Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms

David Ayers finds that creative influences migrate both ways in the literature of the Americas

December 11, 2008

The shape and style of American literary studies have for some decades been subject to vociferous critique. Exposed as a conservative construct, "American literature" has been forced to tolerate all sorts of additions it had originally been designed to exclude. Almost since the invention of the "American Renaissance" model, African-American literature and theory have asserted a counter-model, while more recently Native American literature and theory have begun to make a similar impression.

The notion of expanding or subverting the American literary canon has in recent years begun to give way to a model that is increasingly open to considering literature in the context of the patterns of migration by which the US was formed. Consideration of migration focuses attention on the way in which individual authors and literary practices cross national and linguistic boundaries. "Transnationalism" is the term under which sociology has recognised migratory processes, and this term has now begun to find favour among literary scholars in a zone where postcolonial and ethnic studies come together.

There are potential problems in giving articulation to this new area of comparative studies. As Anita Patterson notes, investigations in this area need to avoid the pitfall of caricaturing the opposition between a tyrannous white literary hegemony on the one hand, and a radically subversive black poetics on the other. Literary studies now need to find a way past the scholarly territorialisation of "modernism", "postmodernism", "postcolonialism" and so on. As an alternative, Patterson proposes to bring to bear the "historicity of poetic forms" in order to "reveal the contours of a lyric history in America".

This study avoids a broad-brush approach to its topic in favour of a series of detailed studies of (often unexpected) connections between American and Caribbean poets, both Anglophone and Francophone. Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, the Uruguayan-born Jules Laforgue, T. S. Eliot and the Guadaloupian Creole poet Saint-John Perse are found to intermesh in details of style and language.

The influence of Poe and Whitman on Eliot is found to be stronger than is usually supposed, and Eliot is therefore more of a New World poet. The seemingly Parisian influence of Jules Laforgue on Eliot is mediated by Eliot's awareness of the Francophone roots of his birthplace (St Louis, Missouri).

The most interesting comment on Eliot here is the sustained investigation of his relationship with the work of Saint-John Perse, whose Anabase was Eliot's only significant translation from French poetry. Like Eliot, Langston Hughes was influenced by Baudelaire and Laforgue, and by the Parisian avant-garde. He travelled widely in the Caribbean, was involved in the Francophone Negritude movement, and developed reciprocal literary relations with Haitian poet Jacques Roumain, tying Harlem into the network of Caribbean modernism. This Caribbean theme is continued in chapters on the imbrication of the writing of Wilson Harris (Guyana) and Derek Walcott (St Lucia) with that of Whitman, Eliot, Ezra Pound and Stephen Crane.

Patterson has produced a scholarly and sensitive study of poetry, but there are some risks. Her methodology makes large leaps from textual details to meta-narrative claims about "hybridity", a term that is repeated too often, as if it actually defined or explained something.

While there is close attention to modernist poetic language, a corresponding sense of the modernist poetic project beyond questions of vocabulary and style would have been welcome.

Patterson's study is deliberately minor key, and the contrast with windy grand narrative is quite intentional. The renovation of the traditional study of influence as a means to explore transnational poetics is rewarding, and this book slots tidily into a growing list of those addressed not to "American" literature, but to the literature of the Americas.

Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms

By Anita Patterson

Cambridge University Press 248pp, £45.00

ISBN 9780521884051

Published 10 April 2008

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