Paul Giles

American Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature

Paul Giles, American Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 432 pp. ISBN: 0199206333 (hardback). £79 (UK), $140 (USA). ISBN: 0199567034 (paper). £25 (UK), $55 (USA).

Reviewed by Richard Squibbs, DePaul University (Online, July 2009)

Paul Giles’s Atlantic Republic is an immensely ambitious book. Historically, it moves from the work of Richard Price near the end of the eighteenth century to the twenty-first-century novels of Caryl Phillips. In making his case for the centrality of the American example to modern English letters Giles draws from a vast archive of lyric and narrative poetry, novels, short fiction, science fiction, political tracts, personal essays, and literary criticism. His polemical purpose is similarly far-reaching. Giles aims to tell the story of how America has, in myriad ways and across more than two centuries, exerted such imaginative and conceptual pressure on English writing as to make the very notion of an English national literature seem like a half-truth. The sweep of the book, its depth of learning, and its forceful challenge to the entire paradigm of literary nationalism cast Atlantic Republic as perhaps the most systematic and thoroughgoing attempt to remake the discipline of English literature along a transatlantic axis.

This is a major claim, and given Giles’s evident ambitions one imagines that he wouldn’t mind my making it. Right from the start, he zeroes in on a number of literary institutions for what he deems an indefensibly narrow and sentimental conception of ‘English Literature.’ The editorial logic of Quiller-Couch’s 1900 Oxford Book of English Verse (along with its 1925 prose companion) aligns in Giles’s account with the sense of cultural mission that animated the launching of the Review of English Studies in 1925. Both sought to shore up an English self-image grounded in restraint and moderation that ultimately entails ‘a communal sense of national fellowship’ (4). F. R. Leavis and Raymond Williams too, however sharp their ideological differences, shared an insistence on the sanctity of place and tradition in articulating a distinctively English literary history, a sort of hearth-bound romanticism. Against these literally insular notions of English literature Giles posits what we might see as ‘the American problem,’ the disruptive presence in the English literary imagination not of the American nation itself, but rather of its cultural power as a symbol of dissent, refusal, and future-oriented longing (and trepidation).

‘America’ as a symbol underwent a number of major semantic changes between the Revolution and the present. While it became a place of self-imposed exile for some English writers, America also represented a set of possibilities and suggested new vantages from which to critique old England. Its special purchase on the English literary imagination springs, obviously, from the cultural roots the nations share. But more than this, it involves the way the American rebels, and later national leaders, declared themselves the true inheritors of a republicanism that the English had betrayed. ‘America’ for Giles thus comes to foster a dissenting strain in English writing whose forms, perspectives, and tones varied as much with the wending paths of subsequent history as with the attitudes and temperaments of the individual authors who composed it.

Apart from the Revolution, the main historical markers of the shifting relationships between England and America in Giles’s narrative are the 1832 Reform Bill, the mercantile ‘Cold War’ over the Western territories during the 1840s, America’s growing economic ascendance at the end of the nineteenth century, and the aftermath of the Second World War. Writers as diverse as Byron, Arnold, Gissing, Auden, and Wodehouse responded to these phenomena in ways that demonstrate how the idea of America has for two centuries been an inextricable part of the English national literary canon. What binds together the works of this disparate group of authors is less their preoccupation with America as a symbolic entity, however, than an image of England moored (Giles might say ‘mired’) in a tradition of stuffy self-confidence and provincial common sense that this symbolic ‘America’ needles, challenges, and unsettles.

