Volume 64, Issue 2 | June 2003

Special Issue: National Literary Histories

Author Title
Brook Thomas National Literary Histories: Imagined Communities or Imagined Societies?  
Although we are, according to some, in a postnational or transnational era, numerous new national literary histories continue to be produced, and, as the essays in this issue demonstrate, scholarly attention to national literary histories continues to reap rewards. The production of so many new national literary histories continues in part because there are more officially recognized nations today than ever before, and in part because old histories are constantly updated in response to market pressures and a sense that each generation deserves a new version of its literary past. This demand for newness means that no matter how comprehensive a past history might be, it is inevitably faulted for repressing aspects of the national literary past that the new one claims to recover. A case in point is the highly successful 1988 Columbia Literary History of the United States. On the one hand, the Columbia History reveals unacknowledged continuities with the histories it would displace. On the other, its formal structure offers a legitimately new sense of the nation by implying that it is an imagined society, not, as Benedict Anderson would have it, an imagined community.
Linda Georgianna Periodization and Politics: The Case of the Missing Twelfth Century in English Literary History
Richard Helgerson Before National Literary History  
In the last two decades of the sixteenth century, the English produced no national literary history, but they did begin thinking about what it would take for England to have such a history and they began claiming that in their own time its foundations were in fact being laid. For them this meant emulating and imitating the accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome and of modern Italy. A national literature, as they understood it, could not begin at home. It had, on the contrary, to take the form of a translated import. In this, the Elizabethan experience bears a striking likeness to that of postcolonial nations in the second half of the twentieth century. For both, only the foreign model is, as the postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty has put it, "theoretically knowable." Like modern postcolonial peoples, the Elizabethans were thus self-conscious "hybrids," "mimic men." This essay generalizes from these observations to argue that all national literary histories inevitably participate in the condition of mimicry, hybridity, and postcoloniality, that all are built on a theoretical frame supplied by some foreign other.
Hinrich C. Seeba "Trostgründe": Cultural Nationalism and Historical Legitimation in Nineteenth-Century German Literary Histories  
The field of German Studies is committed to literature as a social practice, to history as a discourse of continuity and to the nation as a mental construct. The 'culturalist' approach to writing national literature is concerned mainly with two questions: how does the concept of cultural continuity, with its attending moral claims, respond to the numerous political breaking points in German history? Since Germany for centuries has lacked a unified state as a kind of constitutional framework for developing an undisputed national identity, the idea of a national literature, as it gained momentum between the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the founding of the German Reich in 1871, tended to serve a compensatory function: to create in language and literature what was missing in political reality. Thus, a discourse of consolation, in German Trost, emerged, an attempt to raise national pride in the face of political, economic, and social gloom by drawing attention to great German achievements in the realm of the arts, literature, philosophy, and science. The Romantic philosopher Fichte's call of 1807 for a "national book" was heeded in several areas, in linguistic terms by Campe's Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (1807), in literary terms by Goethe's Faust I (1808), and in historical terms by a growing number of histories of German national literature, with Ludwig Wachler's retrospective of 1818 ("At the time, looking back on a glorious past offered the only worldly consolation") being among the first and the historian Gervinus's Geschichte der poetischen National-Literatur der Deutschen of 1835 ("Like art, history must soothe, and we must never go away from a work of art unconsoled") being the most significant politically. Writing the history of German national literature, thus, was always considered an important contribution to the idea of Kulturnation, cultural nation, which was supposed to anticipate and justify the hoped-for nation state.
Margit Sichert Functionalizing Cultural Memory: Foundational British Literary History and the Construction of National Identity
Hugh Roberts The Same People Living in Different Places: Curnow’s Anthology and New Zealand Literary History
Herbert Grabes Cultivating a Common Literary Heritage: British Histories of English Literature since World War II
Author Title
Julie Candler Hayes Ideographia: The Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe by David Porter
Catriona MacLeod Goethe as Woman: The Undoing of Literature by Benjamin Bennett
Lauren M. E. Goodlad A Probable State: the Novel, the Contract, and the Jews by Irene Tucker
Brian Lennon Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival by Clare L. Spark
Cyrena N. Pondrom Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
William Flesch Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities by Kevin Jackson

Modern Language Quarterly | Department of English, Box 354330 | University of Washington | Seattle, WA 98195-4430