Volume VII, Number 1, Spring 2011

"Ágnes Zsófia Kovács's Literature in Context" – Review by Márk Kaposvári

Márk Kaposvári is a doctoral student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Email:

Literature in Context: Reading American Novels
Kovács Ágnes Zsófia
Szeged: JATE Press, 2010
(Papers in English & American Studies XVIII.: Monograph Series 7.)
138 pages
ISBN: 978-963-306-005-6

A collection of loosely connected essays on American literature, Literature in Context is a composite of diverse yet convergent inquiries bound together by the common theoretical theme of ‘context’. Since the inquiry extends not only to the critical appraisal of (mainly) the contemporaneous modern authors: Henry James and Edith Wharton and subsequent generations in the figure of Toni Morrison and the contemporary Cristina García or Sandra Cisneros but also to the actual theoretical, critical issues informing, or better, ‘enframing’ this inquiry, it seems fair to say that it is a diverse inquiry indeed. At the same time, the diversity of the subject matter is addressed from a critical angle that weaves the threads into a robust, demonstrative whole. Maintaining subtle boundaries between the parts and thus avoiding a totalizing, uniform account or vision, in effect, lends itself very well to the main concern that underpins the enterprise Kovács Ágnes Zsófia had set upon: whatever cultural phenomenon you are dealing with, be that literary or non-literary, you should never lose sight of the fact that it is cultural through and through and therefore needs to be approached in reference to its peculiar social and political context. The idea that nothing exists in isolation but only in a unique, unrepeatable constellation with relation to other phenomena is in a sense to invite a mode of thinking that is against total integration or at the very least highlights the presence of ‘the many’ within ‘the one’. Surely, this book could be seen as an exercise in this mode of thought. There are 10 different articles arranged in 3 unifying chapters roughly following the logic of a general background in the first chapter, which in the second chapter is narrowed down to the central figures, Henry James and Edith Wharton, against this theoretical background, which, again, in the third and last chapter opens out and brings the previous insights and implications to bear upon the hybrid experiences presented by the multicultural scene of contemporary literature. Let us go then step by step.

First of all, there is a brilliant preface written by Jon Roberts (a former Fulbright fellow in Szeged) of which mention should definitely be made. Professor Roberts offers further context or further dimensions in his complementary remarks regarding literary style and its place in critical tradition. Style, far from being a phenomenon to be objectively locatable at any time in every circumstance, is a phenomenon subject to constant reevaluations mirroring changes in critical taste, which does not mean, though, that it might ever turn out to be a redundant or dispensable phenomenon. Literariness is a contextual affair, for sure, but the capacity to write “beautifully” is not granted to everyone within that formative context. But let us focus here more on the problem of literariness, since that is where Kovács opens her inquiry in the first chapter titled ‘Changing Strategies of Reading: The Objectives and Methods of New American Studies’. The perspicuous account on the changing critical approaches towards the literary phenomenon is perhaps a bit too sketchy, yet definitely quite useful for those who are not yet familiar with its tradition in the academia. Overall, in this introductory article the reader is acquainted with the major reigning trends in this tradition and is offered some insights into the multicultural milieu. Kovács claims that the “change of the concept of literariness can be explained convincingly through the changing theoretical frames and strategies of reading applied at English departments of US universities (24), which she then substantiates by briefly delineating the history of the American literary canon. After describing the basic tenets and shortcomings of the American New Criticism (where “interpretation entailed the decoding of the encoded American tradition from […] highlighted texts” (25)) Kovács describes the evolution of the concept of literariness through the import of deconstruction all the way to the (multi)cultural turn, which she identifies as the latest and “third major canon in American literary studies” (27). Since from this cultural angle the literary work is understood to be “a cultural product within the framework of other cultural discourse” (ibid.) which bears tangential affinities towards the arguments put forth by the ethnic- and postcolonial-studies, the study of multicultural literatures gained academic ground as a robust field of inquiry. Tersely put, the textual is replaced by the contextual analysis, and the monolithic conception of American literature gives way to an essentially pluralist conception (American literatures). Kovács then focuses on the relevance of these claims by concentrating on some of the representative authors and features of the different trends within this tradition, namely: the African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, Chicano/a and Spanish-American subgroups. To round things up, in the next and closing section devoted specifically to Cristina García’s novel Dreaming in Cuban a more in-depth illustration is provided by the actual application of a culturally oriented analysis regarding, among other things, the intricate relationship between femininity, language, family, identity, creativity and politics.

