The Literatures of America: A Comparative Discipline

by Paul Lauter

[In Redefining American Literary History, ed. a. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA, 1990.]

Scanned, copy-edited, spell-checked, and tagged by Eric J. Gislason, The University of Virginia, 11/13/95.

An image has long haunted the study of American culture. It limits our thought, shapes our values. We speak of the "mainstream," implying the existence of other work, minor rills and branches. In prose, the writing of men like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Bellow constitute the mainstream. Others–writers of color, most women writers, "regional" or "ethnic" writers– might, we said, be assimilated into the mainstream, though probably they would continue to serve as tributaries, interesting and often sparkling but, finally, less important. They would, we assumed, be judged by the standards and aesthetic categories we had developed for the canonical writers. We acknowledged that including in the canon writers like Wharton, Cather, Chopin, and Ralph Ellison might, at best, change somewhat our definition of the mainstream, but the intellectual model based on the Great River theory of American letters has persisted even among mildly revisionist critics (see, e.g., Bercovitch, Reconstructing). Such critics have continued to focus on a severely limited canon of "major" writers based on historical and aesthetic categories from this slightly augmented mainstream.

The problem we face is that the model is itself fundamentally misleading. The United States is a heterogeneous society whose cultures, while they overlap in significant respect, also differ in critical ways. A normative model presents variations from the mainstream as abnormal, deviant, lesser, perhaps ultimately unimportant. That kind of standard is no more helpful in the study of culture than is a model, in the study of gender differences, in which the male is considered the norm, or than paradigms, in the study of minority or ethnic social organization and behavior, based on Anglo-American society. What we need, rather, is to pose a comparative model for the study of American literature. That may seem like an odd concept, especially coming from a North American academic. Few branches of academe in the United States have been so self-consciously indifferent to comparative study as has been the field we call "American literature." While we have, for example, studied Spanish or French influences on American writing, and vice versa, we have seldom been trained in any truly comparative discipline, and the academic journals that serve the American literature professoriat certainly offer no comparative perspective. Nevertheless, only what we might call 'comparative American studies" will lead us out of the distortions and misunderstandings produced by the mainstream and tributary framework.

This essay presents a strategy for approaching the many and varied literatures of the United States. It is not conceived as an overview of "marginalized" literatures, except to the extent that it underlines certain areas of critical practice that, I think, we must reexamine if we are to contemplate these literatures with accuracy, let alone respond to them with verve. In this sense, what I am presenting may be thought of more as counsel to explorers than as a map of the territory. While parts of the territory are well known, and others are coming into view, what is being found has not yet fully been absorbed or shared. By "marginalized" I designate those writings that, by virtue of their subject matter (e.g., menstruation ether than learning to hunt), function (propagandistic, ceremonial rather than belletristic), formal elements and conventions (improvisational, epistolary rather than organic, dramatic), audience (women, Spanish speakers rather than white men), or other factors, have been esteemed relatively less significant to, not at the center of, the definition of a nation's culture. Marginalized works are, largely, the products of groups who have relatively less access to political, economic, or social power. To say it another way, the works generally considered central to a culture are those composed and promoted by persons from groups holding power within it. Thus, as my definition and my examples suggest, we are concerned with the work of women as well as that of minority men–for while there are profound differences between a culture defined significantly in terms of gender and one defined significantly in terms of race or national origin, nevertheless the burdens and opportunities posed by marginality generate unusually significant parallels. And thus, finally, we are discussing the writing of a majority of the people of this nation, a majority whose cultures, I would argue, continue to be less than fully understood or appreciated by virtue of the factors I examine here.

I want to look, first, at conceptions of literary history and the ideas of significance in subject that inform historical constructs. Subsequently, I shall discuss the functions of imaginative writing, and then the problem of evaluating differing forms and conventions. Finally, I shall turn to questions of characteristic patterns of imagery and language, and to audience as a problematic. Of course, I can hardly scratch the surface of these issues, central to critical discourse. My intent, rather, is to illustrate how a comparative approach to the literatures of America can help recast our assumptions about these matters.

An advantage of a comparative model is that it allows us to discard the notion that all literatures produced in this country must be viewed through the critical lenses shaped to examine mainstream–that is, largely white and male–culture. We can then begin to see that, for example, subjects and forms invoked by African American writers are influenced not only by the traditions of Anglo-European literature but by indigenous folk and formal cultures of black communities in the United States and elsewhere. We can note that for many "hyphenated" Americans, the tension between assimilation in and separation from the majority helps define theme and plot–exemplified by the frequent concern with the mulatto, half-breed, greenhorn–a phenomenon largely absent from the work of majority writers. Stepping outside mainstream assumptions, we can ask not whether or how any work fits an established cultural pattern or given formal structure, but rather how it is that people within a particular social group or class– including white men–speak, sing, write to one another (and perhaps to others) and what are, for them, significant concerns, appropriate forms, desirable artistic goals. Beyond that, the comparative study of American literatures allows us to reexamine traditionally established works from fresh perspectives provided by minority and white female texts. Frederick Douglass's use of books illuminates in quite new ways Emerson's ideas of the value of letters; Harriet Jacobs's [Linda Brent's] years in an attic cast an oblique light on Thoreau's more comfortable notions of simplification, of where one lives and what one lives for; the radically similar cultural origins of works by Stowe and Hawthorne force on us a certain decentering of the latter, a necessary reconstruction of how we understand antebellum fiction. Most of all, a comparative strategy allows us to see Anglo-European, male writing as but one voice, albeit loud and various, in the chorus of "American" culture.

Of course, a comparative study brings its own problems. Indeed, one particular difficulty rises as a main bar to this approach: the limitation of our own training and knowledge. Marge Piercy offers a cautionary portrait of the blinders often imposed by graduate training: ... English is a hierarchical department.... We are taught the narrowly defined Tradition, we are taught Structure, we are taught levels of Ambiguity. We are taught that works of art refer exclusively to other works of art and exist in Platonic space. Emotion before art is dirty. We are taught to explicate poems and analyze novels and locate Christ figures and creation myths and Fisher Kings and imagery of the Mass. Sometimes I look up and expect to see stained-glass windows on our classroom. Somewhere over our heads like a grail vision lurks a correct interpretation and a correct style to couch it in. We pick up the irony in the air before we comprehend what there is to be ironic about. (274-75) In these familiar precincts, where the ironic stance precedes the emotional response and art works are held up for arm's-length scrutiny, what can become of the Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye or James Welch's Winter in the Blood?

A second set of difficulties arises from the uneven development of the cultures of the United States. "Uneven development" suggests more than the obvious fact that different groups established themselves in this land at quite different times. The term implies, first, a point about chronology: the relationship between the arrival of an immigrant group on these shores and the emergence of a literary (i.e., written) culture (or the beginning of the written articulation of an oral culture) is quite irregular. A literary culture requires, obviously enough, literacy. Only some of the groups that came to this country, or were here, were literate–in their own languages, much less in English. Many immigrants were rural peoples, like this land's original inhabitants, with strongly established but not literary cultures. At the turn of the century, Jewish--at least male--garment workers in New York (as well as Welsh miners in Colorado) were among the most "literate" of immigrant workers. That might help to explain the relatively rapid and widespread emergence of a significantly Jewish, as distinct from a Polish or Italian, literate culture.

Then, too, development of a literary culture requires the diffusion through a group of a set of ideas, particularly the notion that it is possible or valid for a person to devote time to the wonderfully arrogant act of artistic composition. Hawthorne had a good deal to say about that in the "Custom House," though his reflections, particular to his male, New England, Puritan immigrant heritage, differ strikingly from those, on the one hand, of mid-nineteenth-century women writers, like Caroline Kirkland or Fanny Fern, who felt forced by possible social disapproval to discount their own "scribblings," and, on the other, of Anzia Yeziergka in Red Ribbon on a White Horse, Tillie Olsen in Silences or Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior. Finally, a literary culture requires the existence of an audience, a reading public that resonates to the beat of the writers' language and concern.. An audience imbued with ideas about the value of producing literary art may provide institutional means for supporting artists, including publishing outlets, networks for distribution, opportunities for artists to concentrate on creation. The importance of such material supports to the evolution of a literary culture can hardly be overestimated (see Madhubuti). Differences in literacy, diffusion of ideas, and means of support help explain why the establishment of literary culture in one group does not predict its development in another.

We can identify a second critical point about "uneven development": literary culture emerges in a minority or marginalized group in part independently of, in part in response to, development in the majority culture. This comes as no surprise: linguistic traditions differ; concerns and subjects differ; popular oral expressions differ from written; audiences differ; institution. extend their support unevenly. Finally, the functions of culture in the life of a group of people change significantly over time, as social realities and evolving consciousness, about them change. For all these reasons, the literary history of the dominant white and male culture will only in a limited degree be a useful account of the development of the varied literary culture. of the United States. A full literary history of this country requires both parallel and integrated accounts of differing literary traditions and thus of differing (and changing) social realities.1 We are only at the beginning of the creation of such a complex history.


