RECOVERING AMERICAN LITERATURE by Peter Shaw

RECOVERING AMERICAN LITERATURE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Another salvo in the war on political correctness in literary criticism. Shaw, whose work has appeared in Partisan Review, Commentary, and The American Scholar, demonstrates how ``free discussion of American literature is being stifled by a new, radical orthodoxy'' imposed by the academic establishment. Shaw, who claims that ``the literary object's power comes not from its politics but from its unique ways of generating meaning,'' contends that by ``putting America's literature on a plane with America's shortcomings, the critics have achieved a self-fulfilling denigration.'' He argues that American classics, regarded more as tracts than novels, are being used by contemporary critics to serve political ends. To prove his point and demonstrate how such works can be recovered as literature, Shaw chooses five 19th-century novels, all long-time members of the canon. Each, he argues, has been politicized: The Scarlet Letter as a woman's struggle against patriarchal orthodoxy; The Bostonians as a ``repudiation of marriage''; Moby Dick as a diatribe against capitalist enterprise; Huckleberry Finn as a disavowal of the Civil War and subsequent racial accommodations; and Billy Budd as a rejection of the state itself (and of the United States in particular). He skillfully deploys his arguments by quoting extensively from critics and writers, including Lionel Trilling, D.H. Lawrence, and Leo Marx, as well as giving his own close reading of the texts. Shaw makes a persuasive case free from ideological cant, but the battle he fights is by now a familiar staple in the cultural wars, so his sense of urgency and outrage is less than compelling.

Pub Date: May 6th, 1994
ISBN: 1-56663-053-3
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1994




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