Volume II, Number 2, Fall 2006

"Under Construction: A History of American Literature" by Réka M. Cristian

Réka M. Cristian is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email: cristian@lit.u-szeged.hu.

Az amerikai irodalom történeteEnikő Bollobás
Az amerikai irodalom története
Osiris: Budapest, 2006
ISBN: 963-389-771-8
832 + 41 pages with Index

Enikő Bollobás is a leading Hungarian Americanist and author of several important books on American literature: Tradition and Innovation in American Free Verse (1986), Charles Olson (1992), and Az amerikai irodalom története A History of American Literature (2005). Her latest book is an influential document of contemporary international American studies written in Hungarian, a long-awaited intellectual enterprise aimed to recontextualize its constituent paradigms and to place the results into a European, and more precisely, into the Hungarian reception.

The author has a rather complicated task to accomplish. Among the few indeed useful and interesting books of the history on American literature the author succeeds to build bridges of understanding not only between literary works and their contexts but also among intricate cultural processes that construct American literature. The elegantly bound textbook published by the Hungarian Osiris Publishing Company series has a hardcover that depicts The Statue of Liberty as envisaged by Michael Patrick Corris. Liberty is surrounded by metallic scaffolding, suggesting that America is ‘under construction.’ This cover picture can be taken as the motto of the book: the author conceives the history of the American literature in constant change while providing us, readers, scaffolding poles of guidance for further dynamic readings.

One of the special features that bring this volume above the level of other histories of American literature is the employment of relevant Hungarian reception. A History of American Literature has, in this context, a more complex intercultural perspective than other recently published books in the topic―for example, Richard Gray’s work (Gray 2004). Bollobás’s text is more than an erudite survey of American literature seasoned with literary and cultural criticism; it is a cultural document of contemporary Hungarian American Studies. The bibliography (775-832) is impressive: above the lucid selection of texts pertaining to the authors and canonical, basic American critical texts discussed the book outlines the pertaining oeuvre by European Americanists side by side with the works of Hungarian researchers in American Studies. The massive number of published material mirrors a pedantic compilation of unpublished works, works in progress, works by guest lecturers from the American Studies Department at Eötvös Lóránd University, by many Hungarian and other scholars with interest in American literature and culture. Enikő Bollobás’s book emerges from a fortunate comparativist position by taking―to use Steven Mailloux’s term―an externally comparativist stance: the history of American literature is re-written from the vantage point of contemporary Hungarian reception. This text contains a comprehensive collection of Hungarian resources on American literature; traces the early and current translations of a great number of American literary works and critical texts, and is an assembly of recent critical enterprises on American literature from the Hungarian scene. Moreover, with its rich choice of literary and cultural terms, this book provides Hungarian readers with useful terminology in vogue in current literary and cultural studies.

The aim of A History of American Literature takes under scrutiny the very notion of Americanness. The book captures the most significant moves of the shifting literary canon, and questions history’s hegemonic narratives in order to present a cultural landscape that goes beyond the disciplinary frames of its constituent subject fields. America is comprehended as a plural paradigm, a cultural construct that encapsulates a multitude of cultures and identities. American literature is, accordingly, further validated with additional voices from the former margins: special embers of interest in this book center on the Native American, African American, Latino/a, Asian American, gay, lesbian and women’s writing. American history in Bollobás’s book accommodates, besides the grand narratives of traditional histories, the counter-hegemonic stories of otherness, of class, race, and ethnicity that are assumed as performative and discursive constructions rather than essential categories.

The author constructs and reconstructs American literature on an open platform: the strategy lies in the permeability of the applied categories, which are complex and fluid, depending on genre, movements, time, topic or method, as well as the identity of the authors involved (14). The work is intended to be a bricolage of former canons, a reconsideration of traditional modules of literary history, with the aim of building a text that goes, in an inventive intertextual architecture, beyond the usual chronologic assembly (which the author pragmatically summarizes in the introductory parts of the main chapters). The emerging point of this history of American literature is the orality of the Native Americans and the misty beginnings of American culture in the pre-Columbian era and the colonial period as presented in the Chapter I. The “Literature” of Early America (19-28) and Chapter II. The Literature of Colonial America (29-47); the sources of American literacy are followed by the texts of the American Revolution and the Early Republic in Chapter III. (48-69), then continued with the birth of American myths (Chapter IV. 70-103). Among the usable figures of American literary mythmakers this volume devotes special attention to Edgar Allan Poe (84-93), considered by the author still the most popular American poet in Hungary. Indeed, Poe’s works have been widely translated by an entire generation of Hungarian poets (Babits Mihály, Tóth Árpád, Kosztolányi Dezső, Szabó Lőrinc) and influenced the works of many others (86) but the issue of the most popular American author in Hungary remains for the reader a debatable question. The volume discusses the appearance of plural voices during and after the Civil War in Chapter V. (104-189) and in Chapter VI. (190-284) but the most expanded parts of the book are the ones that discuss American modernism in Chapter VII. (285-500) and postmodernist, contemporary issues in Chapter VIII. entitled American Literature after 1945 (501-774).

