Versions of the pastoral in American literature
Versions of the Pastoral in American Literature
Annual congress of the French Association for American Studies, University of Strasbourg, France, June 7-10 2017
Panel organizers: Richard Anker (Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont Ferrand) and Monica Manolescu (Université de Strasbourg)
In his influential The Machine in the Garden. Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964), Leo Marx refers to Thomas Jefferson’s well-known love of Virgil and the classical poets in formulating his thesis of American pastoral as deriving essentially from literary design and convention. This literalization of Arcadia would constitute thereby not only the core of the popular pastoral imagination in America, but, as feminist, culturalist, and environmentalist revisions of the pastoral aesthetic have shown, it remains a source of mystification even within many of the most self-consciously literary texts from the early 19th century to the present, where the representation of nature maintains its allure as a refuge from urban and technological complexity, and a conservative, hegemonic and typically masculine sensibility asserts a regressive hold upon what may have only appeared to be radical and liberating impulses awakened by the pastoral ideal. In “American Pastoral Ideology Reappraised” (1989), Laurence Buell, pointing out various tensions implicit in pastoral writing, noted in particular the conflict which arises in literary texts between a language of action, often co-opted by regressive political tendencies, and rhetorical strategies which run counter to such mystification. If these kinds of tensions are well-known, particularly perhaps in the “afterlife” of the deconstructive tradition of rhetorical reading practiced by Paul de Man, the critical analysis of them in works of pastoral imagination seems to take on a renewed, existential urgency as the peril of “environmental holocaust” increases. Now more than ever, it appears, it has become necessary to disentangle the various and competing strains – conservative and liberating, hegemonic and radical, mystified and critical – involved in literary representations of the pastoral. What such a critical effort perhaps implies is a reconsideration - from the point of view of the modern writer’s more intense awareness of the temporality and the materiality of literary form – of the ambiguity between the idyllic and the elegiac that Erwin Panofsky pointed to in his famous revision of the “Et in Arcadia Ego” motif, wherein, against centuries of misinterpretation, he reminded us of the ancients’ message that death exists even in the realm of the pastoral.
This panel invites papers which explore the tensions at work in the rhetoric of pastoral imagination in American literature, and which – beyond any particular strategy, political or otherwise, but without succumbing to ludic utopianism – work against the merely regressive allure of Arcadian happiness to sustain critical awareness of the promise still held perhaps in literary versions of the pastoral imagination.