American literature, that history does not appear an inventory of "other," "better," "more representative" books written between 1900 and the present, but an account of the making, and perhaps only now, the unmaking, of New Critical modernism. In the alternative, it appears the story of all that transpired in agonistic relation to its hegemony.

If the last decade's furor over method and the on-going rediscovery of nineteenth-century literature are signs of an emergent interpretive agenda with its own distinct sense of the past, we may well be participants in the first significant shift in aesthetic discourse since Van Wyck Brooks's call for the "invention of a usable past" was taken up by the writers of transition who invoked the "classical" Ulysses to reject the canons of nineteenth-century literature and declare for themselves a "Revolution of the Word." The prospect that another "transition" might undo the work of the last poses some questions easily lost amid our debate over whether, and how, the canon ought to be revised. When the canon Modernism made is finally undone, how will we bear witness to our act of revision? Will we wishfully invoke "History" to choose "better" literary and critical parents, reluctant to come to terms with the concrete history that is Modernism--its legacy inscribed in our educations and institutions, our methods and counter-methods, our very pleasures in reading and writing? Or will our reassessment of literatures, methods, and values past provoke consideration of our position within a history of power and persuasion--a continuously divisive discourse of literary consent and dissent we can neither escape nor deny without misunderstanding ourselves? To ask these questions is to insist upon a separation between the task of writing literary history and participation in the act of canon reformation, while recognizing the difficulty in doing so.

Whether or not we can produce a literary history capable of analyzing the processes of canon formation without participating in them, the aspiration imposes a useful discipline. Literary history demands more than an revision of hegemonic critical techniques, values, and pleasures; it requires an inquiry into the contingencies that produced such critical techniques, such values, such pleasures. So described, literary history may well facilitate the aims of canon reform: without a historical account of the canon's construction, the range of works the canon marginalized can only be partially recovered, and those recovered, recovered only in part. Desire and conviction are insufficient: the broad history of the novel which lies outside Modernism's narrow genealogy cannot be opened by a "family romance," however "revolutionary" its rhetoric, which mistakes the canon's proven powers of persuasion for an imposed dogma, no less than the Modernist canon itself can be maintained as such by force or rote. At minimum, then, the imaginative act of recovery which lies at the heart of both canon reform and canon maintenance requires a thorough exploration of the dynamics of the early twentieth-century debate over the shape of the New Novel. We remain participants, willing or not, in that episode of formal rivalry until we examine its historically specific genesis. Even then, literary history offers no "talking cure"; the canon's authority is no doubt stubborn enough to survive even the most strenuous historical excavation. But until confronted as a made thing, confronted in the moment of its making, the canon Modernism made will play an invisible but powerful role in every anti-canonical search for alternative traditions to interpret, value, and enjoy. Simply put, the range of alternatives we see, our desire to choose among them, even beyond them, and our means of doing so all bear the trace the aesthetic polemics of "The Revolution of the Word."

« Previous | Main | Next »