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date: 16 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Like writers elsewhere, literary theorists in North America have drawn on philosophical, psychological, political, and other writings to understand the nature and function of literature. Indeed, American literary theory is in some ways best thought of as reworking—selecting, hierarchizing, interpreting, and above all synthesizing—a particular body of such precursor texts in order to produce ideas and practices that have value for literary study in an American context. To understand the precise nature of this re-fashioning of theory, we need to begin with an understanding of just what literary theory is, what topics it addresses, what varieties it comprises. Though often seen as a unitary field, literary theory may be normative or descriptive and explanatory; it may address individual works or groups of works. In short, it has many varieties. Next, it is important to consider the context in which theory and criticism are produced. Specifically, we need to understand the professional and institutional structures in which theory is articulated and applied, in particular the ways it enters into teaching and publication practices. There are also ideological or cultural influences on the nature and development of literary theory in America, including issues of national self-concept. These bear especially on the ways in which theorists address political concerns or take up political rhetoric.

Of course, to understand American literary theories, one must consider not only the institutional, professional, and cultural backgrounds, but the theories themselves. These theories may be broadly organized into global and local or topical theories, theories that provide a general basis for theoretical reflection and theories that focus on specific topics, such as LGBT literature or African American literature. American literary theory has tended to be of the latter sort. In connection with this, American theory has tended to draw on a few global theories and a few “master theorists,” as we might call them. The most common way of treating these global theories and theorists in topical theories is to intertwine them syncretistically, producing mixed or eclectic theories. Finally, one might distinguish canonical and non-canonical theories, which is to say, theories that are widely recognized and taught as theories and theories that are advocated by a more limited group of partisans. This division is often consequential for the development of intellectual trends as the challenges and opportunities posed by non-canonical theories, theories that offer alternatives to the status quo, may affect the historical trajectory of literary theory, changing its course. That redirection of theory may be particularly likely in the current social context, where the humanities are threatened both politically and institutionally (e.g., in university funding).

Keywords: academic institutions, aesthetics, America, interpretation, literary criticism, literary profession, literary theory, politics, publication, teaching

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