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Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel

Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel

Jonathan Arac
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel
    Book Description:

    This book records a major critic's three decades of thinking about the connection between literature and the conditions of people's lives-that is, politics. A preference for impurity and a search for how to analyze and explain it are guiding threads in this book as its chapters pursue the complex entanglements of culture,politics, and society from which great literature arises. At its core is the nineteenth-century novel, but it addresses a broader range of writers as well, in a textured, contoured, discontinuous history.The chapters stand out for a rare combination. They practice both an intensive close reading that does not demand unity as its goal and an attention to literature as a social institution, a source of values that are often created in its later reception rather than given at the outset. When addressing canonical writers-Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Keats, Melville, George Eliot, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Ralph Ellison-the author never forgets that many of their texts, even Shakespeare's plays, were in their own time judged to be popular, commercial, minor, or even trashy. In drawing on these works as resources in politically charged arguments about value, the author pays close attention to the processes of posterity that validated these authors' greatness.Among those processes of posterity are the responses of other writers. In making their choices of style, subject, genre, and form, writers both draw from and differ from other writers of the past and of their own times. The critical thinking about other literature through which many great works construct their inventiveness reveals that criticism is not just a minor, secondary practice, segregated from the primary work of creativity.Participating in as well as analyzing that work of critical creativity, this volume is rich with important insights for all readers and teachers of literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4894-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. Part I: Politics and the Canon
    • 1. The Impact of Shakespeare: Goethe to Melville (pp. 3-23)

      This chapter was composed for a standard reference work, so it fulfills obligations to facts and coverage, but it also enacts a generic impurity. It generates new thinking by developing an argument and the claims that undergird this book. I argue that literary history operates discontinuously, by what I call “impact” rather than what many have called “tradition.” Literary history’s discontinuity leaps across, rather than remaining confined within, the borders and barriers of nation or language or genre. Critical response to Shakespeare at the start of the nineteenth century was crucial in producing the modern conception ofliterature, and hardly...

    • 2. The Media of Sublimity: Johnson and Lamb on King Lear (pp. 24-33)

      In dismissing the nineteenth century’s “semi-ethical criterion of ‘sublimity,’ ” T. S. Eliot in 1919 banished the sublime from the canonical discourse of literary modernism. Starting in the early 1970s, however, following the work of Harold Bloom, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Weiskel, the sublime returned both as an indispensable concept and as a positive value. Jean-François Lyotard made the sublime fundamental to his definition of postmodernism, and Paul Fry reoriented literary theory by displacing Aristotle with Longinus.¹ We are now increasingly likely to agree that the disruptive force of the sublime works for the good both aesthetically and politically, exorcising...

    • 3. Hamlet, Little Dorrit, and the History of Character (pp. 34-46)

      The upshot of the theory movement, contrary to what many have understood, pointed toward finding what it will take to forge a new literary history. From Fredric Jameson’s slogan, “always historicize,” to Michel Foucault’s genealogies, to the critiques of traditional (teleological, periodizing, objectifying) historiography by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Hayden White, to British historical materialism and American New Historicism, this is the message.¹ The conjunction of Shakespeare and Dickens is propitious for taking another step into this project, for Shakespeare has been the object of intense attention by theorists concerned with history.² In the United States, the Berkeley...

    • 4. The Struggle for the Cultural Heritage: Christina Stead Refunctions Charles Dickens and Mark Twain (pp. 47-61)

      The received cultural values with which we academic literary intellectuals most closely involve ourselves are the values of the “cultural treasures,” the canonized masterpieces, for which we serve our students as intermediaries.¹ In the years between the first and the second world wars, the established canon and its transmission faced strenuous challenge and probing discussion, not just, as our training leads us to expect, because of modernism, but also through the revolutionary and reactionary political struggles of those years. The debates over proletarian culture and socialist realism in the Soviet Union counted heavily for the production and mediation of literature...

