New Literary History: Pages from a Memoir
It is hard to think New Literary History without Ralph Cohen. I have already experienced the meticulous editorial practice of Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman, and it makes me certain that they will understand and appreciate what I mean. A sober and general literary journal of superior quality, not confined to an identifiable political position, yet touching the radical edges of the profession as well, and lasting forty years! Ralph, with his extraordinary flexibility, combined with some fairly tenacious convictions, was ideally suited to launch and support such a phenomenon. I did not meet him and Libby until 1982. So let me describe the impact of NLH upon me when it burst upon my intellectual horizons, more than ten years before that meeting. I was a year short of tenure when NLH first appeared. In 1966, one year into my assistant professorship, young U.S. instructors with my sort of training were astounded by the appearance of Roland Barthes's "Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits" in the pages of Communications. What struck us as readers was that Barthes, providing a fairly careful system, quickly dismantled and destroyed it in another epistemic idiom at the close of the essay. I was already deeply committed to the importance of the double bind as method, and this was an uncanny example of it. You provide a "scientific" system for analysis, but must also situate and provide a symptomatic reading of the need for such systems.
Upon such ground, in my case prepared by Tarak Nath Sen at the University of Calcutta, Paul de Man at Cornell University, and Jacques Derrida, to whom I introduced myself impersonally in institutional solitude, appeared New Literary History. At the University of Iowa, where I was teaching, the conflict between George Lyman Kittredge and René Wellek, the history of literature and literary criticism, was alive in the person of E. P. Kuhl, an altogether vocal emeritus member of the Department of English, then in his eighties. It was deeply important for me that this new journal asked us to look at the prospect of a new literary history, not a new history of literature. I was beginning to teach Antonio Gramsci at that time—the Gramsci who felt that history and sociology must take a literary turn if they were to track the subaltern in an inventory without traces. It is all over his Notebooks, but most particularly in his notes on the historiography of the subaltern, the subaltern being the group that has no access to the "state." Thus, the idea that history should be literary, with the best gifts of criticism, seemed to this young professional a great gift—even if the intention of the title may not have been just that. It was no surprise, then, that I read Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Jacqueline Rose in its pages. Looking at the list of contributors to prepare myself for these few remarks, I am astounded at the diversity: Ernst Gombrich, Alicia Ostriker, and Stanley Fish under the same roof. Took some doing.
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- English and Comparative Literature
- Johns Hopkins University Press
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- March 17, 2015