A book called “Our America” which does not mention Jose Marti’s “Nuestra America”

by zunguzungu

Some notes on having read only the first 44 pages of Walter Benn Michael’s Our America:It’s fascinating to see the kind of argument that twelve years ago wouldn’t be seen as dangerously mis-begotten. Perhaps I’m wrong, actually, in imagining that such an argument wouldn’t be made today, but I’d prefer to think of the way he stages his very subtle and evocative readings as falling into a trap that “we” would know better to fall into “today,” if you’ll excuse the promiscuity of the quotation marks. Anyway, he makes a very perceptive and thought-provoking argument about a category of novels he calls “nativist modernism,” but I’m left, finally, without much sense of how to locate “native modernism” in actual, you know, history, which makes me feel a bit more like maybe my project should just go ahead an become cultural history thing in a history department, instead of a “new historicist” project in an English department.  But old dogs, etc, and who cares about labels? Anyway. 

On “nativist modernism,” he writes:

The Sound and the Fury repeatedly insists that what people and things do or mean is a function of what they are; it insists, that is, on identity as the determining ground of action or significance. In this, as the following pages will make clear, it is typical of the major American texts of the 1920’s and in particular of those texts…that belong to the discourse of what I will call nativist modernism”

Note the games he’s playing here: by starting with a text that everyone agrees is important (or “major”) he can then go on to call what it does “nativist modernism” and then say that what it does is typical of other texts which are “nativist modern.” There’s a tautology here: Sound and the Fury is typical of a group of texts which is defined by being similar to the typical example, which is Sound and the Fury. It is like texts which are similar to it.

In other words, because the texts with which he concerns himself are a strategically limited subset of the total conversation, his claim for the twenties as the pivotal moment of change in how racial and cultural categories were imagine is hard to realate to the kind of argument I’m making about the same period and the same issues, because my texts are less ‘major’. By talking only about ‘major’ texts, he effectively closes off his argument from having any reference to other texts around it (except insofar as other texts contribute to the major texts). And so, as he cherry picks examples that fit his thesis (and they do fit; the readings are good), the underlying claim that these examples represent anything is left to be made only by implication. His fine readings of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc put them in dialogue with other discourses of the period, but because he doesn’t use this connection to make a claim about larger histories, we seem to be left with an argument about texts whose importance has been inherited, not re-established. I guess it just points to the very different stakes in my kind of project than his, but, for example, when he claims on p44 that Dixonian racism is a change from Red Rock and from plantation fiction, while on 42, he claims that Hemingway is a change from Dixons, I’m left sort of at a loss. Those are good ways of situating Dixon vis-a-vis other important writers, it seems, but they don’t tell me anything new about larger historical movements. What are these changes representative of? What are they typical of? Or what are they in response to? Because he doesn’t concern himself with those kinds of questions-instead, the texts justify being studied by virtue of being ‘major’–he is unable to say anything that someone like me is interested in, is unable to effectively extend his reading outward from those texts to tell me something about the larger cultural conversation. Or rather, he does, but only by implication and extension, never by directly making claims and backing them up.

It’s funny, by the way, that I find him making tautological claims and insulating his ‘major’ texts from contamination by other non ‘major’ texts, given his subject matter, but I’ll let that go: there’s sound and fury there, but I’m not sure it signifies much.