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Readings at the Edge of Literature

Myra Jehlen’s aim in these essays is to read for what she calls the edge of literature: the point at which writing seems unable to say more, which is also, for Jehlen, the threshold of the real. It is here, she argues, that the central paradoxes of the American project become clear—self-reliance and responsibility, universal equality and the pursuit of empire, writing from the heart and representing shared values and ideas. Developing these paradoxes to their utmost tension, American writers often produce penetrating critiques of American society without puncturing its basic myths. For instance, Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson begins as a slashing satire of racism, only to conclude by demonstrating that even an invisible portion of black blood can make a man a murderer.

Throughout these essays Jehlen demonstrates the crucial role that the process of writing itself plays in unfolding these paradoxes, whether in the form of novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Virginia Woolf; the histories of Captain John Smith; or even a work of architecture, such as the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.

246 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2002

Gender and Sexuality

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Women's Studies


“While the essays explore a range of texts and issues, what links them is a concern with the paradoxes within American culture and how fiction and memoir wrestles with common tensions. Some of these are America’s emphasis on individualism and the public good, freedom and liberty versus racism and slavery, and democratic ideals and nation building.”

James H. Brownlee | Religious Studies Review

Readings at the Edge of Literature contains stunning examples of how a critique of positivism and poststructuralism can be grounded in beautiful writing, meticulous scholarship, and aesthetic sensitivity. Jehlen’s attention to the historicist’s problem of subjective perspective will help any reader to think more clearly about the confusions and contradictions among facts and fictions.”

Lauren Berlant, author of The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life

Readings at the Edge of Literature explores the contradictions that emerge whenever the ideal called America tries to identify itself in our literature. This collection is alert and alive, full of intellectual energy, stunning perceptions, and analytical brilliance.”

Richard Poirier, author of Trying It Out in America: Literary and Other Performances

Table of Contents

1. "Imitate Jesus and Socrates" - The Making of a Good American
2. J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur - A Monarcho-Anarchist in Revolutionary America
3. The Novel and the Middle Class in America
4. The Family Militant - Domesticity versus Slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
5. Banned in Concord - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Classic American Literature
6. The Ties that Bind - Race and Sex in Puddn’head Wilson
7. Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism
8. Why Did the European Cross the Ocean?
9. History before the Fact - The Underdetermined John Smith
10. History beside the Fact - What We Learn from A True and Exact History of Barbadoes
11. An Empire of One’s Own - Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out
12. Guggenheim in Bilbao

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