Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States

Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
By Sarah Corse

Sarah Corse's analysis of nearly two hundred American and Canadian novels offers a new theory of national literatures. Demonstrating that national canon formation occurs in tandem with nation-building, and that canonical novels play a symbolic role in this, Sarah Corse accounts for cross-national literary differences, addresses issues of mediation and representation in theories of "reflection," and illuminates the historically constructed nature of the relationship between literature and the nation-state. In this way, she also shows that there is no "natural" pattern of national literary difference across literary types, and specifically, that high-culture national literatures are selected to appear different from other novels. By contrast, popular-culture bestsellers are best understood as mass market commodities for the largest and least differentiated audience.

"This book is a powerful critique of the classical reflection theories of culture which unproblematically assume the existence of a collectively shared national character and post naturalistic definitions of national culture." Similar assumptions are also shared by some of the recent literature on nationalism and nation-formation. Corse's analyses successfully challenge both these literatures.

"The strength of Corse's analyses comes from her positioning of national literatures within the explicit, hierarchical opposition of high-culture and popular-culture production. This is a smart and orginal analytical twist. It enables her to surpass the simplistic reflection arguments and explain both the distinctive features displayed in national canons and the increasing homogenization in popular literary products. For, as Corse suggests, national canons are predicted on symbolic use and thus differentiation, whereas popular literature is determined by its status as a market commodity and therefore the push towards homogenization."

-Yasemin Soysal, Harvard University

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: cultural fields and literary use
2. Nation-building and the historical timing of a national literature in the United States
3. Nation-building and the historical timing of a national literature in Canada
4. The canonical novels: the politics of cultural nationalism
5. The literary prize winners: revision and renewal
6. The bestsellers: the economics of publishing and the convergence of popular taste
7. Literary meaning and cultural use