The structures of literary study are based, as Geoffrey Hartman has acknowledged, on limited "text milieux" (299). That is, we derive aesthetic and historical theories from a selection of works, often lifted from their historical contexts and quite limited in outlook and even form. In general our choice of these texts is rooted in assumptions based on the particular characteristics, of our class, race, and sex, reshaped, to be sure, by the powerful influence exerted–especially over those of us from minority or ethnic origins–by the professors of the dominant culture. From this limited set of texts we project standards of aesthetic excellence as well as the intellectual constructs we call "literary history." And once we have developed such constructs, we view other works in their terms, whether the works originate from that initial "text milieu" or from outside it.2 That commonplace and hardly conscious procedure helps explain the apparently self-evident character of the canon. It also produces serious distortions in value judgments (as I shall suggest below) as well as in historical accounts of literary development.

Consider, as an example of faulty literary history, what was until the late 1970s the usual portrait of the evolution of fiction in North America (a portrait that still shapes curricular choices). Writers like Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper, it was said, were forerunners, who cleared and plowed the colonial cultural wilderness so that, in the "American Renaissance," the first generation of major writers–Poe, Hawthorne, Melville--could flourish; They were succeeded by three generations of fiction writers: Twain and James, who elaborated alternative west- ward-looking and eastward-looking subjects and styles; realists and naturalists, like Howells, Crane, and Dreiser; and finally, in the 1920s, a new, modernist renaissance, exemplified by the work of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and a host of others.

If this chronology were a broadly useful historical account, it should illuminate the texts of writers other than those whose work forms its basis. What then might it tell us of the first group of black novelists? William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853), Frank Webb's Garies and Their Friends (1857), Martin Delany's Blake (1859), and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) are roughly contemporaries of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Moby-Dick} (1851). Read in terms of Hawthorne's and Melville's works, they seem painfully under- developed, in places even crude and propagandistic. But to view them in such a perspec- tive would, I think, be unhelpful and an error in historical understanding. In one sense the novelists are more the contemporaries of a writer like Cooper and share many of his shortcomings–and virtues. For these black writers are only beginning the process of establishing a novelistic style for their culture and of elaborating, in that style, fictional material of consequence to the audience to which they aspire. In another, metaphoric, sense their texts reach back to the semiautobiographical fictions of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers.

But the comparisons with The Last of the Mohicans or The Unfortunate Traveler are in other respects equally misleading, since they would obscure what were undoubtedly the major cultural influences on these books: the well-established tradition of black slave narratives, the African American oral tradition of tales and legends, and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin(1852). The narratives and Stowe's novel helped establish and broaden an audience for which reading and writing was integrated with social activism; an audience that responded to images of heroic and adventurous black men and women and was willing to confront the complex realities of the oppression, particularly sexual, of black women; that also accepted the very idea of a black writer–a problematic conception for many people, even some blacks, in antebellum America. Further, a historical account to which the slave narratives, Stowe, and the black oral tradition are integral helps. us' understand how, as Richard Yarborough has. suggested, black writers sought, during the nineteenth century, to assert through fiction the potential of black people in America and, at the same time, to document and preserve their history.

As the older accounts of American fictional history left us asking, "Where were the blacks?" so they provoked the parallel question "Where were the women?" The work of critics like Elizabeth Ammons, Nina Baym, Hazel Carby, Cathy Davidson, Josephine Donovan, Judith Fetterley, Annette Koloday, Jane Tompkins, and Mary Helen Wash- ington have begun to answer that question. It poses Stowe as a key figure,3 in a sense a bridge between the earlier female writers both of realistic and romantic narratives– Susanna Rowson, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Caroline Kirkland, Fanny Fern, Susan Warner, E. D. E. N. Southworth–and the next generation of realistic writers, women like Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Rose Terry Cooke, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary Wilkins Freeman. These authors turned neither east nor west but, at their finest, focused eyes keen for detail on the constricting material, and often dominantly female, worlds they inhabited in New England, New York, and the South. In turn, building consciously on the accomplishments of that previous generation, the women writers of the early twentieth century–Chopin, Wharton, Mary Austin, Glasgow, Cather– produced the most significant novels of the period by engaging the most burning questions of the time–at least for many white women–concerning social, political, and sexual equality for females.

In fact, an account of changing patterns of nineteenth-century women's–and some men's–fiction can be constructed around questions of gender, race, creativity, and power. The novelists of the earlier generation–the subjects of Nina Baym's Woman's Fiction– wrote success tales, in which virtue, in the form of constancy, often self-denial, and sometimes devotion to craft generally brought happy endings for the heroines and those who, in effect, they had gathered around themselves. Alcott and Stowe continued to present domestic values as key to ethical life, to public virtue, and, in a story like Alcott's "Psyche's Art," to valid creation. Although women's and men's spheres are separate, the subordination of hearth to countinghouse has not yet, fictionally at least, taken place; indeed, Stowe offers both fictive and theoretical validations of the kitchen as value center. In Jacobs, while the form of self-denial is even more profound, both the meanings of "constancy and the happiness of the ending are made problematic by virtue of how American culture construes race. In Phelps, the contradictions between countinghouse and the sphere of women become harsher, for in The Silent Partner the women are excluded from the sources of economic power, and while Sip and Perley, the two heroines, continue to try to improve the lives of workers, it is not clear whether that project can reach beyond the consolations of Christian charity. In Phelps's later work, like The Story of Avis and Dr. Zay, the conflicts between domesticity and a woman's art or work heighten; such conflicts remain but are less central to the instructional program of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy. Jewett sustains the values of an elaborated, extended domestic sphere; indeed, The Country of the Pointed Firs emerges as a kind of mythic center of family strength, to which an urban inhabitant may travel for renewal, though she cannot stay. Freeman is even less optimistic, for while many of her women are strong and independent, they are so in a narrowing world, at its bleakest in a story like "Old Woman Magoun," but constricting even in the triumphant "The Revolt of'Mother."' The arc of this fictional history can thus be tracked, as it were, from the successes of Ruth Hall and Capitola in The Hidden Hand to the contrasting fates of the heroines in The Awakening and The House of Mirth.

Obviously, this account of fictional history is radically at variance with conventional versions. The differences arise, I want to suggest in a moment, from fundamentally divergent understandings of what was, and is, historically significant. But first we need to observe that such differing accounts of literary history are deeply embedded in critical terminology and historical categories. For example, the expression "regionalist" or "local colorist" continues to be applied to lewett, Freeman, Chopin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt. I think that term marks them as peripheral to the development of a national culture, supposedly one of the major accomplishments of nineteenth-century American letters. But a critical category like "regionalism" is about as useful–and as accurate–in describing these writers as a phrase like "escapist fiction" would be if applied to Poe, Melville, and Twain.4 Categories like "regionalist"–and, I suspect, "ethnic" or even "minoriry"–encapsulate particular accounts of literary development; they also-embody judgments of the value of writers and works based on assumptions about the importance of particular subjects and certain forms, as well as on differing conceptions of the functions of art and the role of artists.

A similar set of problems arises when we examine the use of a category like "realism." In our culture, the term and its cognates, including "realistic," imply positive, perhaps even weighty, judgments. The older account of white male fictional history that I sketched above suggested that realism somehow arose as a later nineteenth-century dialectical corrective to the romance or fantasy tradition self-consciously developed by Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. In fact, however, literary historians have demonstrated that the roots of fictional realism can be found in earlier nineteenth-century women writers like Kirkland, Alice Cary, and Susan Warner (Fetterley; Tompkins; Donovan). Kirkland described her book A New Home...Who'll Follow(1839) as a "rough picture . . . pentagraphed from the life," dealing with "common-place occurrences–mere gossip about every-day people." Fetterley points out that Kirkland specifically dissociated herself from the dominantly male tradition of adventure, mystery, and romance because she chose to tell the story of the frontier from the diurnal perspective of a woman plunged into its not very glamorous woods and fields–or, rather, its mudholes and hovels. Similarly, Alfred Habegger has traced some of the ways in which the dominantly female practice of realism in mid-nineteenth-century America shaped the fictional strategy of the later male writers that critics have traditionally described as "realists."

