To Wake the Nations

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 critical to a complete understanding of American culture. Thus in To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature 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 his theory. Although promotionals of this book claim that it effectively desegregates the American literary canon and illustrates “how white literature and black literature form a single interwoven tradition,” the quantity and quality of works Sundquist leaves out are so formidable that one might more persuasively argue that race had surprisingly little to do with the making of American literature. If the literature of the two races are “interwoven,” then how do the excluded writers relate to those chosen for the study? Moreover, the narrowness of Sundquist’s 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. Ultimately, one suspects that ideology rather than evidence is the gauge by which American culture is measured in To Wake the Nations.

As too often practiced, cultural criticism measures society as it has actually evolved by a simplistic ideological conception of society as the critic thinks it should have evolved. Almost invariably, according to this view, society is deeply flawed, and authors should be valued in direct proportion to the degree to which they criticize or “subvert” it. Any sign that an author might have accepted the fundamental premises of the society in which he or she participates diminishes both that author’s credibility and the value of his or her work. A “conservative” author-that is, one who fails to challenge “the power structure” of the times-is assumed to have accepted its evil to preserve a “privileged’ position. Cultural critics often judge historically “oppressed” authors (as long as they have written politically radical works) as having a vision that is truer, because uncorrupted by power, than their unoppressed counterparts. If the formal literary qualities of these works of the oppressed are weak, then the usual aesthetic standards are abandoned in favor of criteria (drawn up by the critics themselves) to measure the degree to which the author rebels against and tries to subvert established society. Cultural critics relish the “paradoxes” and “contradictions” that arise from the mixture of social critique and acceptance in an author’s work. In fact, the more “paradoxes” these critics can find, the more play they can give to their own imaginations.

As a cultural critic, Sundquist predictably emphasizes revolutionary texts, in this case by mostly black authors. He maintains that an unconventional work such as Nat Turner’s “Confessions” (1831) helps reveal a strain of “millenarian revolutionary violence” so important to American culture that this work rivals or excels in importance Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (1849) or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841). Bearing this judgment in mind, one soon perceives that Sundquist intends to subject each writer to an ideological litmus test. He concludes that Twain was too privileged to understand fully the problems of African Americans, but Melville is salvageable because the richness of his allegory and satire makes it possible to imagine him a radical rebelling against his conservative family values, particularly those of his jurist father-in-law. Booker T. Washington was an accommodationist who “sold out” his race, whereas Du Bois and Douglass sought an integrated society radically reshaped according to egalitarian and, in the case of Du Bois, African values. Writers whom one would have expected to play a major role in a study of race in American literature receive scant attention, their politics being too problematical. Stowe, for example, is considered a “racialist” and unrevolutionary; Harris, though admirable for preserving...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)