To Wake the Nations Essay - Critical Essays

Eric J. Sundquist

To Wake the Nations

Eric Sundquist believes that readers of American literature must stretch their standard notions of a literary text and a national literature to encompass nontraditional works important to a complete understanding of American culture. Thus in TO WAKE THE NATIONS he employs history, political science, law, philosophy, popular culture, music, and dance, in conjunction with literary criticism, to shed light on several previously neglected works of American literature from the period 1830 to 1930. Featuring a mixture of white and black authors, the study attempts to prove that race writings, particularly those with a revolutionary bent, should be a major component of the American canon. The authors given the bulk of attention are Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Martin Delany, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Sundquist justifies his method by citing what he considers an unimpeachable political purpose: his approach will help to make histories of American literature less racially exclusive and more democratic. Paradoxically, however, the narrow selection of authors to which his method is applied severely limits the applicability of the study. Moreover, the narrowness of his political assumptions leads to glib conclusions and the underestimation of such important writers about race as Joel Chandler Harris, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Booker T. Washington, who apparently were not revolutionary enough for major consideration in this study. Thus this version of American literature degenerates into simple preference for a particular ideology to the exclusion of competing points of view that would challenge it. Pretensions about democratic inclusiveness are contradicted by an American literature that may be racially diverse but that is ideologically homogenous.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. February 21, 1993, p.42.

Choice. XXX, June, 1993, p.1628.

Commonweal. CXX, December 3, 1993, p.24.

Library Journal. CXVIII, January, 1993, p.115.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. SS118.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, February 21, 1993, p.3.

Washington Times. March 28, 1993, p. B6.