"From Trailblazing to Infinitude: A Review of Enikő Bollobás’s Books Published in 2015" by Réka M. Cristian
Réka M. Cristian is Associate Professor and Chair of the American Studies Department, University of Szeged. She is author of Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Literature, Film and American Studies (2011), co-author (with Zoltán Dragon) of Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Guidebook to Film Theories (2008) and general editor of AMERICANA E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary and its e-book division, AMERICANA eBooks. Email:
Az amerikai irodalom rövid története [A Short History of American Literature]
Budapest: Osiris Tankönyvek, 2015.
Vendégünk a végtelenből – Emily Dickinson költészete [Our Visitor from Infinitude—Emily Dickinson’s Poetry]
Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 2015 .
2015 was a prolific year for the publication of American studies books in Hungary. Ten years after Enikő Bollobás’s grand survey of American literature (Az amerikai irodalom története [A History of American Literature]. Budapest: Osiris, 2005) written on works ranging from native pre-colonial beginnings to the end of the 20th century and uncovering the pluralism of American literature and the multiplicity of its canons, in which she presented in detail alongside with the familiar “Great Books” the writings of previously muted minorities,1 the author published an updated and abridged version of her previous work of excellence. After the success of this classic history of American literature in Hungarian, which was selected by the Hungarian Society for the Study of English (HUSSE) as the Best Book published between 2005 and 2009, it became imminent the need for a more compact textbook version of this survey conceived primarily for BA and MA level university courses, but also for graduate students and more general audiences.
Az amerikai irodalom rövid története [A Short History of American Literature], published by the Budapest-based Osiris Tankönyvek undertakes this important project. Structured in chapters written on Native American oral literatures and the writings from the early colonies, through the literatures of the American Revolution, the American naissance, the 19th century belle-lettres and the postbellum literature to modern and contemporary American literatures, this concise volume is sparking the joy of reading as the author tours its readers through the massive inventory of American literature in a book constructed with comfortable amenities for the curios eye and mind. Although this volume discusses less works than the author’s previous history of literature, the compact selection of literary works, based on a vast teaching expertise, contains a well-manageable inventory of texts that can be and are best used in the current academic curriculum.
The conceptual scheme and the structuring criteria of this book avoids any totalizing principle and resembles indeed―as its author claims in the volume’s “Introduction”―Jorge Luis Borges’s “certain Chinese encyclopedia” and Michel Foucault’s l’hétèroclite: a contemporary bricolage (as described by Mihály Szegedy-Maszák) of teachable canons. The book is actually a practical example of Bakhtininan heteroglossia with variable foci on genres, particular literary groups, certain topics, themes and methods, and last but not least, on the identity of the author, all grouped within particular periods and, as such, it can be read accordingly: either in a linear, chronological way, as an unfolding survey of relevant texts or by the random choice of a chapter or subchapter that directs to another one, similar to cyberspace hyperlinks, trailblazing readers through the milestones of a more minority-inclusive American literary canon indicated below by the content of each part. The first chapter centers on the literature of the discoverers including Christopher Colombus, Amerigo Vespucci, Álvar Nuňez Cabeza de Vaca, Richard Hakluyt, and the Hungarian István Budai Parmenius, alongside an intriguing list and discussion on Puritan writers (William Bradford, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Samuel Danforth, and Mary Rowlandson), while the next chapter focuses on the American Revolution and the Early Republic (represented in this volume by Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Abigail Adams, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur); the third chapter contains the writers of the national awakening (Irving Washington, Frederick Jackson Turner, James Fenimore Cooper, James E. Seaver, Lydia Maria Child, Eliza Farnham, Edgar Allan Poe, William Cullen Bryant, Henry, Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russel Lowell), while chapter four gathers the most important figures and works of the 19th century (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Harriet Ann Jacobs); chapter five guides readers through the literary works of the period after the Civil War (Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Henry James, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Bret Harte, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton).
Chapter six and seven are the largest parts of this short history encompassing almost two thirds of the book. Chapter six navigates readers through the intriguingly innovative literatures of the first part of the 20th century (E. A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Ezra Pound, Williams Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Thornton Wilder, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, James Agee, Gertrude Stein, Hilda Doolittle, Djuna Barnes, Willa Cather, Katherine Ann Porter, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Mitchell, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Brooks, Susan Glaspell, Elmer Rice, Lilian Hellman, Eugene O’Neill), while the last chapter efficiently charts the vast territory of American literatures after modernism, including the works of Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Imamu Amiri Baraka, John Ashberry, Frank O’Hara, Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tillie Olsen, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Elie Wiesel, E. L. Doctorow, Chaim Potok, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, William Styron, Paul Bowles, Peter de Vries, John Cheever, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Berger, John Updike, E. Annie Proulx, Jane Smiley, Lorrie Moore, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Jonathan Franzen, J. D. Salinger, Ken Kesey, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, Vladimir Nabokov, William H. Gass, Raymond Federman, Walter Abish, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Joyce Carol Oates, Lydia Davis, Kathy Acker, Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Octavia E. Butler, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederick Barthelme, Richard Ford, Bret Easton Ellis, Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall, N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor, James Welch, William Least Heat-Moon, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, José Antonio Villarreal, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Tomás Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa, Rudolfo A. Anaya, Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Toshio Mori, John Okada, Jessica Hagedorn, John Rechy, Audre Lorde, Rita Mae Brown, Gloria Anzaldúa, Michael Cunningham, Cherríe Moraga, David Leavitt, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Suzan-Lori Parks, megan Terry, Rochelle Owens, Maria Irene Fornés, Marsha Norman, Beth Henley, Tina Howe, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, David Henry Hwang, Wakako Yamauchi, Hanay Geiogamah, Louis Valdéz, Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, and Tony Kushner.
