Introduction: "what's new in American Jewish Literary History?".

Author:Lambert, Josh
Position:Special Issue: New Literary Histories - Column

Despite the disciplinary limits implied by its title, American Jewish History has throughout its long life occasionally published important studies of literature (whether defined broadly as written matter, or narrowly as belles lettres). (1) And why not? It probably seemed much more natural that literary scholars and historians should be reading one another's work in this journal's first decades, when the History & Literature concentration at Harvard was being founded and when philologists dominated the field of literary studies, than it does today, when the terminology and syntactical eccentricities imported from French philosophy into American literary studies since the 1970s make many historians feel, quite understandably--and the narrative turn in history notwithstanding--that they speak a different language than their colleagues in the English department. (2) Yet, despite the gaps of theory and methodology that have widened between historians and literary scholars over the past several decades, the study of American Jewish literature, an academic subfield at the intersection of American literary studies and of Jewish Studies, remains an emphatically historicist undertaking. So much so, in fact, that even the most aggressive recent critique of the field, Benjamin Schreier's polemic against its "humanist or anthropological historicism," nonetheless seeks, per its subtitle, the "reconstruction of Jewish American literary history." (3) Literary history, that is, and not something else.

As persistently as it might be what we say we're doing when we study American Jewish literature, literary history is not, however, an especially coherent disciplinary practice. As David Perkins suggested, in Is Literary History Possible? (1992): it isn't possible, or coherent. (4) Since we understand art to be idiosyncratic and unpredictable, by definition, Perkins suggests, drawing on Benedetto Croce--every age does not inevitably have its own Shakespeare, and there's no way of predicting the important elements of Jane Austen's prose on the basis of the social situation in which she lived--the notion that we can construct a meaningful history of literature, in which literary texts make sense both in and of their contexts, seems rather dubious. For Perkins, that's no reason not to continue to read, and even to try to write, literary histories, but he does usefully caution us against blithe acceptance of the narratives about groups, genres, phases, and...

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