United States Non-fiction Literature

At the end of the 1970s we witness a profound redefinition of American critical thinking. The theoretical currents that had been affirming themselves over the decades following the Second World War – the formalism of New Criticism, the neo-Aristotelianism of the Chicago school, the mythical critique of N. Frye and LA Fiedler, the cultural studies of H. Nash Smith, L. Marx and RWB Lewis, post-Heideggerian phenomenological hermeneutics, semiotic structuralism, feminist and neo-Marxist criticism – all suffer the disruptive impact of the new cultural realities produced by the so-called post-industrial and postmodern society, lucidly described by Ch. Lasch (1932-1994) in The culture of narcissism (1979; trans. It., 1981) and then by M. Berman in All that is solid melts into air (1982; trans. It., The experience of modernity, 1985).

The key figure of the American critical scene of the period is undoubtedly that of the French philosopher J. Derrida, whose first fundamental writings date back to the 1960s (in 1967 the original editions of La voix et le phénomèneDe la grammatologie, and L’écriture et la différence) but were translated into English only in the following decade, marking the advent in the American academy of the theory of deconstructionism (see in this Appendix), disseminated both by Derrida himself, and from the early 1970s. teaches part-time even in the major universities of the US, both by his early followers such as P. de Man, H. Bloom, GH Hartman and JH Miller, the leading exponents of the ” school of Yale ”.

However, American deconstructionism appears less radical and more interested in the analysis of texts, especially literary ones, compared to a lesson, that of Derrida, which focuses above all on the demolition of the terms of the philosophical debate, taking up certain intuitions of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Thus, de Man (1919-1983) supports the substantial metaphoricity of language (each discourse would refer not to referents but to other discourses) already in the essays of the late 1960s collected in Blindness and insight (1971; trans. It., 1975) and then in those of the seventies of Allegories of reading (1979; partial it. trans. in AA.VV., Allegories of criticism, 1987), independently of Derrida but also starting from Nietzsche’s rhetorical theories. In turn, Bloom (b.1930) does not need Derrida to assert (especially in The anxiety of influence, 1973; trans. It., 1983; and in A map of misreading, 1975; trans. It., 1988) that every text is in reality an intertext, that is the meeting point of a plurality of discourses from which the author would like but cannot free himself (hence the “ anxiety of influence ”) and that he cannot other than to read and somehow reproduce in his text, ” deviating ” consciously or unconsciously its meaning (hence the ” dis-reading ”). More directly influenced by Derrida is Miller (b.1928), who plays with the etymological roots of words to demonstrate how each specification of their meaning leads to further wanderings in the maze of the vocabularies of human languages ​​and therefore to the final undecidability / unspeakability of their ‘ ‘sense’ (Fiction and repetition, 1982; The ethics of reading, 1987; trad. it., 1989). Hartman (b.1929) also follows Derrida in his attempt to free language from the tyranny of meaning (Criticism in the wilderness, 1980; trans. It., 1991), but searches in Saving the text (1981) to reintegrate the value of words as means of interpersonal communication.

To the real deconstructionists we must then add the figures of I. Hassan (b.1925), the ” prophet ” of postmodernism, who theorizes in The postmodern turn (1986) how mediological planetarization does not produce a greater ” unity ” of world culture but on the contrary its increasingly widespread fragmentation; and R. Rorty (b.1931), a philosopher belonging to the all-American tradition of pragmatism (read his important Consequences of pragmatism, 1982; trans. it., 1986) but who is always ready to treasure the newest research and stimulants, using them in Philosophy and the mirror of nature (1979; trans. It., 1986) to address a critique of logocentric fundamentalism very similar to that of the deconstructionists. The institutionalization of deconstructionism as the dominant school in the American critical debate – in contrast to a ” creative ” literary landscape devoid of hegemonic figures or movements – occurs during the early 1980s: in 1982 On deconstruction by J. Culler (trans. it., 1988), Deconstructive criticism by VB Leitch and Deconstruction by Ch. Norris systematize its theoretical openings and allow for greater usability, guaranteeing its diffusion even in critical currents more or less distant from Derrida’s thought.

The feminism of the seventies would seem interested in an exactly opposite path, directed not towards disintegration but on the contrary towards the affirmation of an identity hitherto forced to silence: not for nothing, two fundamental collections of essays of the period are entitled On lies, secrets, and silences (by A. Rich, 1979; transl. it., Secrets, silences, lies, 1989) and Silences (by T. Olsen, 1980). Yet soon the feminist critique Derrida appropriates the principle of differance (a term that combines the notion of difference to the deferral in space and time, rendered in Italian with the neologism differanza) to reuse it as an instrument of deconstructing the dichotomies proposed by the dominant culture, first of all that which opposes the masculine to the feminine as the original to the derivative, the central to the marginal, the superior to the subordinate. To the recovery of female specificity operated by texts such as The female imagination by P. Meyer Spacks (1975), The lay of the land by A. Kolodny (1975), Literary women by E. Moers (1976), A literature of their own (1977; trans. It., 1984) by E. Showalter (who in 1986 edited the basic New feminist criticism), The madwoman in the attic (1979; followed by No man’s land, 1988) by S. Gilbert and S. Gubar, followed by the revision of the same notions of masculine and feminine attempted by B. Johnson (author of the seminal The critical difference, 1981), Sh. Felman and G.Ch. Spivak in a famous 1981 special issue of Yale French Studies (Feminist readings). During the 1980s, feminist deconstructionism made use of other contributions from France, in particular those of H. Cixous, J. Kristeva and L. Irigaray, and subjected the very language with which the categories of dominant thought (obviously male): women’s studies have therefore gradually transformed into gender studies, where the biological criterion of sex is replaced by the cultural / linguistic criterion of ” gender ”, a central element in the analyzes of J. Gallop (The daughter’s seduction, 1982), T. Moi (Sexual / textual politics, 1985), DM Bauer (Feminist dialogics, 1988).

