Thank You!

Thank you very much to everyone who came out to our session. We would love to keep the conversation going about ‘Beneath the American Renaissance’s and Professor Reynolds’s work in general. Please feel free to post comments or thoughts to this page!

Panel Description

In his Foreword to the 2011 reissue of David S. Reynolds’ Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988), Sean Wilentz writes, “After Reynolds’ exploration of the unsounded depths of American culture, the nation itself, and not just its literary exemplars, looked very different than they had previously” (x). Indeed, it would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Reynolds’ groundbreaking book on American literary and cultural studies. Many of the impulses behind his work—such as democratizing literary and historical study, recuperating lesser-known works, and taking seriously the relationship between popular texts and canonical literature—have since become fundamental to the various revisionist methodologies of the 1990s and 2000s. With its 2011 republication as the inaugural work in Oxford University Press’s series of classic literary criticism, and its recent release as an e-book, we believe the time is propitious to think critically about the legacy of this work and its profound influence on successive generations of scholars and scholarship. This special session, “Beneath the American Renaissance at Twenty-Five: The Legacy of an American Cultural Studies Classic,” seeks to capitalize on the twenty-fifth anniversary and republication of Reynolds’ book by bringing together scholars at various points in their careers to discuss the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological implications of this seminal work for criticism and cultural studies today.

The session opens with Harold K. Bush’s “Beneath the American Cultural Biography: David Reynolds and the Quest for ‘An Attentiveness Never Before Attempted,’” which theorizes the genre popularly known as “cultural biography,” anticipated in Beneath the American Renaissance and developed in later books by Reynolds, notably Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (1995), John Brown, Abolitionist (2005), and Mightier Than the Sword (2012). Bush argues that Reynolds set the standard for cultural biography by paying scrupulous attention to numerous fields simultaneously and insisting on a comprehensive familiarity with the primary and secondary sources. Bush moves to a discussion of Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters (2005), on Emerson’s intellectual circle, and foregrounds its prefatory comments, clearly indebted to Reynolds, on the methodology of cultural biography, which includes, as Marshall writes, reading “everything [the sisters] ever wrote in letters and diaries and in print, along with most of the books they read and cared about” (xix, xviii). Comparing these remarks with Reynolds’ similar words on writing about Whitman—“I dutifully read and reread all the letters, journals, conversations and other private writings. I daresay I combed through them with an attentiveness never before attempted” (76)—Bush suggests that this methodological “attentiveness never before attempted” encapsulates the spirit of cultural biography, the genre Reynolds helped conceive and theorize in Beneath the American Renaissance.

The second paper, Christopher N. Phillips’ “Reading Beneath (and Through) David Reynolds: From Influence to Reading,” discusses the significance of Beneath the American Renaissance in the development of the history of reading and reception. Phillips explains that by presenting the canonical authors of the American Renaissance as readers and not only as writers, Reynolds reveals the importance of the act of reading and its role in literary history. This approach has enabled a move away from “critical heritage” notions of reception to a much wider array of marginalia, commonplacing, journals, correspondence, and reprinting, among other types of evidence previously given little attention. Suggesting that increasingly data-driven digital scholarship has taken the archival impulse behind Beneath the American Renaissance to such an extent that many have come to reject F.O. Matthiessen’s view of canonical American writers as cultural outsiders, Phillips shows how Reynolds’ reassessment of the canon has yielded fresh reconsiderations of fundamental questions about the “why” and “how” of literary history.

In the session’s final paper, “The Paradox of Radical Conventionalism: The ‘Benign-Subversive Style’ and Cold War Ethnic Fictions,” Sean Gerrity argues for the transhistorical endurance and fundamental “Americanness” of the “benign-subversive style,” one of the major antebellum aesthetic and narrative modes theorized by Reynolds in Beneath the American Renaissance. Gerrity demonstrates that a form of the benign-subversive style, whereby writers like Hawthorne and Melville delivered iconoclastic or skeptical notions by utilizing culturally normative strategies, operates in 1950s Asian American fiction—particularly, for example, in John Okada’s 1957 landmark novel No-No Boy. Facing the unique pressures of the era of government-funded race novels, competing narratives of racial integration and assimilation, and the “model minority myth” for Asian Americans, Okada’s choice to write a novel (as opposed, for example, to a memoir or autobiography) opened up the possibility for ironic distancing while placing specific, politicized demands on the content of his work. Gerrity shows how features of the benign-subversive mode—such as the moralistic, conventional “escape valve” ending of No-No Boy—helped Okada navigate the constraining sociopolitical and literary context in which he was writing. Okada peppers his ostensibly formulaic return-of-the-prodigal narrative with subtly subversive eruptions that are belied by the conventional ending, which is carefully designed to “neutralize” the novel’s radical themes. Okada thus produced, as Gerrity argues, a radically disruptive text that nevertheless deflated its own subversive potential by appearing to finally defer to mainstream integrationist ideology.

In a brief response, David S. Reynolds will indicate ways in which the critical methods he introduced in Beneath the American Renaissance and developed in his later work can inform current fields such as the digital humanities and the study of literature, culture, and neuroscience. We believe, as well, that with the proliferation of digital archives and digital versions of lesser-known texts, Reynolds’ method of “reconstructive criticism,” involving meticulous reconstruction of sociohistorical and literary context through attention to largely ignored popular texts, has become eminently more pursuable where before it may have been limited by geographic and other constraints. In the subsequent discussion, we hope to engage audience members from diverse fields and methodologies in a conversation about the implications of Beneath the American Renaissance at our current moment and for the future of literary and cultural studies.

MLA 2014 Special Session: ‘Beneath the American Renaissance’ at Twenty-Five: The Legacy of an American Cultural Studies Classic

Friday, 10 January

283. Beneath the American Renaissance at Twenty-Five: The Legacy of an American Cultural Studies Classic

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m.

A special session

Presiding: Sean Gerrity, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

1. “Beneath the American Cultural Biography: David Reynolds and the Quest for ‘An Attentiveness Never Before Attempted,'” Harold K. Bush, Saint Louis Univ.

2. “Reading beneath (and through) David Reynolds: From Influence to Reading,” Christopher N. Phillips, Lafayette Coll.

3. “The Paradox of Radical Conventionalism: The ‘Benign-Subversive Style’ and Cold War Ethnic Fictions,” Sean Gerrity

Respondent: David S. Reynolds, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

keywords: American Renaissance, Theory and Criticism, Cultural Biography, Digital Humanities, Literary History