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Preview: American Literary History - current issue

American Literary History Current Issue

Published: Thu, 21 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Last Build Date: Tue, 09 Jan 2018 15:43:28 GMT


The Editor as Hero: The Novel, the Media Conglomerate, and the Editorial Critique

Thu, 21 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

This essay tells the story of the late twentieth-century “editorial critique,” an unusual set of essays, written mostly by book editors working for major publishers, that attacked the conglomerate takeover of the US publishing industry. That takeover began in earnest in 1966 when RCA acquired Random House (Smith 35, 41). By 2000, five conglomerates, controlling numerous formerly independent presses, dominated the US book business. The critique presented this consolidation, narrowly, as the cause of literary decline. But considered in the context of intertwined literary and business histories, including the evolution of the editor’s crucial role as both writer’s advocate and middle-management employee, the critique reveals something different: first, how the hidden structures that produced US fiction before the conglomerate takeover also produced a saleable idea of the novel’s importance as a cultural institution, and second, how conglomerate control of the book trade undermined the production of this idea and thus the prestige of the novel. I argue that the editorial critique, ostensibly an account of the novel’s qualitative decline, more precisely marks the disintegration, at the hands of corporate capitalism, of a formidable machine for generating literary prestige.

Irving’s Astoria and the Forms of Enterprise

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Washington Irving’s Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), is usually read, when it is read at all, as a lament for an unrealized empire and a call for further US expansion. The wide-ranging text narrates John Jacob Astor’s designs for a Pacific fur empire, the foundation of the American Fur Company (AFC), the two voyages—by sea and by land—that he commissioned to found a trading fort at the mouth of the Columbia River, and the eventual sale of Fort Astoria during the War of 1812 to the Montreal-based North West Company (NWC). Near the end of Astoria, Irving sounds an elegiac note: “In a word, Astoria might have realized the anticipations of Mr. Astor, so well understood and appreciated by Mr. Jefferson, in gradually becoming a commercial empire beyond the Mountains, peopled by ‘free and independent Americans, and linked with us by ties of blood and interest’” (596).11 The tension in Jefferson’s words—between national identity and commercial empire—pervades Irving’s text.

Wily Ecologies: Comic Futures for American Environmentalism

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

California novelist T. C. Boyle has a reputation for environmental comedy, and specifically for satires of characters who advocate, often in absurdly extreme ways, for native species and wilderness conservation while turning a blind eye to the border-crossing migrations of people and other species that have shaped the US (Tortilla Curtain [1995]; When the Killing’s Done [2011]). In his 2016 novel The Terranauts, Boyle directs this wry view of one sort of American environmentalism at another—what we could call technosurvivalism. The novel retells the checkered history of Biosphere 2 (Cohn 808): the “scaled-down replica of Earth … replete with a desert, a savanna, a rain forest and a wave-machine-rippled ocean, as well as its own sealed and calibrated atmosphere” that two separate crews inhabited from 1991 to 1993 (Miles). The novel explores the contradictory narratives that inform such a venture, which channels not only a dystopian belief in the planet’s eventual demise but also a utopian fantasy that at least a few Homo sapiens might replicate themselves and Earth’s biomes elsewhere. If the project’s name signals that Biosphere 2 (renamed E2 in the novel) is a miniature Earth, its geographical setting in the Arizona desert and financial backing by a zealous billionaire (whom Boyle calls G. C., for “God the Creator” [12]) draws on colonial ideas of America as a new world, a terra rasa to be terraformed by Europeans.11The Terranauts ridicules the bad-faith environmentalism of the biosphere by juxtaposing these colonial undercurrents with the costly technologies required to build and operate a geodesic dome and with the fatalistic premise that Earth is a lost cause. Put differently, the novel parodies Biosphere 2 to show it up as solipsistic rather than self-sustaining—a tiny “Spaceship Earth,” to invoke Buckminster Fuller, that does not foster healthy ecologies, nourishing food, or a sense of place but instead fuels hunger pangs and backbiting among its eight human colonists.

Lyric Reading in the Black Ethnographic Archive

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

“Meteors, Ships, Etc.”: Native American Histories of Colonialism and Early American Archives

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

In his 1893 book Life and Traditions of the Red Man, the Penobscot Abenaki man Joseph Nicolar offers an account of Penobscot encounters with colonists in the seventeenth century. In the book, the Penobscots confront a mystifying fog that covers the earth and creates a famine, during which time the people suffer poor health and altered access to resources, becoming increasingly “desperate” and “disheartened” in their attempts to find food (99). They discover with the help of their “spiritual men” and an elderly woman who temporarily takes the form of a loon that the fog is caused by the “spiritual power” of unfamiliar men traveling west across the ocean (99, 101). The loon woman advises the Penobscots in their knowledge of and preparations for these travelers’ appearance. Shortly before the Penobscots sight the Europeans traveling on the ocean, the loon woman transforms into a ball of fire that appears in the sky and falls into the water, a sign, Nicolar writes, that the Europeans are on their way to Wabanaki lands.11 Yet as the ball of fire falls into the water, it stands in the text as a phenomenon that changes the Penobscots’ material world by providing new “implements” or tools for obtaining sustenance and ending the famine (105).

Transatlantic Book Trade and Copyright

Wed, 13 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle, BaldwinPeter. Princeton University Press, 2014.

The New Reification, or Quotidian Materialism

Wed, 06 Dec 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Other Things, BrownBill. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Racialized Bodies and Asian American Literature

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism, DayIyko. Duke University Press, 2016.

Resurgent Christianity

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right, DouglasChristopher. Cornell University Press, 2016.

In the Vestibule of Another World

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

A Mysterious Life and Calling: From Slavery to Ministry in South Carolina, RileyCharlotte S.. Edited by LuckyCrystal J., Wisconsin University Press, 2016.

New Puritans

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 00:00:00 GMT

The Other Jonathan Edwards: Selected Writings on Society, Love, and Justice, McDermottGerald and StoryRonald, editors. University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.