What is at stake here is not simply a revisionist claim to prior occupation of valued turf–however significant that might be. The stakes emerge if we begin from Toni Morrison's proposition that narrative is "the principal way in which human knowledge is made accessible." The issue is, then, what of human knowledge a particular set of narrative.–a canon or a historical construct–encodes, makes accessible–or obscures. In a certain sense, the effect if not the design of literary history is to make it seem self-evident that the kinds of problems worked out in the texts it considers constitute the universe of significant issues. The "territory ahead"–at least as it came to be defined as the grounds for the encounter of lone individuals with nature–was for clear material reasons far more of a presence in white male imagination during the middle and late nineteenth century–and for ideological reasons again in the 1920s. Before the Civil War, Horace Greeley's injunction to "Go west, young man" simply voiced what had become a commonplace of action among many men. With the decline of farming, fishing, and trade in much of New England after the war, with the increased mobility and entrepreneurial opportunities stimulated by the war, the railroads, and that westering ideology, many Yankee men struck out for new frontiers or imagined what it meant to do so. It would not therefore be surprising if images encoding that theme characterized the work of white male writers, like Poe, Melville, Twain, Harte, Crane, Norris, London, Richard Harding Davis–or reengaged the interests of male intellectuals, professors, and critics after the First World War, when a definition of a "masculine" role on the world stage for the United States was being created.

American Indians, like William Apes, Elias Boudinot, Black Hawk, shared a vision of the importance of the frontier, but in their experience it was often represented as the intrusion of the boots of a giant into the grounds of their hunt and the graves of their people. For antebellum black writers, the frontier was located as much at the Mason- Dixon Line as anywhere else, and the perilous journey from slavery to selfhood the major concern. In time, to be sure, it became clear that the psychological boundaries presented by color prejudice were more difficult to surmount than the geographical divide between North and South. In such contexts, individual confrontations with whales or wars were never central, for the issue was neither metaphysics nor nature but the social constructions called "prejudice," and the problem was not soluble by or for individuals (except the very few who could and wished to "pass"), but only through a process of social change.

For women, the great question of life might be that addressed by Jewett in "Aunt Cynthy Dallett" or in "The Foreigner": that is, how to build and sustain a largely female community in the face of poverty, narrowness, even pride. Or it might be the problem, addressed by Freeman in "A Church Mouse" or "The Revolt of 'Mother,'" or, very differently, by Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, of how the weak achieve through disobedience a modicum of power. Such concerns after a half-century in which they were taken to be trivial, have, as I need hardly say, returned to prominence, and with them works that encode and interpret them. I don't want to belabor the obvious, but the canon is, after all, a construct, like a history text, expressing what a society reads back into the past as important to its future.

My intent is not to deny the significance of defining an isolated, heroic self against the forces of nature–a theme, as we all know, peculiarly persistent in the Romantic fictions of American white males that have constituted the received canon. That problem was, no doubt, of both real and symbolic consequence to American entrepreneurs well into the twentieth century. And the ideological manifestations of Romantic individualism remain so. But equally substantial and interesting are the social issues: the prices paid, often by women, for men's upward, or outward, mobility, the sacrifices of community to self, the difficulties of sustaining community. Moreover, the conceptions of self and the processes of definition as they emerge for Deerslayer, Ishmael, Huck, Nick Adams, Ike McCaslin differ sharply from those we encounter in the work of many minority writers, where the problematic of self consists more often of its emergence within conflicting definitions of community and continuity, as is the case in Zora Neale Hurston's There Eyes Were Watching God, Kingston's Woman Warrior, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, or John Joseph Mathews's Sundown.

What is at stake here can, I think, be apprehended in two related passages, the first from the introductory material of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, the second from Meridel Le Sueur's Girl: You don't have anything if you don't have the stories. Their evil is mighty but it can't stand up to our stories. So they try to destroy the stories let the stories be confused or forgotten. They would like that They would be happy because we would be defenseless then. (2; 1978) And from The Girl: Memory is all we got, I cried, we got to remember. We got to remember everything. It is the glory, Amelia said, the glory. We got to remember to be able to fight. Got to write down the names. Make a list. Nobody can be forgotten. They know if we don't remember we can't point them out. They got their guilt wiped out. The last thing they take is memory. (142)

From this perspective, what is involved in literary history is survival.5 If that seems an aggrandizement of what writers and critics do, consider at the simplest level the history in this century of words like Frederick Douglass's. Narrative, Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." In 19s5 they were virtually extinct as literary word.; they addressed concerns remote from those at the core of the cultural mainstream. That they are now enshrined in American literature anthologies testifies to the force exerted on literary history by political movements. Indeed, when I speak of "survival" here, I refer not so much to these works in themselves as to the knowledge they make accessible, the experiences to which they give expression and shape–experiences that enable new generations to comprehend themselves and their world.

What I have thus far said suggests a view of the function of art, indeed a functional perspective on art, perhaps uncongenial to those of us brought up on formalist paradigms. I wish now to turn directly to that concern, for it is indeed true that conceiving American literature as a comparative discipline implies some differing perspectives on what it is that literary works attempt to do in our world.


Like many minority writers, Charles Chesnutt was extraordinarily sensitive to questions of the functions of art as well as to the status of artists from marginalized groups. For many years, he was regarded as a local colorist, a writer of humorous dialect tales, and, because of his focus on the "tragic mulatto" in his supposedly more serious work, a writer central to neither black nor white fictional concerns. In The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt himself compares versions of the roles of a literary artist and poses a distinctive role for the African American writer. The narrator of that book is a liberal white Northerner, John, who has moved to North Carolina in part for the sake of his wife's health and in part to try his hand at making money through grape cultivation. Resident on the land John buys and deeply knowledgeable about it is Uncle Julius, an elderly black man, former slave, teller of tales, and sometime coachman for John and his wife, Annie. John views Julius with something of the well-meaning condescension of a turn- of-the-century white literary critic toward a black artist. On the one hand, Julius's stories seem to while away the long southern hours, and in particular to distance Annie from the meaninglessness of her life. On the other hand, as John sees it, Julius's stories are a means by which the old man, generally by winning Annie's response, is able to extract from John a living or some kind of concession for himself or his relatives. For John, Julius's art is a kind of minstrelsy, an amusement for his hearers and a source of income, or at least livelihood, for himself. Serious art is the kind of novel John reads to Annie–in the vain hope of rousing her from the depression into which she increasingly and fearfully sinks as the book progresses.

In certain respects, the key story in the structure of The Conjure Woman is "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," a tale in which the conjurer uses a hummingbird and a hornet, among other creatures, to reunite Sis' Becky with her child. and thus restore her to health. In the course of the narration, Annie–like Sis' Becky in Julius's tale–is moved from a threatening illness toward recovery. The vital ingredient in that cure is the magic of Julius' story, clearly presented by Chesnutt as parallel to the conjurer's magic in Julius's story and symbolized by the rabbit's foot Julius carries. To John, the rabbit's foot represents merely the superstition of a race barely emerging from primitive backwardness: "Julius," I observed, half to him and half to my wife, "your people will never rise in the world until they throw off these childish superstitions and learn to live by the light of reason and common sense. How absurd to imagine that the forefoot of a poor dead rabbit, with which he timorously felt his way along through a life surrounded by snares and pitfalls, beset by enemies on every hand, can promote happiness or success, or ward off failure or misfortune!" (135) Similarly, while John perceives the invigorating impact of Julius's tale upon Annie, he cannot understand the source of its power for her, much less the significance of the rabbit's foot itself. My wife had listened to this story with greater interest than she had manifested in any subject for several days. I had watched her furtively from time to time during the recital, and had observed the play of her countenance. It had expressed in turn sympathy, indigna- tion, pity, and at the end lively satisfaction. "That is a very ingenious fairy tale, Julius," 1 said, "and we are much obliged to you." "Why, John!" said my wife severely, "the story bears the stamp of truth, if ever a story did." "Yes," I replied, "especially tbe humming-bird episode, and the mocking-bird digression, to say nothing of the doings of the hornet and the sparrow." "Oh, well, I don't care," she rejoined, with delightful animation; "those are mere orna- mental details and not all essential. The story is true to nature, and might have happened half a hundred times, and no doubt did happen, in those horrid days before the war." "By the way, Julius," I remarked, "your story doesn't establish what you started out to prove,–that a rabbit's foot brings good luck." "Hit's plain 'nuff ter me, suh," replied Julius. "I bet young missis dere kin 'splain it herse'f." "I rather suspect," replied my wife promptly, "that Sis' Becky had no rabbit's foot." "You is hit de bull's eye de fus' fire, ma'm," assented Julius. (158-s0)

