Daily Archives: February 23, 2011

What do we do when we teach American literature?

“Scholars considering how the field might be revised are not considering alternatives to America as the field’s subject; rather most revisionary hypotheses are offered as improvements in our understanding of America…. To the extent that American literature teaching is practiced for the ultimate aims of forming student character and producing better citizens it incorporates familiar nationalistic aims. The much touted revisionary Heath anthology of American literature, for example, is a passionately nationalistic, patriotic document. No matter how radical or revolutionary the teachers’ aims may be, and no matter how deeply teachers feel these aims, if they hope to produce better Americans, a better America, or even just a better understanding of the real America, then the supposedly suppressed or overturned Whig project continues in full force.”

-Nina Baym, Feminism and American Literary History, qtd. in Judith Fetterly and Marjorie Pryse, Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture 216-217

Can the act of teaching American literature ever be anything other than fundamentally conservative? And what do we do when the most compelling dollars-to-donuts justification for the discipline of American literature, the kind that speaks to legislators and administrators, is, as Baym so aptly notes, a conception of American literary instruction as an essentially nationalist undertaking?