American Babel Summary


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The essays in American Babel, Marc Shell informs readers in his brief preface, originated in a three-day seminar on “The Non-English Literatures of the United States” held in Mexico during the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in 1997. Most of the essays in this resulting collection focus on non-English expressions and traditions in American literature (such as Arabic, Yiddish, and Vietnamese) and explore the theoretical issues which inform the study of American literary history in general and often place American literature in a wider global context.

Shell does not spell out the organizational plan for this large volume, but he has assembled the essays into six different sections: “Introduction” contains two essays, a longer one by Shell (“Babel in America”) and a second, shorter piece by the Algerian writer Alexander Del Mar (“The Name of America”) originally written in 1911. The body of the volume is contained in the middle four parts of the book, in sections on “Resistance and Assimilation” (five essays), “Authoritative and Nonauthoritative Languages” (five), “Loss and Gain” (five), and “Nationalism and Internationalism” (seven). The volume concludes with an “Afterword,” an essay by Shell on Mark Twain’s famous short story “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”(1865) and its translation into French and back, an analysis which tries to tie together metaphorically some of the themes touched on in earlier essays.

As with any collection of this size and scope, there is a great range in the value and quality of the different contributions, and little overall consistency or continuity. There are, for example, three essays on Chinese American literature, three on German American literature, and three on Welsh language and literature in America, but none at all on Slavic or Italian American contributions to American literature, and only glancing looks at African American and Latino literatures. (Although he does not say so, Shell and his contributors may intend to focus on those literatures which have not been studied as systematically in the past.) The contents can also be intimidating: While the writing is on the whole accessible, these are academic essays; one runs to thirty pages and has eighty footnotes. What Shell establishes in this collection, however, in spite of its unevenness and its scholarly apparatus, is the significance of non-English works in the development of American literature from its very beginnings.

The movement to open up the American literary canon to diverse literary traditions grew in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and peaked with the 1990 publication of The Heath Anthology of American Literature (edited by Paul Lauter and others, and now in its fourth edition), which added hundreds of pages of non-European writers to the “canon” of American literature for the first time. What the Heath anthology established—and all other anthologies of American literature in the 1990’s rushed to echo—was the linguistic and cultural diversity of American literature from its beginnings in Native American oral traditions through slave narratives and the literature of immigration in the nineteenth century, to the popular ethnic writers in fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction in the late twentieth. (In “Carved on the Walls: The Archaeology and Canonization of the Angel Island Chinese Poems” in this volume, Te-Hsing Shan shows the dangers implicit in placing ethnic literatures into the literary mainstream through volumes like the Heath anthology.)

American Babel is an important addition to the scholarship which has been closely trailing this popular and academic rediscovery of American literary diversity. The volume shows that criticism is nowhere close to the full recognition of the immense contribution of ethnic literatures to the literary cultures of the United States. In particular, American Babel argues for greater examination of what Shell calls “American multilingualism,” the polyglot linguistic traditions which have been in America since before its discovery by Europeans. German literature written in German in the United States—to take just one example—has a long history; Benjamin Franklin established the first German-language newspaper in North America in 1732,...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)