Besides its valuable condense content, one of the most intriguing features of this book is its design structure, which enhances a smooth ‘navigation’ experience of reading, especially for its main target audience, the digital native generation. Each chapter is carefully crafted in smart modules with graphic signposts trailblazing readers through a tinted, boxed background emphasizing the context of the discussed period that summarizes and reflects upon the most important social, economic, political and historical issues, followed by another box-unit with useful chronology enlisting the main authors of the period, with the subsequent parts elaborating on the most influential American writers. Moreover, each chapter has a twofold summary containing a tinted box-unit of thesis points and a list of keywords, and concludes with a works cited and suggested readings part that contains also an updated version of the Hungarian reception of the discussed literary works, functioning both as a pragmatic document of the contemporary reception of American literature in Hungary and as a primary source for young researchers. This guiding book structure contributes not only to an enriching reading experience but also to a more structured way of learning tailored to the needs of newer generations of Hungarian students by providing a user-friendly way to learn about and understand the multitude of voices present in American literature.
In the 1948 Preface to The Literary History of the United States, Robert E. Spiller, Willard Thorp, Thomas H. Johnson and Henry Seidel Canby wrote that “each generation should produce at last one literary history of the United States, for each generation must define the past in its own terms.”2 Forty years later, in the Preface to The Columbia Literary History of the United States, Emory Elliott echoed the same sentence3 by emphasizing the importance of literary histories tailored to their own times and contexts. In a globalized world, the need for newer and newer American literary histories remains impending and not only for those written by American authors. Similar to Richard Gray’s A History of American Literature (2004) and its short version, A Brief History of American Literature (2011)4, Enikő Bollobás’s two American literary histories written in Hungarian (2005, 2015) not only accomplish this noble task by conveying an inventively and captivatingly rethought history of American literature caught in a ten-year timespan but hold an extra bonus by highlighting the Hungarian reception of these works in the past decade.
Enikő Bollobás’s other book, Vendégünk a végtelenből – Emily Dickinson költészete ([Our Visitor from Infinitude—Emily Dickinson’s Poetry], came out also in 2015 and is the first monograph on America’s foremost woman poet to appear in Hungary―and in Hungarian. Bollobás has been engaged for a long time in writing not only about American literature in general but about American poetry in particular. Her Tradition and Innovation in American Free Verse: Whitman to Duncan. (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986) examined three prosodic paradigms of 19th and 20th century American free verse representing three possible answers to the challenge of formal innovation: the prosodic achievements of Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and the Ezra Pound ‒ William Carlos Williams line. These alternatives represent, from a typological point of view, three radically different innovations the author discusses here: the prosody of grammar, the prosody of metrical approximation, and the prosody of textual contiguity. Later on, in her monograph on the poetry and philosophy of Charles Olson (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), Bollobás offered ingenious readings of Olson’s significant short poems as well as The Maximus Poems, treating his early postmodernism as the continuation of the radical modernism in the Pound-Williams-Stein tradition. The dedication to Emily Dickinson’s poetry became evident in Bollobás’s numerous earlier studies, lectures, and radio broadcasts, and then later, in her book dedicated to character studies in American and Hungarian literature entitled Egy képlet nyomában – Karakterelemzések az amerikai és a magyar irodalomból [In Search of a Formula. Character Studies in American and Hungarian Literature]. Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 2012). Here, the author writes about the modes in which literary characters are created in the text(s) they appear. The “formula” Bollobás sets up consists in tracing the processes of the subject’s performatively constructed forms with relation to existing scripts by exploring theories of the subject from René Descartes to Judith Butler and by focusing on subjectivity constructions where inflections of gender, sexuality, and race mark the performed subject5. In this Hungarian-language book, Bollobás draws correspondences between the performative and the tropological, insisting that the re-performance of existing scripts accounts for metaphorical constructions, while the non-compliance with these normative discourses makes for the subject as catachresis (or abusio). This theoretical formula is then applied in the close reading of a selection of texts and characters from American and Hungarian literature, including a chapter on this trope and Emily Dickinson’s poems (pp. 46-57).
