Multiculturalism Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Stephen J. Whitfield (essay date summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: Whitfield, Stephen J. “The Mystique of Multiculturalism.” Virginia Quarterly Review 72, no. 3 (summer 1996): 429-45.

[In the following essay, Whitfield traces the evolution of multiculturalism as a field of academic study within the disciplines of history and literature since the 1950s, identifying several theoretical discrepancies and inconsistencies in multicultural scholarship.]

Little more than a century ago, the Atlantic Monthly published a poem entitled “The Unguarded Gates” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, one of those authors whom a Tammany Hall wit was fond of dismissing as “name-parted-in-the-middle aristocrats”:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng—
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures from the Hoang-Ho,
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,
Flying the Old World's poverty and scorn;
These bring with them unknown gods and rites,
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
In street and alley what strange tongues are these,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!

Nativism has hardly disappeared, and yet the gates are still unguarded. But the historian can only express astonishment at the alteration of national ethos, as diversity has ceased to be something to be feared and has become something to be celebrated. The ideal of heterogeneity has displaced homogeneity; almost no monoculturalists remain standing—at least on political platforms, if not in bar rooms. In the not-too-distant past, an historian of immigration remarked, ethnics were told to “melt or get off the pot.” This is no longer true, and some of its implications deserve criticism as well as reflection.

The decade of the 1950's was probably the last in which the assumptions of monoculturalism could be asserted with confidence, in which the American Way of Life could breezily be used in the singular. In 1959, for example, the editor of George W. Pierson's reconstruction of the ambience of a classic, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (1938), abbreviated the Yale historian's material on the French visitors' impressions of blacks, women and Indians; these were, the editor rationalized, “matters of lesser interest.” Such bowdlerization would now be unimaginable, and Tocqueville's views on these particular groups is precisely what drives some readers to pick up De la démocratie en Amérique. Or take Edmund Wilson's last great book, Patriotic Gore (1962). His massive and melancholy interpretation of the literary and ideological impact of the Civil War does not even mention Frederick Douglass, whose thought is unconsidered even in somewhat later works by scholars who themselves became astute analysts of racism: George Frederickson's The Inner Civil War (1965) and Daniel Aaron's The Unwritten War (1973).

Yet the former slave now occupies his own prominent place on the shelf in The Library of America (which was based on an idea by Edmund Wilson and brought to realization by Daniel Aaron). Now the subject of numerous studies in biography and in intellectual history, Douglass has even shoved aside the Hon. Stephen Douglas as the Middle Period counterweight to Lincoln, lest the American family album be dismissed as a white album. Such revisions of the past, which of course has rarely been stable, have accelerated, as scholars make stabs at new paradigms. Such changes have coincided with (but have hardly caused) the precipitous decline of American education, so that “as every schoolboy knows” is a phrase that has disappeared—and not only because it is gender-bound. But some pupils may now be more familiar with Rosa Parks' ride than with Paul Revere's, and with the March on Washington than with the errand into the wilderness.

The United States was once the land of the Pilgrims' pride, the land where our fathers died. But Donna Shalala, who serves as secretary of Health and Human Services, has conceded: “My grandparents came from...

(The entire section is 21,178 words.)