Giles charts the numerous turns in America’s critical presence in English writing through a familiar scheme of literary periodization. Byron belonged to ‘the last generation of English writers for whom the American republic comprised … a ‘living’ republican alternative to England’ (54). The Shelleys projected America ‘as a repository of republican and pastoral values, a theoretical corrective to the conservative English state’ (60). In responding to the Transcendentalists, the next generation of English writers—represented mainly by Clough and Gissing—saw in America less the possibility of an actual political alternative to England than a metaphor of difference, ‘a scene of figurative displacement’ that implied critical attitudes toward English culture without specifying their content (128). Thus, America could function as ‘a reference point for philosophical dissent’ or exemplify the ‘insufficiency of self-enclosed and self-defining national values’ (169). The next big literary event—the emergence of the Aesthetic Movement—also assumes a different cast when viewed from this transnational vantage. Conventional readings of Aesthetic decadence point to ‘French oversophistication’ as its motive force (149). Giles provocatively counters that the modern forces of ‘dissolution and change’ to which decadence gave artistic form had just as much to do with the influence of an American commercialization of literary production and its concomitant toleration, if not celebration, of a ‘‘‘low’’ popular idiom’ in American letters (149). More nationalistically orthodox English writers committed to the synecdochical logic at the heart of Victorian realism registered the threat this new transatlantic literary market posed to their aesthetic. While in realist convention a close, even obsessive, attention to small details in a circumscribed locale would come ‘to epitomize the social fabric’ of which they were a part, the ‘transnational marketplace’ in literature created conditions in which local and global (and ‘high’ and ‘low’) elements in literary works were jumbled together (150). The resulting aesthetic crisis had to do with the sudden inability of English writers and critics to determine which elements in this new literary world were immanent to English national culture, and which came to it from outside.

The scope and sweep of Atlantic Republic make it difficult to summarize Giles’s argument in a way that does real justice to it. But even this small sampling shows how Giles invokes conventional literary-historical narratives and periodizations not necessarily to confound them, but to embellish them, to make them say more about their respective moments and characteristics by placing English literature back into a properly dynamic Atlantic history. Because it covers so much ground, there are moments when the book drops fascinating insights only to charge past them, seemingly without stopping for breath. One such moment occurs when Giles remarks that ‘[a]fter 1832, the Atlantic republic was displaced from its status as a potential political entity, although it was subsequently to reconstitute itself as a metaphorical, imaginative conception’ (70). Another has to do with how the ‘transatlantic circulation of capital and commodities … creates internal or subtextual complications within the formal patterns of realism and naturalism,’ generating in realist works at the end of the nineteenth century an uneasy awareness ‘of the inadequacy of empirical observation as a means of representation’ (153). These and other culminating statements punctuate series of close readings of various works, yet sometimes they beg for further elaboration or evidence. The obvious seriousness of Giles’s critical thinking and the depth and breadth of reading everywhere evident in the book (and in his earlier work on eighteenth-century British-American writing, Transatlantic Insurrections [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001]), largely prevent the appearance of glibness in such moments. But they do point to a core tension in the book between a detail-oriented working out of its thesis and a desire to extend the implications of that thesis across the entire field of modern Anglo-American writing.

Ultimately, Atlantic Republic aims ‘not to install a different kind of transatlantic canon, but to propose a certain kind of methodological approach’ to the transatlantic study of literature (10). In this, Giles succeeds, and points a way forward for others. By positing the centrality of America to English literature as a symbolic presence that allowed authors of widely varying temperaments and ideological dispositions to work through their relationships to English culture, he decisively shifts the analysis of Anglo-American literary relations away from the influence paradigm. Transatlantic literary study has always aimed for this. But because, in part, the theories and methods of transatlantic study are still in solution and subject to much debate, the critical imperatives to destabilize traditional claims for literary nationalism, or to challenge conventional narratives of literary influence, often relegate the literary works themselves to secondary status. Atlantic Republic shows how the most striking and productive theoretical insights often emerge as effects of careful literary analyses of individual works and of broader generic movements in literary history.

The book makes a strong case for the incompleteness of English literature as conceived in isolation from America. It also stands as a salutary reminder that literature and literary history together comprise a distinct order of knowledge. One danger of cultural history as commonly practised is its tendency to treat all texts as roughly equivalent documents to be mined for historical content. To do this is to lose a sense of the peculiar cultural dynamism, born of a relentless formal self-consciousness, which is one of the distinctive properties of literary discourse. Giles’s work shows how much is to be gained by allowing literature, and its own internal histories, to generate unique perspectives on larger historical movements and processes. In this, Atlantic Republic is as much a contribution to the history of Anglo-American cultural relations writ large as it is a highly original entry in the field of literary studies.

© Symbiosis, 2009