Even I don't always agree with my opinion


Pigeon Holes: Don’t Be A Rat With Wings

Posted September 9, 2009 by jim young in Religion/Philosophy

– Kory French

Have you ever had this happen to you — you hear a song that you haven’t heard in years and then you hear it twice more in the same day. Or you learn a new word that you have never known, and then you see it in print or hear it used three more times within a few hours. Or you discuss a topic, or read about it, a topic that has always been there but you have never given much thought to, and then you find yourself in that same conversation or falling upon that same related issue a few more times in a short time. Well, that has happened to me today.

I read a book review today on boston.com by Alex Beam

(http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2009/09/08/making_history_or_not/) discussing the recent Harvard University Press published “New Literary History of America”. In brief, the anthology looks to cover all things, and any thing, that helps define this nation’s history of printed pop culture. Let it be known — I have not had a look at the book myself and can only base what is written here on Beam’s review.

Beam is annoyed not so much with the content of the individual inserts, but more with the overall generalization and classification of such dichotic pieces under one categorical reference work. What does “T.S. Eliot and Mickey Mouse; [or] Harry Truman and Vladimir Nabokov” have to do with each other? poses Beam. How does “Henry James [find] himself in bed with Edgar Rice Burroughs”? The answer HUP gives Beam, is that its “all about counterintuitive pairings” — a response in which Beam seems anything but pleased with.

While I am not up for debating Beam’s or HUP’s argument of what makes quality literary reference work in American Literature History, I am here to challenge the habit we as scholars of any domain feel it necessary to remain true to by categorizing the disciplines we love. What defines an “American Literary” work? Beam is obviously not in agreement with Harvard on the matter. My point is “who cares”? Why do scholars, experts, researchers, even merchandisers feel it so important to classify and catalogue art according to genre. I understand that while it may be a practical practice for the library (or archival) scientists who need to create databases of published material for easier finding in future studying, I still pose the question is the categorical subtype these researches choose for any particular piece really worthy of debate?

Allow me to shift to a discipline I feel a little more comfortable referring to — music — for it is a discipline I am a little more educated in, especially when it comes to the individual categories and its subsequent members. In my “Jazz and American Culture” class yesterday, Professor O’Meally talked to the idea of “what is Jazz”? How is it categorized? Is it academically correct to have the subtypes of jazz such as ‘bop’, ‘skat’, ‘big band’, ‘swing’ and the lists could go on. In my “Introduction to American Studies” class yesterday, Professor Boggs discussed Amy Kaplan’s 2003 Presidential Address to the American Studies Association (http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/american_quarterly/v056/56.1kaplan.html) and posed the question of what fits under the term “American Studies”? Does it have to be Literary? Aesthetic? Homeland (yes, the God-awful, God-fearing, God-bearing term)?

Perhaps psychologists or psychiatrists are better educated to explain the insistent human condition to categorize. We have been doing it, naturally I might add, since the beginnings of our agriculturally formed, organized societies. We have historically done it with our people (social classification), with our food (is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable, the verdict is still out on that), with our stars (awww, pity the demise of poor Pluto), and I cannot even begin to mention science (the lonely and itinerant Duck-Billed Platypus wandering the offshore in exile). So while it may be necessary for the science of archiving and cataloguing, is it necessary for scholars to spend time challenging the library-science behind the editors who are collecting and publishing the works?

I am still unsure if Van Morrison should be found in the Jazz, Rock, or Adult Contemporary section of HMV. And I am still confused as to why Shakespeare’s Collected Sonnets are found in the Theatre section of a used book store. Finally, I cannot answer Mr. Beam’s question of what Linda Lovelace is doing next to James Fenimore Cooper; perhaps it is nothing more than editors Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors sense of humor of placing “Great Snake” next to “Deep Throat”. What I do suggest is to review the individual pieces within the anthology as all works that contribute to the history of American Art and Culture, regardless of whether it is literary or not.


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