What is the future of American literature in a global era? Does it make intellectual sense to retain American literature as a system of knowledge at the current moment, and is there something identifiable as American literature in an increasingly global culture?
Developing a distinctive literary tradition was crucial to creating an American national identity through the early twentieth century, and so when we refer to American literature we tend to think of an identifiable (if ever-changing) body of work by authors within the United States. But how do we categorize, analyze, and conceptualize American literature once we pry it loose from the geographic assumptions that have so long defined it and that reinforce the notion of a uniform, “united” nation/state? In short, what happens to the idea of American literature once we put pressure on the “American” part of the terminology used to designate it as a distinct object of inquiry? These are the questions with which Where Is American Literature? begins.
In the first half of the 20th century, American literary scholars (Bercovitch, Marx, Fiedler, for example) tended to argue for the distinctiveness of a coherent national American literature to establish it as a legitimate field of study in English departments, and subsequent scholars have reconceived of what counts as the “literature” of the field by recovering new forms (such as slave narrative, domestic fiction and abolitionist writing) and new authors (such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Delany). Most recently, scholars have turned from the importance that racial and gender identity play in the creation of American literature, to the importance of spatial identity by comparing US and non US writers; tracking literary influence across national borders; uncovering new primary materials that speak to literary engagement across the Americas; and arguing for a post-national literary practice.
But these concerns with territoriality and space are not only part of the history of American literary study but also an integral part of the history of American literature. Where Is American Literature?, therefore, shows how American literature emerged over space as well as over time—and in so doing it asks us to reconsider familiar stories of national literary development and culture. Literary studies can tend to reproduce the singularity of a national tradition by focusing on key, representative authors and great works. But what happens if we approach American literature not as a series of single-authored masterworks but as a series of collaborations? Where Is American Literature? asks us to envision American literature as a collaborative undertaking occurring throughout the nation’s shifting geographic margins and centers.