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This review is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

COTTAGE INDUSTRY Russell Reising, The Unusable Past - Theory and the Study of American Literature (Methuen) £15.00, £6.95 pb.

The obsessive search for the meaning of America seems to be as much a part of that country's identity as the failure to find it. Looking for America is the pastime of the nation. Theories of American writing have mirrored this obsession in their attempt to define the essence of what is haphazardly called 'American Literature'. The Unusable Past is a 'theory of the theories' of American Literature (not merely an account since it attempts to theorize what they all have in common) and it claims to be the winning one - the trumping hand. It claims to be 'a more trenchant analysis', 'a more synthetic comprehension' which reveals the short-comings of other critics by 'situating their theories in a historical and political context'. Grandiose as these claims sound, we could easily play the same 'contextual' trick and, with a theory of theories of theories, regress further into the infinity of the burgeoning cottage-industry of 'nouvelle critique' warfare, of which this book is another example.

In the book Reising outlines what he sees as successive attempts to extract the core of American Literature, and groups American critics into three categories: those who locate its essence in its Puritan origins (Yvor Winters, Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch); those who predicate American Literature on the immaturity, insubstantiality and therefore, insignificance of American society for the American writer (Lionel Trilling, R.W.B. Lewis, Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler and Leo Marx); and those who concern themselves with stylistics, with problems of defining a ...


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