Annie responds to the feelings communicated by the tale, rather than to its "mere ornamental details"; in the same spirit, she accepts the rabbit's foot from Julius and proceeds in the book's final story to make common cause with him–thus establishing, as it were, a community of feeling to which John is largely marginal. It seems clear to me that Chesnutt is proposing the conjurer/Uncle Julius as a model for the work of the African American creative artist. 6 Yes, an entertainer, and yes, of necessity concerned with survival, the artist is in this vision most fundamentally committed to creating health, and especially "right feeling" (to use Stowe's phrase) about race and history, in the audience through the magic of art. "Right feeling" lies at the root of "right actions," and it is right actions in the world to which those who emphasize the social functions of art are committed. The careers, as well as the writings, of Chestnut's contemporaries Frances Harder and W.E.B.Du Bois embody similar conceptions of prose driven by the engine of social reform–though they were, of course, more activists than Chesnutt. This basic understanding of artistic function has, I think, been asserted, contested, transformed throughout the history of African American letters-- and of other minority communities as well. Such ideas played a critical role in the Black Arts movement and in the emergence of Chicano and Puertorriqueno literature in the 1960s. They reemerge, as Alice Walker's "faith in the power of the written word to reach, to teach, to empower and encourage–to change and save lives." (New York Times Book Review)

My point here is less to argue the validity of such conceptions of the social function of the writer than to pose them against the more generally accepted view of artistic achievement, and to suggest the implications of this distinction for the development of aesthetic theory and artistic premise among marginalized writers in the United States. In "The Art of Fiction," published just as Chesnutt began to reach his stride as a writer, Henry James states s succinctly as anyone has a contrasting view of art–especially of fiction, but of painting and history quite as well. James's fundamental assertion is that fiction, like history, is an attempt "to represent and illustrate the past, the actions of men . ." He has little patience with a moral view of the purpose of fiction. "What is the meaning," he asks, of your mortality and your conscious moral purpose? Will you not define your terms and explain how (a novel being a picture) a picture can be either moral or immoral? You wish to paint a moral picture or carve a moral statue: will you not tell us how you would set about it? We are discussing the Art of Fiction; questions of art are questions (in the widest sense) of execution; questions of morality are quite another affair, and will you not let us see how it is that you find it so easy to mix them up? (94-95) Chesnutt had some answers to James's questions. In an often-cited passage in his journal, he posed the aspirations he has set for himself as a literary artist: The object of my writings would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the white--or I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism--consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people; and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it. Not a fierce indiscriminate onset, not an appeal to force, for this is something that force can but slightly affect, but a moral revolution which must be brought about in a different manner....

This work is of a two-fold character. The negro's part is to prepare himself for recognition and equality, and it is the province of literature to open the way for him to get it–to accustom the public mind to the idea; to lead people on, imperceptibly, unconsciously, step by step, to the desired state of feeling. If I can do anything to further this work, and can see any likelihood of obtaining success in it, I would gladly devote my life to it.(8) Chesnutt sustained this sense of vocation--together with the desire to become rich and famous by writing--throughout his career, even as he perforce observed the failure of prose to contain the rising tide of turn-of-the-century racism.

It should come as no surprise that from the perspective of minority or marginalized groups, art should have a more clearly social, perhaps utilitarian, function. In one of his letters Bartolomeo Vanzetti writes, "[O]ur friends must speak loudly to be heard by our murderers, our enemies have only to whisper or even be silent to be understood" (Sacco and Vanzetti 277). Vanzetti is explaining how the imbalance of social and political power requires demonstrative behavior if a group of Italian anarchists is ever to be noticed, much less responded to, in Yankee New England, but what he says is suggestive about marginality more generally. The struggle for survival, for space and hope, commands all the limited resources available to a marginalized people. Art cannot stand outside that struggle; on the contrary, it must play an important role in it.7

It will be instructive in elaborating a comparative study of literary culture to examine how art has functioned in the sustenance of marginalized communities. In "Poetry of the Colorado Miners, 1903-190s," Dan Tannacito has, for example, examined the role of poetry and song in the organization of western miners during the early years of this century. In Black Culture and Black Consciousness Lawrence Levine discusses the varied ways in which song has been used in black communities during and after slavery. A different set of instances is provided by the development in the 1960s of newspapers like El Malcriado and El Grito del Norte, of El Teatro Campesino, and of a variety of other community-based institutions of Chicano culture. Commenting on the poetry published in El Malcriado, Tomas Ybarra-Frausto has written that its primary "function was to sustain the spirit of struggle while simultaneously evoking aesthetic response" (85). Similarly, Luis Valdez, the founder of El Teatro Campesino, saw specifically social functions for the work of the troupe. The Actos, he wrote, "(1) inspire the audience to social action, (2) illuminate specific points about social problems, (3) show or hint at a solution, and (4) express what people are thinking" (qtd. by Ybarra-Frausto from Actos 87). Cultural activity thus becomes part of a process for transforming people from passive suffering into activists in struggle.

This is, however, only one of the roles art may play in a community. Artistic function must be considered within a historical context, as well as in terms of the specific audience to which a work is directed. I shall have more to say about audience later. As to history, it is plain that if art performs social functions, those functions may change as a society or a community within it changes. One need only lay side by side Wigglesworth's "Day of Doom," Whitman's "Song of Myself," and Eliot's "Wasteland" to observe profound alterations in poetic function–as well, of course, as in form. One cannot, then, simply say that "art functions in thus and such a fashion for minority communities." One needs, rather, to say that in certain periods art may help unite and stir a people; in others it may express sustaining beliefs; in still others it may help arouse the awareness of those outside a group; in yet others it may come to be a mode primarily of individual expression and self-actualization. In some periods art may serve all these purposes. My point, then, is the need to be aware not only of the varieties of artistic function but of its changing character over time.

In a certain sense, the issue posed between Chesnutt and Valdez, on the one hand, and James, on the other, is less a conflict over hostile theories of art than a difference over what one looks at in the process of creating and experiencing art. James focuses attention on the polishing of technique, the shaping of the forms by which a work achieves the "solidity of specification" he regards as the truest measure of artistic achievement. Lying behind his point of view is the assumption that artists are people much like himself and that they address people much like himself, that art emerges from fineness of sensibility and intelligence and helps hone a like refinement in its audience. The poets and painters of the ethnic cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, like their predecessors, were by no means indifferent to form; on the contrary, in meetings and in print they discussed formal issues, the elaboration of technique, and the need to balance the demands of social activism and those of aesthetic excellence. But the primary concern was, in the first instance, how the creation of art helps its creators emerge from passivity and indifference before the world–and then, on the other ride of the creative work, so to speak, the impact of the work on the consciousness of those who experience it. Creator and audience--James speaks little of them except to urge the young novelist to "catch the color of life," and to shrug, regarding the reader, that there's no disputing taste. But for most people, and especially those from poor and minority communities, art cannot be contemplated, as it were, only from within.8

From another point of view, however, we are facing quite distinct artistic theories. That becomes clear when we realize that the usual standards of aesthetic merit are, as James proposes, the form and language of a text. "Truth of detail," James says, "the air of reality (solidity of specification)" constitute "the supreme virtue of a novel–the merit on which all its other merits (including that conscious moral purpose of which Mr. Besant speaks) helplessly and submissively depend.... The cultivation of this success, the study of this exquisite process, form, to my taste, the beginning and the end of the art of the novelist" (85).9 "To what end," Chesnutt might have responded, "should a writer 'catch the color . . . the substance of the human spectacle'? Is not merit determined by the capacity of a work to engage genuine feelings and thus to open us to others' lives, and worlds, and needs? Even to prod us to action in the world?" With that idea, James would show little patience. Speaking in what emerges as his own voice, he writes: I needn't remind you that there are all sorts of tastes: who can know it better? Some people, for excellent reasons, don't like to read about carpenters; others, for reasons even better, don't like to read about courtesans. Many object to Americans. Others (I believe they are mainly editors and publishers) won't look at Italians.... [Readers] choose their novels accordingly, and if they don't care about your idea they won't, a fortiori, care about your treatment.

So that it comes back very quickly, as I have said, to the liking: in spite of M. Zola . . . who will not reconcile himself to this abso1uteness of taste, thinking that there are certain things that people ought to like, and that they can be made to like.... Selection will be sure to take care of itself, for it has a constant motive behind it. That motive is simply experience. As people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it. (89-90) James speaks with the ease of one whose subjects, at least many of them, will suit the interest and taste, will register the experience of his audience. But that presumption is not universally shared. The artist from a marginal group can by no means rely on readers feeling the life that throbs in the world of the carpenter or the Italian. Indeed, the very first battle this artist must fight is precisely that defined by Zola: making readers like or, more to the point, find interest in, matters and people quite outside their experience.l0

There are different ways in which you can respond to the perception that your audi- ence may find your subject not to its taste: you can try to persuade your reader, by novelty, expostulation, or seduction, to take an interest in the case; you can set fresh banners snapping in the wind; you can extend a calming hand, leading quietly down the unfamiliar, rutted path. It may all come to nothing. Your choice may be to settle upon a circle of devotees, running the risk of becoming merely precious to them–and yourself. Or you may lapse, in Tillie Olsen's apt word, into "silences."

