Words washed clean

David Trotter

  • From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature by Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury
    Routledge, 381 pp, £35.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 415 01341 0

When Wyndham Lewis described the Men of 1914 as a ‘youth racket’ invented by Ezra Pound, he presumably didn’t mean to be complimentary. Pound, however, might be said to have had the last laugh, since it is now customary to regard the whole of American literature as a gigantic youth racket. The paradigm of Modernism, of programmatic innovation and reflexivity, has been applied to earlier and earlier writing, until there is little left that doesn’t speak, somehow, of self-renewal.

Bradbury and Ruland maintain that American literature always has been and always will be ‘pre-eminently a modern literature’. Their history surveys the long march of self-renewals with the benevolent discrimination of a spectator at the Rose Bowl parade. Each float – Puritanism, American Naissance, Modernism, Post-Modernism – seems, as it purrs by, at once more ornate than its predecessor and more elementally vigorous in its overturning of tradition. Always there is the promise of something better to come: something really, quintessentially, unsurpassably modern.

This approach certainly lends a consistency to Bradbury and Ruland’s view of American literature which would be hard to find in anyone’s view of any European literature. But consistency has a price. The descriptive labels, each one a totem of modernity, tend to obscure as much as they reveal. The Puritans, for example, qualify as moderns by virtue of iconoclasm and a preoccupation with signs; yet theirs was a distinctly unmodern modernity, a self renewal fatally inhibited by anxiety and prejudice.

Such a definition of Puritanism makes it very hard to do justice to Puritan writing, as Bradbury and Ruland demonstrate in their treatment of the Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs Mary Rowlandson. They Claim that while Rowlandson’s ‘plain style’ enabled her to express herself effectively, the ‘limits of the Puritan imagination’ closed her mind to the experience of others. ‘Mrs Rowlandson can acknowledge the pull of Indian life and the “wilderness-condition” but must avert her eyes. Native tradition and culture, the complex depths of America’s natural world, are not fit subjects for her discourse.’ Bradbury and Ruland seem to expect a woman who has just witnessed the destruction of her home, the murder of friends and relatives, the death of one child and abduction of another, to behave like a cross between Margaret Mead and David Attenborough.

It is quite untrue to suggest that she averted her eyes from the realities of the ‘wilderness’; and equally untrue to suggest that her faith encouraged her to do so. It was precisely her conviction that providence works in mysterious ways which enabled her not merely to survive but to engage with an experience which might otherwise have destroyed her. The scriptures she read during her captivity taught her that deliverance lay in not averting her eyes. They were her eyes. When her wound pains her, she turns to Psalm 38.5-6: ‘My wounds stink and are corrupt, I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly, I go mourning all the day long.’ When, maddened by hunger, she commandeers the food which a child is unable to eat, she turns to Job 6.7: ‘The things that my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat.’ These texts enabled her to come to terms with suffering, and with her own corruption by suffering.

The discussion of 18th and 19th-century American writing is more flexible, less totemic. Debates are expounded, philosophies reviewed, movements charted: almost always reliably, almost always without creating any undue (or even any due) disturbance. Twentieth-century writing comes equipped with its own totems, and the commentary lapses accordingly into colourless reiteration. Gertrude Stein ‘passed on much of value to Americans, arguing that the modern movement was especially crucial to the natural experimentalism of the American arts.’ Pound’s poetry may be ‘flawed and idiosyncratic’, but ‘he knew all the time that he was fighting for a new poetry and a new interpretation of all the literature and culture of the past.’ Williams ‘believed in the power of distinctive American speech to give writing a new dialect and form, “words washed clean” by American voicing, things seen anew through the American gift for wonder.’

It will take more than the American gift for wonder to cope with Bradbury and Ruland’s definition of Post-Modernism. ‘The post-war world, the cultural drive toward what has be come known as the Post-Modern, can be viewed as opposed responses to the challenge of heterodoxy, a root disagreement reducible to the distinction between the adjectives the and a’ (sic). This proposition, they conclude, seems ‘likely to alter irreversibly the future America her writers will endeavour to write into knowable existence.’ Such descents into gibberish are mercifully rare.

Writing a literary history is probably a thankless task, and it would be unfair to complain about minor omissions and errors. What is disappointing is that the book contains so few surprises. No connections are made, no reputations revised. Bradbury and Ruland do not deviate at all, as far as I can tell, from the authorised version. They leave no stone turned in the search for new contexts and new assessments. This predictability has to be attributed, in part at least, to the inadequacy of the paradigm: the identification of American literature with a curiously unchanging modernity.

The willingness of American scholars to claim Emerson as a founding (or refounding) father must surely have a lot to do with his own willingness to talk up modernity. Bradbury and Ruland deal lucidly and even-handedly with the rival avatars of American Romanticism, Emerson and Poe. But it is hard not to sense them leaning towards the more self-consciously modern of the two. ‘If Emerson’s was the affirmative,’ they conclude, ‘Poe’s was the decadent imagination.’ Poor old Poe. Poor old Poe. Even when he was being new – inventing an attitude and a style which the American Modernists would belatedly rediscover in their reading of his European emulators – he was already decadent, already old-fashioned. Here, as elsewhere, it is the very idea of an ever-modern modernity, necessary rather than contingent, which prevents fresh thinking. The idea has Certainly been around long enough. After all, it’s very nearly the centenary of Lord Illingworth’s remark, in A Woman of No Importance, that ‘the youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years.’