A similar path is followed by African American intellectuals. The militant criticism of the Sixties and Seventies – that of Black aesthetics, which starts from Malcolm X and through L. Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and A. Gayle Jr. (author of Black aesthetics, 1971) reaches HA Baker Jr. of Blues, ideology, and Afro-American literature (1984) – gives way to a new generation which, if it does not display the same political radicalism, demonstrates greater refinement of analysis thanks to the use of post-structuralist and sometimes openly methodologies deconstructionists. The greatest exponent of the new Afro-American criticism is probably HL Gates Jr. (b.1950), who with the care of the fundamentals Black literature and literary theory(1984) and “ Race ”, writing, and difference (1986), but mainly with The signifying monkey (1988; trad. It., La monkey rhetoric, 1995), declines the criticism in an ethnic sense deconstructionist to logocentrism, dismantling the Eurocentric prejudices that dominate American theoretical thought. An analogous operation is the one carried out by G. Vizenor in Narrative chance (1989) as regards the literature of the American Indians.

More difficult was the relationship between post-structuralist criticism and the neo-Marxist school, which has often accused deconstructionism of concealing, behind the exaltation of the free and non-hierarchical game of signs and meanings typical of postmodernity, the reality of power relations that are anything but equal: a typical example is found in Literature against itself by G. Graff (1979), while F. Lentricchia (After the New Criticism, 1980; Criticism and social change, 1983) and D. La Capra (History and criticism, 1985; Soundings in critical theory, 1989), both influenced as much by A. Gramsci and the Soviet critic M. Bachtin as by the British R. Williams and T. Eagleton, prefer to reiterate the ineluctable political nature of both the creative act and literary analysis, without questioning too directly with the post-structuralists. However, even the neo-Marxists proceed from the revision of structuralist models: such as F. Jameson (b.1934), who in The prison-house of language (1971; trans. It., 1982) stigmatizes austerity and authoritarianism of methods of analysis that privilege the exclusively synchronic aspect of the text, and in Marxism and form (1971; trans. it., 1975) he presents his proposal of ” dialectical criticism ”; subsequently, with The political unconscious (1981; trans. It., 1990), Jameson proposes a series of reading hypotheses that use deconstructive procedures to bring to light the ideological options hidden in the manifest ” structures ” of the text and ” restorative ” procedures to ensure in any case access to that utopian and ” critical ” dimension that the ideology of the text would like to control; finally, Postmodernism (1991; partial Italian translation, Il postmoderno, 1989) clearly draws the cultural profile of ” late capitalism ”. Even more explicitly oriented towards the conjugation of deconstructionist practices with Marxist theories is Marxism and deconstruction (1982) by M. Ryan,(1985) by R. Scholes, formerly a leading exponent of semiotic structuralism and here committed to reopening the dimension of textuality by placing the social context on the same level, albeit from a non-Marxist perspective.

Moreover, at the end of the 1960s, a current spreading that prefers to address literary or more generally cultural issues not from the point of view of the “ works ” that should represent their corpus, but from that of individuals and communities that ” reading them ” constitute the real ” body ” of a civilization. The so  called Reader-response criticism, which focuses attention on the reader’s experience of literature, has its first major proponent in SE Fish (b. 1938), which comes to theorizing in Is there a text in this class? (1980; trans. It., 1987) how the meaning of a text is ultimately that produced by the ” interpreting communities ” that appropriate it. Later influenced by the “ aesthetics of reception ” of the Germans HR Jauss and W. Iser, the school of reader response (which has another important exponent in the Americanist S. Mailloux) opens wide fields of intervention to feminist criticism, which intends to destabilize the ” authorized ” interpretations offered by male critics (and reading) by giving voice to the female audience as well; it is not for nothing that the two critical anthologies of Reader-response criticism that opened the Eighties are edited by women (The reader in the text, edited by S. Suleiman and I. Crosman,, edited by J. Tompkins, 1980), after J. Fetterly had claimed the ” diversity ” of female reading in The resisting reader (1978).

Equally decisive for the opening of the research field beyond the limits of the text is the renewed enthusiasm for ” cultural ” studies, which finds its first complete manifestations in the work of E. Said (n. 1935; Beginnings, 1975; Orientalism, 1978, trad. It., 1991; The world, the text, and the critic, 1983) and in the Poetics of culture elaborated by S. Greenblatt (b.1943) in Renaissance self-fashioning (1980) and Shakespearean negotiations ( 1988); Greenblatt is usually given the paternity of the current that in the 1990s seems to have taken the place of deconstructionism as a hegemonic critical movement, that New historicism which in 1987 met the polemic and traditionalist response of A. Bloom (The closing of the American mind ; trad. it., 1988). Classical texts of the new school, also influenced by the anthropology of C. Geertz (The interpretation of cultures, 1973; trans. It., 1987) and J. Clifford (The predicament of culture, 1988), are the collection The new historicism a edited by H. Aram Veeser (1989) and The new historicism and other old-fashioned topics by B. Thomas (1991).

Parallel to the theoretical researches of the ” neo historicists ” are the studies of S. Bercovitch (n.1933 ; The puritan origins of the American self, 1975; The American jeremiad, 1978; America puritana, 1992; Rites of assent, 1994) , which analyze very different texts and periods to demonstrate the substantial homogeneity of the dominant ideological discourse from the first colonization to the threshold of the 21st century, and its diffusion in both elite and mass culture. It is to Bercovitch that we owe the direction of what appears to be the greatest American literary-critical enterprise of the end of the millennium, namely the New Cambridge history of American literature, of which the first volume appeared in 1994.

United States Non-fiction Literature