The question of function is thus critically related, on the one hand, to subject and, on the other, to audience. The emphasis on form, which has dominated criticism and teaching since the 1920s, obscures these connections. Formalist critics concentrate on tracing the lineaments and dimensions of a book's structure, and they judge a work as a more or less fully realized aesthetic object, as a picture that "renders the look of things" James 85), a world in itself. The alternative we have been tracing asks whether the work acts effectively In the world, of which it and we constitute parts, by touching human feeling and shaping consciousness. Recent reader-response criticism has, once again, begun to examine the experience of literature in terms of its power to influence consciousness and shape concepts of self (see, e.g., Alcorn and Bracher). It seems to me likely that such a trend will be enhanced by the need to reconstruct the role of criticism implicit in a comparative approach to the literatures of the United States.

In thus balancing the emphasis on form and structure with a concern for subject, feeling, audience, and impact, I would not wish to be taken as suggesting an indifference to form on the part of marginalized writers. On the contrary, as I wish now to propose, formal questions are critical to a comparative study. At issue are the forms and structures organic to the work of marginalized writers and the way elements may differ from those in the literary tradition represented by Henry James and his successors.


Few elements of human creativity are as hierarchically organized as presentational lan- guage. We have, implicitly or explicitly, a Received Standard form of speech and dialects, which mark lower class or provinciality. Certain languages--French, for example–have carried more status for English speakers than others--Spanish, for example. In prosody, we value complexity, ambiguity, irony over simplicity, directness, transparency; written, fixed forms over oral, improvisational; the formal genres we call "fine arts" over the "practical" we call "crafts" or "fragmentary genres," like letters. Thus we learn to place epic poetry at the apogee of forms. Below it, ranging down a great chain of types, we find dramatic and lyric poetry, the novel, short fiction; and then, as if crossing into suspect territory, genres like autobiography, journals, letters, transcriptions. The status of genres in some degree informs the status of their profession. In the study of marginalized literatures, however, we need to reexamine--even suspend--our assumptions about formal hierarchy and concentrate on discovering the formal conventions that emerge from those literatures themselves rather than from our training as literary practitioners.

Conventions of composition and language are, after all, largely culture-specific as well as hierarchic. One of the most persistent and dominant patterns in English poetry, for example, is the iambic pentameter line, which may be rooted in stress patterns in the declarative sentence characteristic of Received Standard English. Poetic structures built on this iambic line, like blank verse and the sonnet, exercise a compelling influence on writers, perhaps because authors simply learn to use patterns they hear, read, and study. By contrast, West African-based cultures, including those of black Americans, reflect the importance of a call-and-response pattern of verse construction--as in work songs, the blues, and many hymns. Similarly, code switching (the shifting within a line or sentence from English to Spanish, or the reverse) is important in some Chicano and Puerto Rican poetry–as it can be in street-corner conversation, verbal play, and the creole called Spanglish. Likewise, repetitive forms are vital in American Indian chants and in many poems. Further, the rhythms of black folk English differ from those of Received Standard; obviously, the cadences of non-English primary speakers differ still more.

This is by no means to say that African-American writers invariably display the influence of call-and-response patterns, that bilingual poets inevitably switch codes, and that Indian writers must use repetitive forms. No more do they necessarily use folk speech or remain free of the influence of forms like the sonnet. On the contrary, the pulls of traditional English forms and upper-class white standards of speech have been very strong on minority writers, perhaps because such forms implicitly embody the English tradition they often wish to possess. Indeed, the history of each minority culture shows a period in which the artists are influenced deeply by the practice of earlier generations of British or British-actuated authors. Thus most American Indian and African American poetry of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries imitates Scott, Byron, and Longfellow to excess, and the early black novel sometimes shows the stifling hand of sentimental fictional conventions.

Differences in formal conventions come into particular prominence when we confront those derived from oral and from written traditions. Written literary traditions tend to impose a sacredness on texts that, in turn, Produces two primary techniques of literary study: historical and textual analysis, designed initially to establish "true" texts, and explication de texte, designed to tease out its many potential meanings. Underlying this view of the sanctity of the written text is a romantic understanding of a literary work as the artist's private product, emerging from the power of his or her genius to express in a distinctive voice responses to a uniquely experienced world. The function of literary study, from this perspective, is to focus the reader's attention on the literary work itself because of its inherent value as an aesthetic structure. Further, change within the framework of a written literary culture is often wrenching and violent, as if the new poet had to explode out of the gravity pull of established conventions. Pound's injunction to "make it new" was only, as it were, a codification of what American predecessors like Whitman and Dickinson had practiced, but their difficulties in establishing the value of what they created illustrate my point. Further, the "anxiety of influence" about which Harold Bloom has written may well be a distinctive feature only of dominant written traditions.

By contrast, oral traditions are less obsessed with the sacredness of a text, more with its functions, sometimes including its sacred functions, sometimes its functions in sus- taining popular resistance to ideological domination. The precise reproduction of a song, poem, or story is probably of less moment than, on the one hand, the maintenance of its basic qualities and, on the other, its vivid re-creation in a new context for a new time and a new need. Improvisation is a major virtue of oral tradition, but it is important to recognize that improvisation is based on known and shared materials. Pound's sense of "make it new"--that is, dispensing with what exists and evoking wholly different texts from differing materials--would probably offend people whose culture is distinctly oral. In Mules and Men a woman in one of Zora Neale Hurston's "lieing" contests tells a story to explain why Negroes are black. One of the men, offended by her success, accuses her of inventing the "lie": "'Tain't no such story nowhere. She jus' made dat one up herself." Her friend responds, "Naw, she didn't. I been knowin' dat ole tale"--that is, the story is well established, traditional, and therefore worthy of repeating and staking a claim to.12 Oral forms also depend on apparent simplicity of structure; on oral-formulaic devices, including repetition of words, phrases, and lines; often on certain stock characters, situations, phrases well known to the original audience. These qualities obviously suggest the needs of performance and of reception by a listening audience, but they are at least in some respects carried over into written genres that continue to reflect oral traditions.

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the problem with which we are dealing concerns simply the difference between established written and oral cultures. In the first place, virtually all ethnic and minority literatures in the United States are by now in written form. But more to the point: all written cultures represent the transformation and codification of earlier oral cultures; once writing is developed among a people, oral cultures gradually unfold themselves into written form. That is as true of the traditions of British literature as it is of Navajo. Thus, as Ann Fitzgerald has suggested to me, what we are comparing are cultures at different stages in the process of transformation from oral to written. Part of the difference is simply chronological: writing came to Britain twelve to fifteen hundred years ago, but to American Indian tribes as well as to most African- Americans, within the last century. But perhaps more important, the processes through which oral forms, pass into written forms differ substantially from culture to culture. They invariably involve performance, but the concept of performance that informs Shakespearean drama--still close to British oral traditions--is far different from that which underlies Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God or N. Scott Momaday's Way to Rainy Mountain. The medieval trope and the Elizabethan stage may be cousins, but distant ones, of the AME testimony and preaching and the street-corner theatrics Hurston displays in Mules and Men. And these, in turn, only remotely resemble the ceremonies and myths that inform Momaday's narrative.

