"English" Lit

Christopher Clausen
September 01, 1994

Most of us who study or teach literature were taught that first there was a distinctly British literature and then an American literature that broke off from it. Later came separate Australian, Canadian, and a host of other "new literatures." It seldom occurred to us to question so obvious a system of boundaries.

The practice of dividing literature written in English into national subgroups has outlived its usefulness, however, and should be abandoned.

As the medium that establishes the limits of intelligibility, language is a much more promising basis than nationality for distinguishing one literature from another. Although the contemporary writer is influenced by sources from around the world, few writers make sustained literary use of more than one language. Whether by choice or necessity, a writer in English is accessible to the international audience that reads English and not, except in translation, to any other. For nearly 150 years, the majority of English-speaking people have lived outside Europe. Not since the 17th century has English literature belonged only to the British Isles. The idea that the literary world has two centers—usually identified as London and New York—from which normative standards and judgments emanate looks not just outdated but quaint.

Universities have been slow to recognize these realities. With rare exceptions, national broders remain sacrosanct. As a result, such world-renowned writers as Robertson Davies (a Canadian), Janette Turner Hospital (an Australian who lives in Canada), V. S. Naipaul (a Trinidadian of Indian descent who lives in England), and Derek Walcott (a Nobel Prize winner from the West Indies who has taught in Boston for many years) are still relegated to the curricular fringes.

Since the formation in the 19th century of departments devoted to the study of modern literature, the notion of a national literature has been subject to the same confusions as the idea of the nation itself, leaving unresolved the question of whether national identity is a matter of race, language, or mere citizenship. Hardly any critics or literary historians today believe in the discredited concept of a "national character" that can be expressed by writers, yet our curricular arrangements have yet to catch up.

To assert that it is more useful to conceive literature in English as a variegated whole is not to minimize the importance to a writer or reader of living in a specific place, a particular nation, or a distinct culture. It is instead to say that such differences are fluid, ambiguous, and most fruitfully studied by comparison rather than exclusion. Imagine a course on the 20th-century novel in which William Faulkner and James Joyce were at last allowed the proximity that their styles and themes seem to demand, or in which the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and the American novelist Toni Morrison could be compared and contrasted.

English literature has become an international imaginative creation, which is the product of no single culture yet exhibits inescapable family resemblances and reciprocal borrowings and influences. Where, for example, did African and Indian writers in English get the form of the novel in which they have excelled so spectacularly? From England. Where did such British writers as Rudyard Kipling and the contemporary novelist Peter Dickinson find the spiritual themes that infuse much of their best work? In India and Africa.

The fact that some writers are conscious nationalists—Kipling is an obvious example—has no bearing on the question of how the discipline that studies them should be organized. Nationality is simply too narrow a concept to justify retaining it as a fundamental principle of curricular division.

No distinct national character or essence exists that literature can express. Literary nationalism is a stage through which scholars and critics go, frequently by necessity, to establish the claim of their countries' writers to respectful attention and simultaneously to protect them from outside cultural domination. It ought to be a transitional rather than a final position, however. It should not be permitted to Balkanize forever the study of a collective literary achievement that offers extraordinary rewards if explored as a multiethnic, multicultural whole.

Christopher Clausen, Ph.D., is professor of English, College of the Liberal Arts, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0011. This essay was condensed from the June 22, 1994 Chronicle of Higher Education.

Last Updated September 01, 1994