Needless to say, Horace Engdahl's surprise outburst on the alleged parochialism of American literature took a lot of us by surprise. Though head of a jury ostensibly bound to Alfred Nobel's dictum that his eponymous prizes be awarded with no consideration given to a recipient's particular nationality, Engdahl appeared to effectively seal off the notion that the prize could be awarded to an American until the country shapes up its literary act.
"There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world ... not the United States," Engdahl told the Associated Press. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining."
Engdahl's unsubtle tirade naturally drew equally sharp reponses, like this one from The New Yorker's David Remnick: "You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures." Ouch. But in our tradition of taking a step back from the sound bites, we thought we'd ask someone who knows the score to evaluate Engdahl's statement on the merits. And thus we turned to Werner Sollors.
Sollors is Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies here at Harvard and a much-respected scholar of American literature, particularly in its role as a conduit through which African American, European immigrant, and other minority writers took part in the developments that transformed the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, lending the nation an increasingly multicultural sense of self-awareness. Sollors' treatise on Ethnic Modernism, about to be released for the first time in book form, "does more than reconnect modernism with ethnicity; it recasts modernism entirely," says the novelist Gish Jen, perhaps herself a couterweight to Engdahl's rash thesis. "This is vintage Sollors: out-of-the-box, profound, and brimming with brio." Sollors is furthermore the co-editor, with Greil Marcus, of our soon-to-come New Literary History of America, which we daresay is likely to further broaden our conception of both "American" and "literature." Below is what Professor Sollors, himself born in Germany, had to say in reponse to the accusation that American literature is somehow too parochial for sophisticated Europeans to bother with.
Mr. Engdahl's unfortunate statement about the supposed isolation of American
literature that would seem to make American authors unworthy of the Nobel Prize
seems to stem from a certain historical and literary myopia. American writers
have received a good share of Nobel Prizes in literature. From Sinclair Lewis
(1930) to Toni Morrison (1993) there have been a total of ten winners; the
others are O'Neill, Pearl S. Buck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Bellow,
Singer, and Milosz. In addition, American-born winner T. S. Eliot had become a
British citizen, Joseph Brodsky had come to the US from the Soviet Union, and
Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney had spent long years of teaching at US
universities at the time they received their Nobel Prizes.
Many winners and many more non-winners (Edith Wharton, Henry James, James Baldwin, and Arthur Miller among them) have had a remarkable openness to international tendencies in literature, and "insular" hardly is the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon or Jamaica Kincaid, Gish Jen or Anita Desai, Richard Powers or David Eggers, Mary Gaitskill or Jorie Graham. One of the most widely debated recent novels in France was written by American-born Jonathan Littell. European feuilletons devote much space to, and European bookstores are filled with, works by American authors. American writing also has, for a long time, included important works "of an idealistic tendency"—concerned, that is, with ethical issues, as the Nobel Prize guidelines stipulate.
It is true is that contemporary Americans tend to study fewer foreign languages than do their peers in other modernized countries. Also embarrassing is the small number of works of foreign literature translated annually into English in the United States (a figure that the PEN-Club released a while back). These are issues that deserve serious attention.
American literature, however, has on the whole been remarkably open internationally and has included many, many minority, border-crossing, immigrant, refugee, multilingual, hybrid, and expatriate voices—who have done the cultural work of reimagining and recasting the United States as a multiethnic country, connected with the whole world, as I have suggested in my book Ethnic Modernism. In fact, American writers have challenged readers to see the world from points of view different from their own and have and helped them to do so. As Mr. Engdahl himself suggests, ignorance can indeed be restraining, and American writers have done their share to combat that ignorance.
Werner Sollors is Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He served as chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies from 1984-87 and from 1988-90, and is the author of multiple books, including Ethnic Modernism, now out from HUP.