Still, it is instructive to remember that Shakespeare composed at the nether end of a process of oral-to-written transformation. In their brawling, topical quality, their changeableness from performance to performance, their dependence on traditional subjects and themes, their function in reinforcing recently established social and political norms, in the manner in which their language forever plays against the edges of meaning, his dramas reflect how open they were to the still generative orality of British common culture. These are, many of them, qualities we might expect--indeed will find--in works with which we are concerned here, like those of Hurston, for example, or Morrison and John Wideman. Such writers use, of course, today's most popular genre, the novel, which offers a different set of opportunities and constraints from Elizabethan drama. Within that genre, however, they self-consciously strive to sustain a voice, at once elevated and commonplace, serious and linguistically playful. As in oral cultures, success in verbal play confirms artistic power, serves to provide a certain breathing space within the dense and often dark fabric of plot, and registers a kind of ascendancy in the continuing struggle of marginalized cultures to emerge from the shadows. But there is a cost to what Wideman calls "bi-lingual fluency"; he writes in "The Black Writer and the Magic of the Word": Afro-Americans must communicate in a written language which in varying degrees is foreign to our oral traditions. You learn the language of power, learn it well enough to read and write but its forms and logic cut you off, separate you from the primal authenticity of your experience, experience whose meaning resides in the first language you speak, the language not only of words but gestures, movements, rules of silence and expressive possibilities, of facial and tactile understanding, a language of immediate, sensual, intimate reciprocity, of communal and self-definition. (28)

In studying texts still tuned to oral cadences, we need to bring back into question some generally unexamined critical assumptions and touchstones. One of these is the idea that a literary work should, so far as possible, be complete in itself, should not have to depend for fulfillment of its intentions on knowledge, ideas, images that the text does not provide. The best fiction, Henry James proposes, "renders" (85) the world it pictures; it is not up to the reader to supply what the text omits. But in many traditional cultures--those of American Indians, for example--the audience for a tale or ritual presentation would a priori be familiar with characters or situations. It would be superfluous, indeed meaningless, for the artists to introduce, describe, and elaborate on what is known and shared, like Coyote and his machinations or the role of the storyteller. Indeed, works like Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storyteller" or "Yellow Woman" vibrate with echoes of such traditional figures. Thus a tale may not be "complete" precisely because the expectation is that the audience will bring to it whatever is left unstated. In fact, when we look closely, we find that the notion of a work of art as self-contained, complete in itself, is a chimera. Any art work plays upon, sometimes against, the expectations, the patterns of knowledge, the assumptions about form and content--not to speak of the conventions of language--an audience brings to it. Thus, whether we are talking about a Henry James novel or a Harlequin romance, the issue is not in this respect whether a work is "fully realized" or not, but what it anticipates an audience will bring to it and what purposes are served by thus depending on what the reader furnishes for the book. That leads to a new set of questions--such as, for example, whether Ellison in Invisible Man draws on certain folk traditions of the trickster to differentiate the responses of black and white readers to scenes like those involving Clifton, whether there are in effect "inside" and "outside" readings of his book.

A second set of issues involves how we evaluate texture. As critics of written litera- ture, we have largely ascribed value to organic complexity in structure, ambiguity, and tension in language--each line crafted new, each situation fresh. In "The Metaphysical Poets" T. S. Eliot argues that "poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult... The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning" (248). Reading such preferences back into the past, Eliot and his successors extolled the virtues of the metaphysical poets; suiting practice to theory (or, perhaps, vice versa), they developed the complex modernist style exemplified by The Four Quartets, Pound's Cantos, or Hart Crane's "Bridge."

I would not deny the virtues of complex poetic structures, or of the dense, allusive modernist line–in their place. But these are not the only virtues in poetry, nor are they the only means for representing the modern world, much less "our civilization." Indeed, the phrase "our civilization" is itself problematic. Obviously, not all inhabitants of a given space participate in what is defined as "civilization" or, for that matter, have real access to its privileges. "Complexity" in language can be, in fact, a mask for privilege, a screen behind which power sustains itself--in criticism as in poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks had no need for obscurity of language when she sent her poetic sensibility to observe the ordinariness of hate in Little Rock. What image better catches our "civilization" than Langston Hughes's ordinary "raisin in the sun"? Indirection is not at a premium when Judy Grahn writes of the "common woman," or Susan Griffin thinks of Harriet Tubman and the problem of feeding children, or Denise Levertov writes of what the Vietnamese were like. To what extent is the manner in which one uses language dependent upon where one is placed in "our" civilization, or upon one's audience, one's conception of the functions of art?

An artist's outlook on the culture underlies the conventions he or she adopts. Eliot saw his civilization in decline and from its shards and fragments erected a Great Allusive Wall against the impending ruin. In a sense his poems, like Pound's, constitute certain kinds of humanities curricula, "The Rise and Decline of Christian Civilization." That may help to explain the great popularity of their poetry with an earlier generation of academics, as well as the faintly musty quality some of today's critics detect. But there are other assumptions about American culture and thus other ways even of "assembling fragments of experience" from the past--indeed, other conceptions of the fragments suitable for preservation. In studying "women's work" like quilts and blankets, Shiela de Brettville has proposed that their "assemblage of fragments pieced together whenever there is time" has often been organized into a "complex matrix [that] suggests depth and intensity as an alternative to progress" (117-18). Vera Norwood has examined the efforts of a number of southwestern women artists to utilize in their contemporary work fragments of the ordinary lives of their foremothers--stitching, pieces of lace, botanical drawings, snatches of letters, diaries, conversation. Rolando Hinojosa's Klail City Death Trip series assembles fragments of imagined south Texas experience, often widely separated in time--newspaper reports, diary entries, narrative accounts--precisely to contest the definition of what constitutes "our civilization" and who will have power within it. Similarly, books as diverse as Momaday's Way to Rainy Mountain, Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima and Kingston's Woman Warrior are, among other things, efforts to preserve as well as to utilize anew elements of their diverse cultural traditions.

I am not proposing that works by marginalized writers are necessarily simple in language or in structure, or that they inevitably ignore Euro-American traditions. On the contrary, books like Morrison's Sula, Walker's Meridian, and Silko's Ceremony and, indeed, Invisible Man–are structurally rich, and there are dozens of minority poets whose language and imagery operate fully within the modernist mode. Still, we need to understand certain artifacts of critical response: for example, Thomas Pynchon has published three novels, and there are at least a dozen books and untold articles out explaining them. About the group of black women novelists–Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Gloria Naylor– writing perhaps the most compelling fiction today, there are few works (Christian, Black Women Novelists and Black Fcminist Criticism; Evans, Black Women Writers; Pryse and Spillers, Conjuring). To be sure, some of the work of these writers is more recent, and the disproportion will no doubt change over time. But to an extent, as critics we have been taught and have learned to "valorize" the pleasures of the epistemological games constructed by writers like Pynchon, Nabokov, and Barth. Let us leave apart the question of whether promoting the virtues of complexity, denseness, and even obscurity, and maintaining an outlook of genteel pessimism, are in some degree functions of sustaining the roles--and jobs--of literary interpreters. We still need to ask whether the expectation, the demand for denseness and speculative play in a work does not disable critics from apprehending other virtues, of transparency in structure, of immediacy in language, of feelings deeply engaged by symbol.

Further, few minority writers can evade the tension imposed by the implicit demand that they appeal to quite differing language and cultural communities. A writer for the New York Review of Books can, perhaps, sneer at oral traditions in literature, but minor- ity writers do so, or otherwise detach themselves from the linguistic contexts of their own communities, at peril of drying up the sources of creativity and also validation. Art works can be ranged along a wide spectrum, from those that are most dense, elaborated, to those that are most transparent, straightforward. It seems to me that writers from marginalized groups make use of more bands on this spectrum than those whose reference group is in significant measure academic intellectuals. In reading work produced by writers from marginalized groups, in developing a comparative approach to American literature, we must ourselves widen our perception and appreciation of formal features often different from those we have been trained to acknowledge.

We are only at the beginning of understanding and explaining the pervasive influence of non-European traditions in the forms and conventions developed by minority writers. A number of critics, most notably Sherley Williams and Houston Baker, have examined the interaction of song styles like the blues with the more formal productions of black writers. More recently, the understanding of the impact of call-and-response patterns has been extended to fiction. In "Untroubled Voice" Barbara E. Bowen has convincingly analyzed the structure and development of Jean Toomer's Cane in such terms, arguing that the work is most succesfull "when Toomer opens up for us what it means to turn the call-and-response pattern into a literary form."

Similarly, the subject and aims of Silko's novel Ceremony emerge from patterns of repetition with variation. The story of its hero, Tayo, reproduces, albeit with the differences necessary to new times and the remixing of cultures, the "mythic" purification ceremony carried forward by Hummingbird and Fly on behalf of the people, who have strayed after strange and dangerous magic. The language of the mythic and traditional and of poet-Second World War ceremonies interpenetrates, especially in seemingly casual phrases--like "it wasn't easy," "it won't be easy," "it isn't easy"-- which migrate from the mythic passages of the novel into descriptions of the experiences of Tayo and his aunt. What we discover with Tayo is the commonality of that experience, through time: The anticipation of what he might find was strung tight in his belly; suddenly the tension snapped and hurled him into the empty room where the ticking of the clock behind the curtains had ceased. He stopped the mare. The silence was inside, in his belly; there was no longer any hurry. The ride into the mountain had branched into all directions of time. He knew then why the oldtimers could only speak of yesterday and tomorrow in terms of the present moment the only certainty; and this present tense of being was qualified with bare hints of yesterday or tomorrow, by saying, "I go up to the mountain tomorrow." The ck'o'yo Kaup'a'ta somewhere is stacking his gambling sticks and waiting for a visitor; Rocky and I are walking across the ridge in the moonlight; Josiah and Robert are waiting for us. This night is a single night; and there has never been any other. (201)

The book's heuristic objective repeats that of the traditional storyteller: "to fight off / illness and death" (2) by regenerating awareness of pattern and order through the language of ceremonies (cf. Toelken and Scott 88). Repetition, to say it another way, is here not merely a convention of composition but the fundamental principle of psychological and social order, and the book takes on ever-deeper echoes for those familiar with the repetitive patterns of traditional Indian narratives. Thus traditional forms become in more than a metaphorical sense the 1ifeblood of minority artists.

