NLHA Symposium “History and Literary History” Transcript


I was intrigued by, Peter Galison, the suggestion that the "liberatedness" of the New Literary History (and yesterday in the "20 Questions" and in other panels it was expressed as a kind of commitment to historical contingency (or commitment to historial and literary contingency and a commitment to the individual and individual expression) that contingency is itself not contingent because it is shaped by the fact of it being a post-Cold War book. Does that mean that this book itself depends on an American victory in the Cold War? And thereby has a kind of "Whiggishness" built into it even though it defies any sort of Whiggishness?

Another question and then I'll leave it to you to take: yesterday among the various events it was remarkable how little objection there was or how few questions were raised about the scope of the book and about the inclusiveness of the book. So there was a question briefly of where we draw the boundary of literary versus not literary but nobody seemed especially ruffled by the inclusion of Linda Lovelace and Deep Throat or Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech. We don't need to burden ourselves--since this is a History and Literary History panel--of the question of whether or not something is aesthetically good enough for inclusion but I do want to ask each of you to elaborate a little more on the idea of a historical canon. Ted Widmer, your opening comment [mentioned] that there were certain historical things that were necessary for the book. Is that a different kind of historical canon? Does that involve a different kind of contingency than a sort of literary contingency?


Well there's a lot in there but I'll just say I think my fears were alleviated by the process and the very open conversations we had. I was just worried this would be like so many academic publications of the last 20 or 30 years in which there's either anger at the United States and its story or a celebration of cacophony that doesn't allow for the idea of a single community of people that came together and forged an extremely meaningful nation with a real history that we can talk about. Certainly the history needed to be more inclusive. There was something ridiculous about the English Seventy. And yet I do think there is a single history so I just wanted our story to be told from that framework and I think we succeeded.

I meant to say in my remarks earlier one tangible historical achievement I'm very proud of in connection with this book is we basically added a new century to the story of American History. We've added the Sixteenth Century which didn't really exist in the English Seventy worldview. So we begin with Falsingwood, a German working in France in 1507, and we have in, I think the second entry, a lovely essay about how Hispanic the beginnings of American History are. And an excellent Haiti essay, as Farah said, and a real celebration of linguistic diversity but also of the fact that our history goes back almost to the Middle Ages, which is earlier than most panoptic books about American History go. So I'm very proud of that historic achievement with this book and I do think we avoided the dangers I was worried about: a celebration of cacophony so esteemed that it almost is meaningless. I think we have meaning in this book.


Just to address your question about a kind of "Whiggishness" seems to me on one level we're often posed the question: is something deterministic or contingent? For many of the kinds of things that historians of all stripes and all subdisciplinary mutations are concerned with that's not a very helpful distinction because we're often faced with the third idea which is possibilities--or "what are the conditions under which certain things are possible?" If we said do New Media arts depend deterministically on the computer? No they don't and the shape of New Media is very diverse and manifests itself differently in different sectors and different countries, and so on. Is it contingent and unrelated to the development of the computer and network computing? Of course not. But the computer represents--and digital arts more generally--depend on a certain set of technological innovations in the sense that it had opened up the space for certain consequences. But that doesn't mean that it had to be the way it is because of it.

So when I say that the end of the Cold War presents the conditions of possibility for this kind of an endeavor, I don't mean that it was determined by that. The fall of the Berlin Wall didn't make this...But I think that the sense that people have: the lowering of another kind of disciplinary and specialty wall in the University; the sense that America doesn't either have to be defended or decried; the High/Low distinction is not something that has to be enforced here, because somehow the High is what's establishing the validity of the nation-state...You can teach German literature in Germany to show the essence of Germany--that view just doesn't seem to carry the force because of a different function of the nation-state in this period. I think that the larger political, economic, and cultural formations that have circulated since the end of the Cold War open up the space for certain kinds of things.

It's striking to see how they come to roost right here in our courses and our writing and our volumes because we sit in this larger seat. As I said, not deterministically, but because certain things are opened up. We don't see our courses as training "Good Americans" so they can go on and "go fight the good war." That's not the point of general education reform. Whereas in the original formation of these general education programs, completely explicitly that was the view. So I think that it's more of a sense of an opening in the space of possible interventions that I wanted to point to. And to say: no, if you ask me the specific question "do I think that this volume is really all about individualism and celebration and sort of a contingent fact that everyone's in this light-hearted, expressive, and cacophonous mood?" no I don't. I think that's an absurd view.