In the next article Kovács traces the nascent concerns in Toni Morrison’s literary theory with contextual issues like race, class and gender. Even though in Playing in the Dark she managed to draw attention to the crucial role these factors effectively play in the formation of a literary discourse, she was still confined in her attempts to a terminology that characterized the traditional literary scholarship. The African-American current within the stream of American literature was present from the beginnings, according to Morrison’s theory, but developed through three fairly distinguishable stages in the course of which “the representation of the Africanist presence in the American literary discourse is becoming more and more metaphorical,” (41) (which justifies on every account the essential task of studying the mechanism of racial language use within that discourse). Although, as Kovács points out, her reliance on traditional terminology (centering her arguments, more specifically, on Henry James’ notion of imagination, for instance) does not invalidate her critical efforts by any means, it is still latent and perhaps even counterproductive. All this does not detract from the fact, however, that Morrison’s framework opened up “new spaces in researching and thinking about American literature” (47) and provided other theoreticians with conceptual tools for a contextual mode of inquiry into racial issues.

The next leap takes us into the theme of “Changing Genres of Literature: The story of Travel Writing”, where after rehearsing the contextual credo according to which “literary genre is a cultural product in a given historical, social and political context” (49) we revisit the dynamic critical territory (New Criticism, Deconstruction, Cultural Studies) we have already read about in the first article. In brief, the essentially discursive approach to genre is shown to problematize the relationship between fact and fiction to such a degree that “contextually coded narratives of a given cultural era, writings like autobiography, journalism, correspondence, literary criticism, travel writing, etc. have begun to interest former scholars of literature” (52). Context is fairly pronounced within these pieces of writing (traditionally considered non-fictional) and here we are practically invited to witness how the representational strategies (and their changes) in travel writing, in particular, lend themselves profitably to a rhetorical reading of that context. Suffice it to say: “representing how the writers represent their others to themselves, it indirectly represents the writers’ sense of themselves and immediately becomes open for cultural analysis” (53).

From this bigger tessera within the mosaic of the book in the next two articles we jump right onto “Henry James’s Imaginative Project of the New American Novel” and “Henry James’s Experience of America in The American Scene”. In the first of these pieces we learn about the changing concept of imagination in Henry James’ aesthetic philosophy, which allegedly had its marked effects and left its marked traces on his fictional writings as well. In all fairness this is one of the most intriguing parts of the book for here we get a glimpse into the Jamesian dimensions of the nature, power and extension of human imagination as it relates to the general problem of ‘context’. The contextual nature of the Jamesian imagination is traced through some of his critical articles, novels and essays on culture. What turns out to be significant through the succession of this analysis is the extent to which the concept of imagination appearing within them is shown to be conceptualized by James as not only sensitive but directly in-formed by the social context. As Kovács contends, in James’ mind it gradually developed into a fully intersubjective, and socially motivated, phenomenon; a concept that is tightly coupled to the matter of manners and, more importantly, to morals. I might add to all this that as it is demonstrated and supported by copious research carried out in the fields of cognitive psychology and infant development, this is not a flight of fancy at all. To be human, it turns out, may depend a lot more on our ability to share attention, to occupy joint attentional scenes and imagine relative perspectives than we would have imagined before.

Partly in line with the previous article, the next piece focuses on one of James’ non-fiction, namely The American Scene, which according to Kovács bears the marks or relies “on tropes that are familiar from his well-known theory of fiction” (76) which are mainly to do with spatial metaphors and its entailments like interiority and depth versus exteriority and depthless surfaces. And this is where we segue into “Interior Architecture: The Order of Culture in Edith Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses and Italian Villas and their Gardens” where the use of such spatial metaphors (their structure and entailments) is proposed as one of the connecting links between James and Wharton. Although another more relevant connection is their congenial concern regarding the dynamics of the enveloping human context called culture. What James in The American Scene is trying to come to terms with is essentially the booming, chaotic clutter of the modern, industrialized and ill-mannered America, which tangentially is also present in Wharton’s reflections. Wharton’s meditation on interior architecture and garden design, with a deep historical sensibility, evinces a preoccupation with issues like culture, taste and cultural relativity (besides the issues of gender roles and race that critics tend, quite squarely, to highlight as exclusive or central when it comes to analyzing Wharton’s non-fiction). She is depicted as a heart-felt esthete who adopts the role of the cultural mediator to advance the means for the betterment of the World War-torn US slacking behind. Architecture is a key concept for her, for, according to Kovács, it is the conceptual intersection where the respective themes of the masculine and feminine, the private and the public, the inside and the outside meet, and it also serves as a general metaphor for her notion of the cultural construction of civilization. “Edith Wharton’s Model of Culture in French Ways and Their Meaning” neatly dovetails into all this in that Kovács by applying Wharton’s model of the social patterns of behavior shows how she (Wharton) actually relates, compares and contrasts the civilized French culture with a devastated American one. Again, however biased (towards specific traditions), as Kovács sheds light on it, Wharton had an inchoate but acute contextual awareness.

Then we return to James again for a short article titled, “Recanonizing Henry James: Colm Tóibín’s The Master”, in which the primary aim is to interpret James and his quasi-autobiography (focusing on his midlife crisis) written by Tóibín with a gender-oriented frame of critical reference. James’ ambiguous relation to sexuality and his recurrent tropes suggestive of stifled homoerotic emotions swirling within him ushered in a recanonization and a renewed interest in James’ oeuvre. In Kovács’s eye “viewed from the perspective of gender difference, Colm Tóibín’s novel reenacts Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James” (112) though with subtle yet significant differences. What these differences in rendering amount to is practically the idea that “the issue of homosexual tendency is definitely not resolved in Tóibín’s account, as it represents a lack of human contact and responsibility. While Edel appraises James’s renunciations because of its artistic yield, Tóibín is critical of the very same because of the irresponsible behavior it results in” (119).

The following article about “Female Identity Prose: On Sandra Cisneros” is the least engaging piece within the whole, in my opinion. It is a detailed and a bit arid review of the life and work (prose as well as poetry), and the central motifs and themes of femininity and ethnic identity that organize those works, of the Spanish American author Sandra Cisneros. The exposition centers mainly on Cisneros’ most successful pieces of writing The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek and also features in a few words her latest novel Caramelo and her two volumes of poetry: My Wicked, Wicked Ways and A Loose Woman. Otherwise this is a useful introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the author and the multicultural energies that characteristically shape the works written in similar vein. Review in a review, strange little loop: the closing piece is actually a review of Jennie A. Kassanoff’s Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race in which Kovács reviews how Kassanoff accounts “for Wharton’s conservative politics of race on its own terms: in the context of turn of the century cultural discourses” (129). The conclusion that Kovács draws in this review is that Kassanoff in every chapter basically “turns Wharton’s conservative claims upside down by pinpointing ambiguities of argumentation, appropriation, or imagery that concern the authentication of American identity[; t]hereby she draws attention to the unintentional hybrid force that makes Wharton the object of fervent recanonization in the culture industry today” (134). Kovács thus, in a manner of speaking, gives further context for the reader of Literature in Context who had been reading her articles on Wharton’s work refracted in the theoretical light of the context.

To the extent that value judgments are valid within a particular context I would say that Literature in Context is a brief and accessible study offering a wide variety of topics illuminated by the key, incontrovertible and undeniably relevant insights of the cultural paradigm. These insights are the red thread running from Henry James through Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison all the way to Sandra Cisneros and other multicultural authors. For those interested in present-day discussions regarding the issue of literariness, identity, sexuality, and broadly speaking the role of culture in (American) literature, or who are interested in the non-fictional work (travel writing) of Henry James or Edith Wharton in general, this book is duly recommended. Apart from the occasional typo, the text is well put together, palatable to read.