But the problem of identifying and validating differing forms and conventions extends to the work of white women as well. Elizabeth Ammons, for example, her contrasted the organizing principles of Jewett's Country of the Pointer Firs, with the "hierarchical mode" of conventional narrative as created by men. Jewett does not use a linear structure, with its built-toward climax coming near the end, but rather what Ammons describes as a "webbed, net-worked" organization, in which the "most highly charged experience of the book . . . comes at the center (85, 89). Further, Ammons argues, "psychically, the aggregative structure of Jewett's narrative reproduces female relational reality" in the process of constructing a female-oriented community. I do not wish here to enter the vexed and problematic issue of the existence of a distinctly female structure or style. What might help illuminate Jewett could obscure her contemporary, Freeman, for she organizes her stories along much more traditional patterns of creating and quickly resolving conflict, even though the concerns of women, mostly poor, are at the center of almost all of the stories. My point is narrower: critics have often asked of Jewett's stories questions drawn from other literary contexts and have thus missed the distinctive organizational strategy with which Jewett was working. Thus she was portrayed as engaging despite her presumed formal shortcomings, rather than seen as important because of her formal innovations.

The issue here is not only differences in the forms and conventions marginalized writers use but the uses to which they put traditional conventions. Point of view is a technical device often employed by Henry James, for example--to produce psychological verisimilitude and intimacy of narrative; Chesnutt uses it in "The Passing of Grandison," however, to raise political consciousness. The story is told from the point of view of a white character in it, which necessarily places the predominantly white readership of the story outside the head and experiences of the black slave, Grandison. The story seems to be constructed to produce an O. Henry-style surprise ending, in which the slave masters initially celebrate Grandison's unexpected return from Canada. But the ending is less a surprise than a political lesson, for, like the whites in the tale, readers tend to impose their versions of reality on events. Grandison has his own, which emerges only at the story's conclusion, when we find that he had returned only long enough to spirit his whole family off to freedom. If that ending is a surprise–and in the classroom I have found that it almost always is, even for black students,–it confirms that the audience knows as little of Grandison as his slave master, a matter for some embarrassed reflection. "The Passing of Grandison" uses the device of point of view and the conventions of the "puttin' on ol' massa" tale to pursue certain social objectives. Alice Walker's Meridian offers a more complex instance of how point of view and gliding time frames are used to move readers from detached amusement to informed malaise, and to point outward from the fiction to the world it encourages us to transform. Thus a reconception of forms entails a comparable rethinking of function.

Formal analysis is, and is likely to remain, the meat and potatoes of the literary profession, at least in the classroom. A comparativist strategy compels us to appreciate a broader range of conventions, to set form more fully into historical and functional context, and to comprehend how audience expectation and assumption mandate formal priorities. It is to this last problem, audience, that I now wish briefly to turn.


Twenty-five years ago, audience was seldom a problematic in literary study. To be sure, it was important for historians of the drama and for medievalists to establish what kinds of people saw or participated in a performance. And the starting point for work like Ian Watt's on the development of the novel was the recognition of its primarily bourgeois audience. But on the whole, and certainly in the classroom, the responding reader was conceived to be as universal as the work itself. The wide differences in background, assumption, and perception among readers are now a commonplace of literary instruction– or at least of comment about literature, for it is not at all clear how the commonplace translates into changed classroom practise. However that might be, a new style of literary criticism emerged in the 1980s, focused on the implications of reader response to texts. While this criticism may have had its origins in psycholinguistic concerns, it seems to me to have evolved precisely because it registers a central reality that is also vital to the comparative study of American literatures: the diversity of audience response to literature in late twentieth-century America.

That diversity, as I have suggested elsewhere in this paper, arises from the disparity in cultural histories and needs of the heterogeneous population of this country. Increasingly since the 1970s, that heterogeneity has been reflected in college and university classrooms and, in some degree, in changing American literature curricula (see Lauter, Reconstructing). Most instructors, however, continue to regard the classroom as a neutral ground for literary study, within which differing works can, whatever the context of their original articulation, be studied with equal success and without a great deal of attention to differences among students apart from the levels of their literacy. In fact, however, the classroom is hardly neutral territary for literary study, since its character privileges certain kinds of texts–particularly those that offer rich and ambiguous possibilities for interpretation–and strips others of their functional qualities–like those that are pans of rituals and performances, or those with heavily defined historical missions and contexts. Equally to our point here: while it would be foolish to deny the literary handicaps many of our students face, it would be equally dangerous not to see that they have substantially different cultural outlooks and diverse expectations–however unarticulated–about art. To say this another way: the recognition of how audiences for art differ in assumptions and desires has been pressed upon-many literary practitioners by the fact of classroom diversity.

In confronting audience diversity, teachers and critics of literature are in a sense departing down a road long traveled by marginalized writers. Both for practical and for ideological reasons, minority writers have, since the earliest colonies, had to contend with–even if they finally chose to ignore–disparities between readers from the majority culture and those from their own cultures. Until the turn of the twentieth century, and probably into the 1920s, few minority writers–mainly journalists and pamphleteers–could afford to confine themselves to readers from their own group. Black readership, for example, was too limited to provide practical vocations for artists like Chesnutt, Dunbar (who turned to musical theater), Frances Harper (who earned a living as organizer and educator), or even Pauline Hopkins, though she published with a black-run press. Only in the 1920s, with the increasing concentration, in northern urban centers, of blacks who were at least modestly affluent, and with the self-conscious efforts of men like Charles S. Johnson to interest white publishers in black writers, was it possible for black authors to begin to depend on–and thus be able to speak primarily to–a black constituency. Further, earlier black writers–as we have seen in the case of Chesnutt–wished to address a white audience as part of a campaign to establish the personhood of blacks in white consciousness. Thus, in some sense like s1ang or other verbal games, writing both revealed to and hid from the majority audience qualities of the minority writer's society and experience. As a spiritual might signal "happy darkies" to whites and "prepare for flight" to blacks, so a poem or play could figure both play and rage.

Such generalizations do not, of course, hold for American Indian tribal art forms, whose audiences were groups within the tribe and which, indeed, varied in performance depending upon audience factors–like the age and sex of listeners. Nor are such gener- alizations applicable to Mexican American writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many authors writing in Spanish in the southwestern United States had their work printed in Spanish-language newspapers whose constituencies identified themselves as Mexican, or at least as "borderers." For such authors, of course, the tensions of addressing a dual audience did not exist, or duality emerged as a function of subject, and perhaps of style. It is thus clearly the case that, in regard to audience, the evolutions of minority literatures are even more different one from another than in other respects and that generalizations are here even more fragile than elsewhere. For minority writers, the major problem of audience appears–at least after some degree of literacy obtains within the group–whenever they choose to speak to those outside the group. But at what point historically that choice becomes important–and, indeed, at what point it seems again to be irrelevant–differs from group to group.

These considerations also apply to the history of white women and white men writers in the United States, though the problems that emerge are clearly distinct. For men like Hawthorne and Melville, as is well known, the difficulty was that many of their potential readers were female and thus, in certain ways like minority writers, they had to address an audience whose culture and expectations partly differed from their own. The resulting tensions seem to have been the source of considerable rage and perhaps a certain duplicity, especially in Melville's stories. For white women there have been other anxieties. In the 1850s and 1860s, writers like Stowe and Alice Cary could converse quite comfortably in their prose with their dominantly female audience. But later, the practice of writing to a definitively female audience, as "lady novelists" were "expected" to do, might ensure the trivialization of one's work, especially in the hands of male critics. Cather seems to have imagined a significantly male audience, whereas at least some of the women modernists may have self-consciously spoken differently to male and to female readers.

