Toward an Archaeology of American Modernism: Reconsidering Prestige and Popularity in the American Renaissance

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ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance


Is there a demonstrable link between the literatures of the American Renaissance and the inception of literary modernism? Critical commonplaces describe the American scene as a theater of sweeping technological modernization without a corresponding cultural and imaginative shift, nurturing the economic will at the expense of the artistic and resigning to obscurity those artists not strong enough to exceed its horizon. According to these formulae, American contributors to literary modernism arrived late on the scene, well after the innovations of Flaubert and Baudelaire indicated one widely recognized starting point of the modernist tradition. Even recent scholarship that questions such assumptions and begins to probe the importance of American letters in modernist genealogies gives little attention to nineteenth-century American texts. Thus Michael Hoffman and Patrick Murphy, telling the conventional history of American modernism in one of the few collections of essays on the subject, underrate their own enterprise when they maintain that "one finds American modernism deeply implicated, although a bit belatedly, in what was happening elsewhere." I contend that we can productively reassess the literature of the American Renaissance—not only the midcentury works of the five authors championed in F. O. Matthiessen's seminal American Renaissance but also the popular literature of the era—by applying the critical vocabulary used to describe contemporaneous modernist developments across the Atlantic. Recognizing this simultaneity offers a compelling counternarrative to the received history of a modernist turn unique to continental literature—and provides a new approach to the rich, manifold literatures of mid-nineteenth-century America.


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