Vendégünk a végtelenből is Bollobás’s distilled, essence-revealing and lucid critical study that starts with a remarkably composed biography, in which the author gives a meticulous examination of Emily Dickinson’s overall poetic achievement by using a considerable number of translated poetry alongside annexed originals in a volume structured around Dickinson’s innovations in verse and form, on specific topics and tropes, and on the poet’s approaches to gender issues. Right from the start, Bollobás contextualizes Dickinson in the circle of her contemporary writers in the U.S. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe), in Europe (Robert Browning, John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Baudelaire, George Sand, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rosetti), and in Hungary (János Arany, Sándor Petőfi, János Vajda, Júlia Szendrey, Mária Csapó, Atala Kisfaludy, Flóra Majthényi) by emphasizing that although Dickinson was coeval with them, her work simply cannot be compared to any of her contemporaries’ (11). Dickinson was so peerless in her isolation that she seemed to come from another planet: she was like a guest from the unknown, coming from infinitude. The greatest achievement of Bollobás’s book is the thorough exploration of this palpable unboundedness through the prism of the poet’s definitive version of works translated into Hungarian.
Working from the assumption that Dickinson was a self-conscious, determined, intellectual poet, Bollobás discusses the Amherst poet’s seeming idiosyncrasies as early manifestations of a modern(ist) mind, who cannily broke with just about all norms of 19th century versification (pp. 36-65). This meticulous study presents Dickinson as a poetic nonconformist, a subversive thinker and a formal innovator, who dared to think what had not been thought before, to invent new concepts, and to create new linguistic structures (in her conscious employment of American English) as vehicles her new thoughts. In this chapter, the author emphasizes the importance of Dickinson’s semantically empty spaces that explicitly remove the referentiality of words destabilizing language so that the experience shifts exclusively to the reader/speaker. In addition to Dickinson’s cognitive and formal experiments, the poet’s thematic innovations in this volume gain new interpretations; yet instead of presenting traditional themes, Bollobás identifies modes of thematic treatment―among them Dickinson’s aesthetics of process that include transitus-poetry, introspection, epistemological and cognitive uncertainty, multiple selves, I-space, and mise en abyme (pp. 66-109). The chapter on thinking and tropes (pp. 110-165) discusses Dickinson’s use of paradox and oxymoron, of metaphor and metonymy, synecdoche and catachresis that make up, in Michel Foucault’s words, the poet’s tropological space. Although all chapters are steadily engaging, perhaps one of the most intriguing is the last one, which deals with Dickinson’s gendered subject. The poet known to take on various masks and personas is presented here as covering a whole range of traditional and untraditional female constructions: from women who follow 19th century normative scripts of gender to those who subvert these scripts. For example, when in her fourth letter to T. W. Higginson, she writes, “I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur,” she constructs herself, albeit playfully, as a slight wren-like woman, who as mere “object” or “patient” does not deserve the attention of her powerful Preceptor. But when she writes about women who live “without a Formula” (poem #1529), and, refusing to “be Theirs,” choose “just a Crown” (poem #508), she assigns subjecthood and agency to women. With this grand gesture of subjectivation, Dickinson lays the foundation of a female poetic tradition to come to its full maturity in the 20th century with the work of such women as Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, among others. As the author writes in the last part of the book, Dickinson is an authentic poet of “attention:” she focuses on the inner processes and hardly visible changes of the mind in a hazardous, incidental world. Hence her use of metaphoric-catachretic constructions and unexpected poetic structures, her dense language and disciplined diction, precise wording and elliptical style that make her an unquestionable radical modernist.
This new, elegant volume by Enikő Bollobás is more than a densely-researched Dickinson monograph; it is also a new compendium of Dickinson’s poems in Hungarian and, as such, a major contribution to Hungarian American studies. Geared toward the contemporary reader―who is looking for less lofty but more understandable texts―in addition to the book’s reader-friendly structure and content, some well-known texts have been re-translated in a more contemporary form, alongside thirty hitherto untranslated poems transposed into Hungarian by László István G., Gyula Kodolányi and Géza Szőcs that expand the Hungarian Dickinson canon.
1 See Réka M. Cristian. “Under Construction: A History of American Literature.” AMERICANA e-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, Vol. II, Nr. 2, Fall 2006. Web: http://americanaejournal.hu/vol2no2/cristian-review ↩
2 Robert E. Spiller, Willard Thorp, Thomas H. Johnson and Henry Seidel Canby, eds. The Literary History of the United States (New York: Macmillan Company, 1948). ↩
3 Emory Elliott, gen. ed. The Columbia Literary History of the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), xi. ↩
4 Richard Gray. A History of American Literature (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell-Wiley, 2004); Richard Gray. A Brief History of American Literature (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell-Wiley, 2011). ↩
5 For the elaboration on the subject’s performatively constructed forms see Enikő Bollobás. They Aren’t, Untill I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature (Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford and Wien: Peter Lang, 2010). See also Réka M. Cristian. “Words Make Things: They Aren’t, Untill I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature by Enikő Bollobás.” AMERICANA e-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, Vol. VI, Nr. 2, Fall 2010. Web: http://americanaejournal.hu/vol6no2/cristian-rev ↩