Monday, February 21, 2011

Paul Giles's "The Global Remapping of American Literature"

Paul Giles is the Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney. His many books include Atlantic Republic and Virtual Americas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Global Remapping of American Literature, and reported the following:
The Global Remapping of American Literature is about ways in which conceptions of “American Literature” have fluctuated over space and time. My argument is that before about 1830 conceptions of America were highly amorphous, in the wake of the recent War of Independence, and that the contours of the country had not yet been clearly delineated. I find a parallel to the more recent period of American literature, after about 1980, when the forces of globalization and transnationalism have rendered the economic and cultural boundaries of the nation much more permeable. I contrast this with the period between the end of the U.S. Civil War and the Reagan era of the 1980s, when U.S. national formations, and consequently its literature, were more distinctively set apart and independently minded.

Page 99 of the book [inset left, click to enlarge] exemplifies this in its discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels The Marble Faun (1850) and The Scarlet Letter (1860). Both of Hawthorne’s works of fiction look past towards the past—the Puritan world of the seventeenth century in the former, the legacy of classical Rome in the latter—and they map nineteenth-century America in relation to these historical antecedents. Throughout Hawthorne’s texts, there is a constant interrogation of what it means to appropriate the past, to annex previous historical eras as predecessors of the present era. Consequently, as page 99 suggests, a lot of Hawthorne’s “geospatial rhetoric” involves the mapping of time as well as space; writing, for him, becomes “a form of cartography, a way of mapping out identity by circumscribing space and . . . “ (the next word on page 100, as you might have guessed, is “time”!). Hawthorne’s narratives thus waver ambiguously between a transcendental recuperation of the past and an ironic recognition of how the past always remains fundamentally unknowable. For Hawthorne, as for other authors discussed in this book, the process of mapping tends to operate reflexively, as a comment on how human societies use geography as well as history to make sense of their world.
Read an excerpt from The Global Remapping of American Literature, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue