Wolfgang Karrer


Literary History USA - An Abstract

Posted by wkarrer on July 25, 2009 at 9:28 AM

Karrer, Wolfgang. 2008. Literaturgeschichte der USA: Ein sozialgeschichtlicher

Überblick. [Literary history of the USA: A social-history survey]. Hamburg: Verlag Dr.

Kovac, ii + 176pp., EUR 58.00. SEE: Literaturgeschichte

Keywords: literary history; social history; USA (literary history); media history; reading (history of); cultural

analysis; Bourdieu, Pierre; Williams, Raymond

This is a short history of US literature and its colonial beginnings seen as part of a social history.

Each of the ten chapters begins with the social and political changes of that period, and

then turns to that part of society that reads books, magazines or newspapers. Readers have

always remained a minority of the US population, but a growing minority, mainly concentrated

in the harbor cities of the Atlantic coast. Readers formed groups, libraries and educational

institutions to further literacy, the access and the habit of reading from coast to coast.

Media played the most important part in this expansion of a literary market. Magazines, led

by newspapers, and closely followed by theaters, brought literature into the West. Books

lagged behind. After 1900, industrialization added film, radio, television and the internet as

new media for literature, soon overtaking the print media, and deeply upsetting the traditional

hierarchy of book, magazine and newspaper with their corresponding habits of reading. Literary

forms and genres depended not only in the case of the theater on the media they were

circulated in. This is true from the early tracts and sermons through short stories and poems

(depending on magazines) to novels and novel series (depending on book publishers and an

international copyright). The increasing concentration of publishing and distributing literary

content had direct effect in standardizing types of fiction, drama, essays and poetry. Publishers

recycled formulas in different media. The income of writers, their social status and their

position in the literary field depended directly on their choice of forms or of the right mixture

of forms (poetry, essay, novel, drama) and indirectly on the publishers of the corresponding

media. Competition for readers and for media access led to various types of author formations,

changing from the gentlemen?s club to bohemia or unionization to postmarket tenure in

the educational system. The international copyright led to an increasing dependence of authors

on literary agents, and the US government or foundations began to subsidize large parts

of the literary production in print or theaters to help them survive the competition from the

new electronic media. All these processes in consuming, circulating and producing literature

in the USA went through three overlapping phases: Agriculture, industrialization, and postindustrial

service industries. At the same time, they underwent an increasing decolonization

from literary England. Literary critics furthered these processes of substituting English by

American reading matters. Throughout the nineteenth century and beyond they tried to define

?American literature? as different from ?English.? Literary criticism, long allied with the literary

magazines, finally had to share this program of literary nationalism with the academic

critics. US literature became part of the national educational system. Teachers and the institutions

they worked in increasingly acquired a virtual monopoly to define the literary canon of

the USA. As they could enforce their choices on students they also had an important impact in

imposing academic reading habits on future readers and authors of US literature.

These secular tendencies to concentrate, control and shape literary production and

consumption provoked resistance from authors and readers in all three phases. Native Americans

and African Americans suffered most from the agricultural expansion of the USA. Critics

excluded their literary production, mainly oral, from the national canon. European American

writers who dissented took to founding agricultural or rural communities and created their

own magazines and outlets. Industrial writers chose either urban bohemia or oppositional associations

such as the parties of the Left. After World War II literary associations of all kinds,

regional, international, ethnic, academic, political etc. have offered writers new fields from

which to raise their dissenting voices. And, especially in the twentieth century, when the oligopolies

of publishers, electronic media or theater owners seemed at a point to strangle literary

production with syndicalization and serialized formulas, little magazines, little theaters,

little publishing houses have come forth to offer alternative and oppositional literature to their

respective audiences. Feminists have opened new ways of writing, revising much of the

dominant national criticism, academic and otherwise. Finally, younger readers use the internet

to write and criticize literary texts that stand outside the academic field and canons.

The book uses concepts developed by Raymond Williams and by Pierre Bourdieu.

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