I'd like to say too, I don't remember how conscious this was, but another way of addressing the concerns that Ted raised at beginning was to have moments that we could all agree were Very Important Historical Moments and then have them written about by people who 1.) might not ever have thought about writing about them and certainly, people who the original authors could never have imagined writing about them. I think I remember us deciding that we would ask Barack Obama to write one of the entries (this was when he could have actually done it; it was early on). It might have been an entry about Lincoln or something. So this historical moment which has always been important, even in these courses that you're talking about, would be taken on by someone who had not been imagined by the moment itself.


I was going to talk a little about the history of interdisciplinary history and I think build on Peter's point that at Harvard, as at other Universities, History is sort of supposed to be the "friendly neighbor" of the Social Sciences. I think there was a moment or a nanosecond where if you had said Cultural History to people they would have thought of it as being an interdisciplinary mash-up of History and Anthropology. And I think that moment actually mattered and really helped condition historians to think about culture as a text. I think that orignial mixing of fields preconditioned the now exclusively Literary definition of Cultural History. There was probably a nanosecond after that nanosecond where Anthropologists didn't want to be blamed for opening up History so that everything was a text and we all interpreted that. Now that means that they've of course relinquished the credit and the Literary Historians are now with us.

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Lindsay Waters Interview Transcript


My name is Lindsay Waters. I'm the Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press. I've been here for a long time, since 1984. I was at the University of Minnesota Press before that and I've been developing books for a good long time. Once I jumped ship and jumped the teaching business and got into this business, it's better this way. I wish I had those three months off, but...

Modestly, what I'm trying to do is transform the Humanities and the Humanities need to be brought back into full motion and activity...

One of the coolest things that I'm in involved in is this New Literary History of America that's coming out in the Fall of 2009 and it exemplifies exactly--I understand this in terms of Latour's and Bejamin's theories of interaction (and Hutchins'). This is the interaction of different People and Things working together. Now we've got Things 'cause we gotta make physical books, we gotta have a budget, we gotta have money. These are all things that we're interacting with.

But it takes humans too. And as we develop this project (this is the third of these literary histories I've done; The second one was this huge History of German Literature) we got together a group of people. We made a plan. We've done two of these things and there's kind of a rude, crude mechanical aspect of these literary histories in that they follow a chronological ordering from The Beginning to The End depending on what we decide those things are.

With the French Literary History we did we decided that the first entry was going to be the Sermons of Strasbourg which might be the founding document of French literary history or the founding document of German literary history and therein hangs a tale.

And the last entry was on the 500th episode of the TV literary chat show called Apostrophes where you hear Valery Giscard d'Estaing say that he would have given his entire political career to have written two short stories by Maupassant. And I read that in the manuscript when it comes in and I say "This is not the U. S. of A.!" Because my President back at that time was the first Bush and he would have lost his whole political career if he admitted he read two short stories by by Maupassant let alone written them.

So this structure, we have these meetings and we come up with a document, perhaps a "founding document," and the first meeting is a meeting in which we could decide that we're going to abort the mission. We have to have that possibility that we're going to abort the mission. That's how we started with the French one, that's how we started with the German one, and that's how we started the American one.

And then if we can come together--we may lose some people, we have to gain some other people if we do--we decide to go ahead. With this American one we had 15 people, varied, a range of people. There's nobody who's 13 years old but we've got people who are 25 years old and we've got people who are 65 years old. Because it's America, we got one of the best movie critics in the world, David Thomson involved in this thing. We've got one of the best Art Historians, Michael Leja. We've got a great Historian of Technology from MIT named David Mindell, because America wasn't going to make sense unless you brought technology into the picture. I did learn something from Walter Benjamin, which is you can't understand America without understanding how the technology plays a role in it.

So we had various meetings. And we keep the meetings to a minimum, really. We had one meeting: can we get along? The second meeting: can we project what the Table of Contents will be? Can we adjust? Even the top people have to--this is Democratic...or Rube Goldberg...or Spike Jonez....or Spike Lee operations (something like this). This is really fun.

When we bring this book out, there's going to be some obvious things in this book...There are 200 entries, each one of them is 6 pages long, they all have to be readable by regular people. There are books in there I never heard of before but they all--we made some deals with ourselves because America's so in danger of losing its sense of literature and literacy, which is that anything that came in had to have some sort of literature connection. So Bob Dylan, Chronicles. Chuck Berry wrote an autobiography.

I don't want to give it all away-- The whole list is a trade secret which we will unveil at the last moment. Because we are in the process of canon formation. (All those awful things you weren't supposed to do over the last number of years that people were attacking). So that's really fun!

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