This history of literature manages, in a world of proliferating texts, to capture the most important and pertinent exponents of dissenting polyphonic voices of the current generation of writers and readers and to sensibly place them in shifting or even overlapping conceptual frames. The work applies the chronological line of general literary histories, but Enikő Bollobás overtakes rigid time categories by traversing historical periods in inserting the most recent local and global theories into her interpretative practice: the author uses contemporary theory as connective tissue, as a discursive application to the texts discussed. Literature in this book has expanded its previous boundaries and becomes the readable sum of manifold written American experience. This experience is indeed colorful despite the still massive presence of white male authors. The categories of writing (and names of the authors) trespass here the boundaries of classical philological divisions; Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicano/a and Latino/a writers, women authors, gay and lesbian writers, Southern authors, Jewish writers, etc. produce a literature of identities unfolding in different periods, in different genres and various movements discussed passim in this volume.

The book begins by featuring the rich cultural heritage of pre-Columbian orality (19-22) and then mentions the mediated texts of the a few early Native Americans―Powhatan via John Smith, Black Elk through John G. Niehardt, Crazy Horse, and Red Jacket (21)―then paves the passage of contemporary Native American voices with the works of Samson Occom (69). The Native American segment of this history of American literature makes itself present by mostly contemporary authors: Mourning Dove (456-457), Simon Ortiz (591), Linda Hogan (709), Joy Harjo (591), Paula Gunn Allen (590-591), James Welch (707), Leslie Marmon Silko (707-709), Gerald Vizenor (706), Louise Erdrich (709-710), N. Scott Momaday (703-706). They are, in the author’s canon, preferred over other, also important earlier Native voices represented by William Apess, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa), S. Alice Callahan (who, for example could have been placed in the realm of the transitional Native American literature as described by Bollobás in the chapter on multiculturalism and “new” identities), or more recent ones in the context of modern and contemporary Native American literature such as D’Arcy McNickle, John Joseph Matthews, Vine Deloria, Dee Brown, Thomas S. Whitecloud, Wendy Rose (only briefly mentioned on p. 591), etc.

The African American segment of American literature is systematically built; it is (re)constructed in details right from the emergence of the corpora of African American writings with special emphasis from the works of the early writers Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley (67-69) to that of New Negro Renaissance (459-488), Black Arts (567-569) and postmodern African Americans (675-693). Bollobás’s A History of American Literature is at its best in the presentation of women writers from the early authors, such as Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Sarah Kemble Knight, Anne Hutchinson, Phillis Wheatley, Abigail Adams, to the ones that contributed to the building of general American myths, especially in the Frontier line: Lydia Maria Child, Mary Jamison, Mary Austin Holey, Eliza Farnham. The impressive list of women writers whose presence has permeated all literary periods and circles continues with those authors who made themselves visible and ‘heard’ into the polyphonic texture of pre-modern, modern and postmodern American literature: Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Ann Jacobs, Louisa May Alcott, Maria Susanna Cummins, Rebecca Harding Davis, Susan Warner, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Ann Sophia Stevens, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, France Osgood, Caroline Kirklander, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Alice Cary, Sarah Wilson Parton, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Pauline Hopkins, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Nella Larsen, Marianne Moore, Zora Neale Hurston, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Susan Glaspell, Amy Lowell, Genevieve Taggard, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Anaïs Nin, Dorothy West, Margaret Mitchell, Joyce Carol Oates, Lydia Davis, Tony Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, Kathy Acker, Ursula LeGuin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Cathy Song, Janice Mirikitani, Louise Erdrich, Audre Lorde, Joanna Russ, and many more.

There are two parts that deserve special acknowledgment. Both are constitutive parts of the large block on American literature after 1945. One is the subchapter on “Multiculturalism and new identities” (695-729) which addresses the complex question of race, ethnicity and gender in the post-war period, the other is the chapter entitled “Tradition, Experimenting and Identity in Dramatic Literature” (729-773) and discusses a traditionally marginal genre of literary histories, that of American drama. The subchapter on multiculturalism concentrates on voices of the race, ethnicity and sexual otherness in the contemporary period. The authors and their texts construct their (American) identity in the specter of diversity, multi- and interculturalism, and transnationality (696) in a plurality of internally decolonized texts and contexts rising from behind the mainstream, canonized world of what used to be classical American literature. The literature of “new” identities is represented in this volume by mainly authors of autobiography and works of biographical source (700) ranging from African Americans, Native Americans, Latino/a and Chicano/a to Asian Americans and homosexual writers: Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor, William Least Heat-Moon James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, José Antonio Villareal, Floyd Salas, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Tomás Rivera, Rudolfo A. Anaya, Denise Chávez, Anna Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Oscar Hijuelos, Julia Alvarez, Cristian Garcia, Piri Thomas, Nicholasa Mohr, John Okada, Louis Chu, Toshio Mori, Jade Snow Wong, Frank Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Ha Jin, Hisaye Yamamoto, Karen Yamashita Tei, Bharati Mukherjee, Jessica Hagedorn, James Baldwin, John Rechy, Audre Lorde, Edmund White, Gloria Anzaldúa, Rita Mae Brown, Richard Rodriguez, Paul Monette, Michael Cunningham, Cherríe Moraga, David Leavitt.