    • 5. The Birth of Huck’s Nation (pp. 62-76)

      My book“Huckleberry Finn” as Idol and Targetwas written to challenge dominant commonplaces of American literary study and education.¹ This chapter arose from an invitation to develop the book’s perspectives for an international interdisciplinary discussion concerning the relationships between “cultural property” and “national and ethnic identity.”

      According to the sociologist Paul Gilroy inAgainst Race, his challenging attempt at “imagining a political culture beyond the color line,” a defining anxiety of our time is “the emphasis on culture as a form of property to be owned rather than lived.”² As the historian Elazar Barkan has demonstrated, in the burgeoning...

  5. Part II: Language and Reality in the Age of the Novel
    • 6. Narrative Form and Social Sense in Bleak House and The French Revolution (pp. 79-93)

      JuxtaposingThe French Revolution(1837) andBleak House(1852–53) allows us to define why Charles Dickens at his best can feel like Thomas Carlyle, and to describe the literary mode that history and the novel share in Victorian writing. Although Dickens wanted to have “Carlyle above all” present when he readThe Chimes(1844),¹ dedicatedHard Times(1854) to Carlyle, and praised the “philosophy” of Carlyle’s “wonderful”French Revolutionin the preface toA Tale of Two Cities(1859), my subject is not Carlyle’s influence on Dickens.² I will instead consider Carlyle’s work in its public role in the...

    • 7. Rhetoric and Realism: Hyperbole in The Mill on the Floss (pp. 94-110)

      My title does not signal a contrast between rhetoric taken as empty and deceitful words and realism taken as the novelist’s attempt to present life “as it really was.” Rather, it suggests the cooperation of rhetorical self-consciousness in making the modern Western tradition of prose fiction. The later-twentieth-century age of French newer criticism seemed no more willing than that of midcentury American New Criticism to recognize the energetic duplicities of language that activate nineteenth-century novels fully as much as they do more recent experimental writing. Despite Frank Kermode’s attempts to demonstrate in “pre-modern,” “readerly” works the textual plurality and heterogeneity...

    • 8. Rhetoric and Realism; or, Marxism, Deconstruction, and Madame Bovary (pp. 111-124)

      The terms of my title suggest certain kinds of questions that are asked nowadays by serious critics of novels. These questions were not asked, or considered serious, in America when the premises of New Criticism still dominated the agenda, not even by critics like Harry Levin or Lionel Trilling, who resisted the most extreme claims of literary autonomy.¹ For these questions detract from the formal integrity of individual works. They threaten both to disarticulate works internally and to open works to external relations, and they thus participate in that active unbounding to which this volume is devoted through its concern...

    • 9. Baudelaire’s Impure Transfers: Allegory, Translation, Prostitution, Correspondence (pp. 125-154)

      This chapter arose from the challenge of presenting a difficult author in lucid, clear text for a standard reference work. Light annotation has been added for this revision. In focusing on the complexities in Baudelaire’s experience, criticism, and poetry, I elaborate his lexicon of impurity, the terms that chart the process of making connections by breaking bounds.

      Charles Baudelaire lived in a world even more aware than our own of rapid transformations in every aspect of life. The very term “modernity,” which figures importantly in his writings, only came into the French language during his youth. By the time he...

    • 10. Huckleberry Finn without Polemic (pp. 155-168)

      Everyone thinks they remember the story, but the voice is what really lingers. Huckleberry Finn, the preteen boy who narrates the novel, and his companion, Jim, a runaway slave, are floating on a raft down the Mississippi in the American South of the 1840s. Jim is in danger of being captured and re-enslaved, so they need to lie low, and they travel at night. Despite the danger, Huck finds beauty. “It’s lovely to live on a raft,” Huck says, and the sentence might be the alliterative eight-syllable opening line of a ballad. The book’s language is poetic, but not often...

  6. Notes (pp. 169-194)
  7. Index (pp. 195-210)