Edgar Allan Poe, 1845, and the “Invention” of American World Literature

CGS Brown Bag Series
Nov 12, 2014
01:30 PM to 02:30 PM
101 Old Botany

Micah Donohue, Penn State

Since 2006 and the publication of Wai Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, the concept of “American literature as world literature” has become increasingly popular, and it has been championed by other prominent scholars such as Lawrence Buell, Susan Stanford Friedman, and Paul Giles. In the introduction to Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature (2007), Dimock calls for a mode of literary analysis which would “bring the circumference of the globe to bear on the circumference of the nation” since “American literature [i.e. U.S. American literature] as a spatially determinate set is a thing of the past.” Rather than debate the merits of the American literature as world literature project—although Theo D’Haen’s recent concern that texts such as Shades of the Planet risk “‘englobing’ the world through, and in, American literature” bears noting—this presentation challenges the idea that there is anything new about U.S. American writers thinking globally about U.S. literature. Dimock may be correct when she claims in Through Other Continents that “American literary studies as a discipline began” with the analysis “of one nation and one nation alone,” but printed discussions of U.S. American literature found in anthologies, newspapers, and journals going back to the nineteenth century demonstrate anything but an isolationist focus on “one nation alone.” As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1845, “the world at large is the only legitimate stage” for the American author.

This presentation focuses on the mid-nineteenth-century “invention” of an American world literature by Edgar Allan Poe, Cornelius Mathews, and Evert A. Duyckinck. (Quotation marks remain around “invention” because the worldliness of Anglo-American literature can already be seen in eighteenth and even seventeenth-century texts.) The 1840s—and 1845 in particular—form a crucially important moment in the conceptualization of U.S. American literature as a global phenomenon. During this period, the Young America literary-political movement begins, New Democrat policies of territorial and economic expansionism are championed and adopted, and military hostilities between the USA and Mexico flare into an outright war of aggression. When Poe, Mathews, and Duyckinck write about U.S. American literature in both local and international terms, they do so from within a country that was experiencing its own rampant internationalization and transformation—economically, politically, and militarily—into an imperial power on a global scale. These tensions within the United States at mid-century become the contradictions galvanizing Poe’s, Mathews’s, and Duyckinck’s statements about U.S. American literature, a literature that should, in Mathews’s words, “insist on nationalism and true Americanism” while also leading “a movement, to whose march the whole world will, ere long, be beating joyful time.” American world literature begins as an imperial and expansionist formulation, and the “englobing” that worries Theo D’Haen in the twenty-first century had already begun by the middle of the nineteenth.

Micah Donohue is an ABD doctoral student in the Department of Comparative Literature currently finishing a dissertation that explores the intersections of irony, metaphor, translation, monstrosity, and poetic recombination in the literature of the Americas. His work focuses on literary texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries written in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. He has taught a variety of courses at Penn State, in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Spanish, including Latina/o Literature and Culture, Spanish 3, Introduction to Literatures of the Americas, Native American Myths, Legends, and Literatures, and Crime and Detective Fiction in World Literature. His work has been supported by a number of grants and awards from Penn State such as The Center for American Literary Studies Summer Graduate Award, a Research and Graduate Studies Office Grant, and the Susan Welch/Nagle Family Graduate Fellowship Award.

This lecture is a part of the Center for Global Studies Brown Bag Series which focuses on interdisciplinary faculty and graduate research.

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