This book devotes a considerable part to the dramatic genre. In 1961, in the preface to American Dramatic Literature, Jordan Y. Miller lamented about the fact that drama has too long remained a poor relation in the family of American literary arts (ix.). Almost forty years later the state of the art seems to be still in the same unfortunate position. In the introduction to Modern American Drama, C.W. E. Bigsby writes that American drama, one of the most pragmatic measurements of changes in a given culture—despite its huge popularity on the American and global scenes—is still treated with little or total disregard by the critical establishment (1). Enikő Bollobás’s history of American literature applies a fair treatment to the dramatic genre: it acknowledges the fact that American drama is ‘born’ modern, and secures discussion on the most popular playwrights and dedicates significant space for contemporary theaters of identity.

The chapter on modern American drama (489-500) discusses the first cornerstones of early American dramatic literature encountered from the dawn of the twentieth century. These include the works and the cultural contexts of Susan Glaspell (490), Clifford Odets (492), Thronton Wilder (493), Lillian Hellman (493) and, primarily that of Eugene O’Neill (494-500). The subchapter “Tradition, Experimenting and Identity in Dramatic Literature” pictures the profiles of the most prominent playwrights and demarcates the cultural context of their dramatic works together with subsequent backgrounds of theatrical performace on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway: Tennessee Williams (731-738), Arthur Miller (738-744), John Guarre (771-772), Arthur Kopit (772), Richard Nelson (772-773), Wallace Shawn (773), Sam Shepard and David Mamet (753-757), Edward Albee (748-753). At this point the reader has to signal an observation: while the author considers Albee’s The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (Notes toward a definition of tragedy) as Goat, this drama appears in the texts as not translated into Hungarian and marks it as (Kecske, 2002). The play, however, had its Hungarian premiere at Radnóti Miklós Színház, Budapest in 2003 and was translated by Daniél Varró under the inventive and tricky title of Szilvia, a K. In the context of the play which tackles the double issue of adultery and bestiality, the abbreviation “K.” has a dual meaning left at the choice of the decoder.

Both the chapter on drama and the book conclude with the issue of the theatres of identity amply furnished with contemporary authors and their plays: Robert Lowell, David Rabe, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Ed Bullins, August Wilson, Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, Suzan-Lori Parks, Megan Terry, Rochelle Owens, Marsha Norman, Beth Henley, Tine Howe, Emily Mann, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, David Henry Hwang, Wakako Yamauchi, Philip Kan Gotanda, Hanay Geiogamah, Louis Valdéz, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Carson McCullers, Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, and Tony Kushner.

A History of American Literature is a major book in Hungarian American Studies and in American Studies generally, a fictional bookstore that sorts texts and contexts of American experience by taking into consideration the shifting status of authorship, of canon formation in a period when the present(s) and the future(s) are plural. This work is more than a history of American literature; it is a net of histories and a nest of changing textual boughs, branches, twigs, leafs in the sacred wood of interpretation. Besides a myriad of useful data, Enikő Bollobás’s book offers its readers wisely peppered gourmet information on given topics or authors; its engaging style matches the topic explored. This massive work looks behind authors and their works and points to intertextual feedbacks behind the cultural and conceptual shelves these were placed before by presenting the circumstances of the institutionalization of writing and reading practices from a Hungarian Americanist angle. The objects of Enikő Bollobás’s excellent study focus on the literary and critical landscape of the texts originating from the territory of the United States of America from their incipient status of early American literature to the present-day complexity of literary corpora of the United States of America; the discussed texts are accompanied by the most recent critical views and adjacent reception histories, which help contextualization and thorough understanding not only of texts but also of the culture in which they originated and, complementary, of which they are read from.

This Osiris publication is profitable for large audiences. The reader-friendly, highly informative style accommodates American writers, texts, concepts and practices with the interpretive community of those interested in American literature and culture and in its Hungarian reception. For those with special interest in American Studies, this volume presents a wide array of readings, of different standpoints in decoding American culture, which seem to enjoy the beneficial interpretive touches of being ‘under construction.’

Works Cited

  • Bigsby, C.W.E. 2004. Modern American Drama: 1945-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Gray, Richard. 2004. A History of American Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Miller, Jordan Y. 1961. American Dramatic Literature: Ten Modern Plays in Historical Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.