For after all, the existence of a dual audience cannot be seen simply as a problem; it is also an opportunity, in at least two respects. First, in ideological terms, it allows an important community role to marginalized writers, as interpreters (even apologists) for their community to the "outside"–the "straight," the "vanilla"–world, even while becoming a source of instruction, delight, and power within. One thinks of writers like Langston Hughes and Adrienne Rich; indeed, this duality of audience helps explain some basic features of, and shifts in, their poetry and prose. The second opportunity is perhaps best suggested by a comment made in "Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers" by Maxine Hong Kingston apropos many of the misguided reviews of her first novel: The audience of The Woman Warrior is also very specific. For example, I address Chinese Americans twice, once at the beginning of the book and once at the end. I ask some questions about what life is like for you, and, happily, you answer. Chinese Americans have written that I explain customs they had not understood.... There are puns for Chinese speakers only, and I do not point them out for non-Chinese speakers. There are some visual puns best appreciated by those who write Chinese. I've written jokes in that book so private, only I can get them; I hope I sneaked them in unobtrusively so nobody feels left out. I hope my writing has many layers, as human beings have layers. (65) The writer, thus addressing multiple audiences, emerges as trickster and clown, deferential and sweet even as she spins away with a grotesque gesture of . . . is it triumph? defiance? invitation? Survival is serious business that, it may be, cannot be taken all too seriously.

In a certain sense, citing Hughes and Kingston in the same paragraph suggests something about the related masks–of simplicity, invisibility, incapacity–minority writers have often chosen to present to at least part of their audience. But the two raise a profoundly contrasting question about audience as well. Hughes wrote regularly in the Chicago Defender and in books like Simple Speaks His Mind for an extensive black audience. It is not clear, as yet, how widely a writer like Kingston is heard within the Chinese American community. To be sure, the issue of who reads, who listens is not peculiar to marginalized writers. What is distinctive is the question of how, indeed whether, one can aspire to speak, at once, to generalized human concerns and for the particular experiences of a people defined in the world by caste and class and gender. At what, if any, historical moment is Invisible Man's assertion that perhaps "on the lower frequencies, I speak for you" true, or does Rich's "dream of a common language" become a reality? Can marginalized writers in practical ways speak both to the communities that nurtured them and to the majority audience that is part of the social and cultural fabric of oppression? When does aspiring toward the latter audience cut one off from the former?

I do not think there are easily generalizable answers to these questions, and the answers change over time But if the comparative strategy I have been proposing is a sensible approach to marginalized writing in the United States, then surely the problem of audience will be one of its critical foci.

A comparative approach to the literatures of the United States imposes serious scholarly and pedagogical responsibilities upon us. We need to learn about, study, be sensitive to a far broader range of audiences, conventions, functions, histories and subjects than her in general been the case in literary analysis.14 And while I have touched on such issues here, I have not really addressed the large question of whether there are qualities of language and patterns of imagery distinctive to particular marginalized groups, concerns of consequence to some of our most notable critics today.

In pursuing such tasks, I think we should acknowledge the limitations of our own training. For example, relatively few students of American literature are acquainted with the way oral cultures have influenced writing. But rare indeed are those thoroughly familiar with more than one of the oral traditions of the United States, like those of American Indians and African Americans. Some scholars of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman have shown how their work rings of platform and pulpit, but few are also knowledgeable about working-class or minority oral traditions. In fact, a comparative approach could not have been proposed before 1975, because the detailed study of minority, ethnic, or even female cultures had not then sufficiently advanced: too many texts were unavailable or unexamined; little had been done to pose comprehensive theo- ries about African American literary traditions, the female imagination, the evolution of Chicano literature, and like subjects.

But such work has moved forward rapidly, and while it is not yet adequately reflected in undergraduate, much less in graduate school, curricula, the changes are notable. Further, we can learn from our colleagues in other fields. For example, in approaching literary works still partly moving within the orbit of one or another oral tradition, we can benefit from the modes of studying early English texts. They remind us of how much work in linguistics and cultural and social history we must do in order to encounter the literary works. Beyond that, many feminist and minority critics have perforce trained themselves as comparativists; their work exists as both challenge and lesson for the profession at large. do not wish to exaggerate the difficulties of this task: if we are, as I suggested at the beginning, not very far advanced in the processes of collective exploration, with commitment we may more rapidly than has seemed possible fill in the map and provide richer understanding of all the literatures of the United States.15

Notes 'Cf Sommen; Sommers and Ybarra-Frausto, 37-38; for example, "Logically then, the trajectory of Chicano literature differs crucially from the mainstream models both of Mexico and the United States." 2 Thus the objection to most of the narrow graduate and undergraduate reading lists that have characterized the academic study of literature, and to the overemphasis on a limited set of paradigmatic critical texts–for instance, those of Derrida or Barthes. To sharpen the point of this objection, compare the indexes in books of almost any male theoretical critic– structuralist or poststructuralist–with those in any of the recent collections of feminist and African American critics. The worlds of experience represented by these sets of references differ profoundly, and in some cases absolutely. 3 For example, Ammons writes: "My thesis throughout is that Stowe's manipulation of maternal ideology is adapted and remodeled in illuminating ways in the work of American women writing before the 1920s and that, taken together, this body of fiction from Stowe forward constitutes a rich female tradition in American literature that challenges the dominant, twentieth-century, academic construction of the canon in terms of the adventure tale and the antisocial, which is to say antifeminine, escape narrative" ("Stowe's Dream" 156). 4 Donovan has taken a somewhat different tack, attempting to rehabilitate such terms, as the title of one of her books illustrates: 'New England's Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition. 5 Cf. Toelken and Scott 80. Toelken asks the storyteller, Yellowman, why he narrates the tales. "'If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people; if they don't hear them, they will turn out to be bad.' Why tell them to adults? 'Through the stories everything is made possible.'" Later Toelken and Scott examine the role of ritual (the stories) in establishing health through ordering "an otherwise chaotic scene" (88). 6 It may be interesting to compare this view of the African American creative artist with Houston Baker's appropriation of Trueblood, in Ellison's Invisible Man, to that role, in "To Move." 7 0ne can observe this phenomenon even in the most pastoral paintings created by the peasant anists of Solentiname, in Nicaragua. The subjects are seldom even remotely political, but the process of creating the paintings was a major factor in energizing and mobilizing the people to emerge from their sense of "marginalization" (the term is one they use) and enter the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. That they could create art meant that they could create change. 8 Cf. Ybarra-Frausto: "Although the artist was free to experiment with form and content, the 'Plan de Aztlan' called for an art that was functional in extending the political consciousness of its audience.... The function of art is to extend and heighten our cognition of the world, its limitations and its potentialities for action. It is not an autonomous, internal mode of individual realization" (94). 9 A loving but critical comment by Edith Wharton helps underline certain of the limitations of James's outlook: "I sent the book [Proust's Du Cote de chez Swann] immediately to James, and his letter to me shows how deeply it impressed him. James, at that time, was already an old man and, as I have said, his literary judgments had long been hampered by his increasing preoccupation with the structure of the novel, and his unwillingness to concede that the vital centre (when there was any) could lie elsewhere. Even when I first knew him he read contemporary novels (except Wells's and a few of Conrad's) rarely, and with ill-concealed impatience; and as time passed, and intricate problems of form and structure engrossed him more deeply, it became almost impossible to persuade him that there might be merit in the work of writers apparently insensible to these sterner demands of the art" (Backward Glance 323). Cf. her comment on James's own late fiction on p. 190. 10 In general, many readers are willing enough to become engaged with people of higher status, with more money and power, than they. The problem Zola identifies is, we may say, to engage readers without condescension in a "downward" view. 11 In fact, as the Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes has pointed out, code switching and other forms of verbal play are rather more characteristic of male Latino poetry than of female. 12 Cf. Toelken and Scott: "When I asked him if he told the tale exactly the same way each time, he at first answered yes; but when evidence from compared tapes was brought into the discussion, it became clear that he had understood me to be asking him if he changed the nature of the prototype tale of his own volition; the wording was different each time because he recomposed with each performance, simply working from his knowledge of what ought to happen in the story and from his facility with traditional words and phrases connected, in his view, with the business of narrating Ma'i stories. He did not mention it, but it is quite obvious from the tapes made of his stories when no children were present that the audience plays a central role in the narrative style" (79-80). 13 Obviously, the debate over the canon, over books like E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, and over former education secretary William Bennett's curricular priorities involves precisely these issues. 14 Karl Kroeber writes: "In constructing hypothetical relations between their texture, text, and context, we can only improve and extend our appreciation of the art of the writers and enrich our understanding of the cultures from which their works emerged. Exactly the same exploring processes are appropriate and rewarding for Indian literatures, although often we must start from more basic elements because Indian literatures lack the wealth of earlier studies with which Western works are surrounded. It is our scholarship, not Indian literature, which is 'primitive' or undeveloped" ("An Introduction" 9). 15 I wish to thank both the Soviet and American participants in the Symposium on Literatures of American Ethnic Groups, Philadelphia, July 1985, for which this paper was originally prepared; Joel Conarroe, president of the Guggenheim Foundation; Andrew Wiget and Elizabeth Ammons for extremely helpful suggestions; and Ann Fitzgerald, without whose persistence and support it would not have been done. A longer and more detailed version of this anicle appears in my Canons and Contexts (Oxford).