Historicizing the Discipline:
In Chapter 7 of Creating American Civilization, Shumway argues that within the discipline of English, a "paradigm shift" occurs in which literary criticism replaces literary history as the dominant practice (221). This shift marks the triumph of an aesthetic conception of literature, supplanting the declining identification of literature with broader notions of knowledge and learning. Though Shumway fails to fully account for this shift (223), he nevertheless sees the school of New Criticism as playing a central role in relegating criticism from the margins of academia to its center. New Criticism, grounded in the idea of the autonomy of a text, whose objective formal qualities work to produce a coherent whole, could thus claim empiricism and disinterest for the practice of criticism, claims which are necessary for a discipline's legitimation within the university (232). Thus the literary text becomes increasingly construed as ahistorical, a practice which fails to account for such important factors as `Differences of region, class, race or ethnicity (260)."
But, as Shumway argues, New Criticism's political ideology, which has its roots in Agrarianism, while necessarily concealed for purposes of academic legitimation, nevertheless manifests itself covertly in the school's critical assumptions and practices. So, Matthiessen's American Renaissance, heavily influenced by New Criticism, far from being an objective project, is as much, if not more, a statement of a humanist ideology or Modernism's aesthetic as the specific authors, texts, period and tradition with which the book deals.
For example, Emerson's centrality in Matthiessen's canon, stems from Emerson's role as the thesis of a dialectic which produces the authors and works studied in the American Renaissance. This dialectical scheme unproblematically unifies the American tradition, a scheme which manifests Eliot's highly influential views on the nature of tradition. Later, Shumway demonstrates how the Modernist aesthetic, which finds form and coherence in fragmentation, influences Mathiessen's critique of Melville and Whitman. What these examples demonstrate is the constructedness of the American canon, the historical variability of canon formation, a process which is ultimately supposed to be objective and disinterested.
Shumway's New Historicist approach raises important issues for students of American literature. Historicizing the formation of the American canon and English as an academic discipline, calls attention to the need for a more thorough approach to both reading and criticizing. For instance, it forces the student to question his own assumptions about both the act of reading and the text itself, and how much those assumptions are conditioned by historical circumstances taken to be "always already." And, it also makes possible a continual questioning, revision, and diversification of both the canon discipline. In other words, the destabilization of categories previously construed as closed systems opens them up for examination. At a time when the category "American" is itself a topic of debate, such an examination is necessary for students of American literature.