Looking Backward: Historicism and the United States Literary Left
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The dissertation examines the shifting sensibilities of the US literary left from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. It distinguishes between two kinds of anti-capitalist critique: that which targets the market (or consumer society), and that which targets inequality. The dissertation primarily discusses authors—such as W.E.B. Du Bois, John Steinbeck, and E.L. Doctorow—who understood themselves to be engaged in the latter form of critique. Even for those authors who identified the production of inequality as the central problem with capitalism, however, representing that problem proved to be surprisingly challenging. In particular, the emergence of the idea of cultural pluralism at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century marked a turn away from economic analyses of injustice, both racial and otherwise. Thus, in the work of Du Bois, the idea of culture becomes the switching point between a Marxian analysis of the “freedman’s” status in the post-Reconstruction South, and a nativist argument about the corruption of American values. In the work of Steinbeck, culture is disarticulated from race, and thus comes to substitute directly for class, as problems of capitalist exploitation are redescribed as problems of cultural marginalization. From this perspective, the task becomes to preserve the integrity of the "folk” rather than to eliminate their poverty through structural transformation. The dissertation also engages with historicism in contemporary literary theory and criticism, in two ways. Firstly, it seeks to demonstrate the ways in which contemporary literary critics’ reinventions of “radical” texts and authors from the past frequently serve neoliberal political agendas. Secondly, through an analysis of the postmodern historical novel, poststructuralist historiography and New Historicist literary theory, it argues that contemporary literary criticism tends to be motivated by an anti-narrative view of history that forecloses the possibility of Marxist interpretation.
United States literature
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