AMERICAN IDENTITY AND AMERICAN LITERATURE: A COGNITIVE CULTURAL STUDY FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE CIVIL WAR by Patrick Colm Hogan, Reviewed by Paul Gilmore
 


AMERICAN IDENTITY AND AMERICAN LITERATURE: A COGNITIVE CULTURAL STUDY FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE CIVIL WAR
By Patrick Colm Hogan
(Routledge 2020) xii + 202 pp.
Reviewed by Paul Gilmore on 2021-02-15.

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In this book by a prolific and prominent specialist in the cognitive study of literature, Patrick Colm Hogan aims to use "cognitive and affective science" to inform his examination of a set of literary works dating from the Revolution to the Civil War, in the process advancing cultural studies and literary criticism. Unlike previous studies of the relationship between those works and national identity, this book grounds its analysis on "recent research in cognitive and affective science and social psychology rather than on psychoanalysis . . . or on structuralist and deconstructive approaches" to delineate "the techniques of identity development generally," and specifically the techniques of "U. S. national identity" (11).

Hogan thus brings a new lens to an old subject: a subject on which he says, he is "not really an expert" (1). Every field can benefit from a new set of eyes, eyes looking through lenses that bring different perspectives and insights to a subject that its specialists may tend to see in predetermined ways. Since the potential insights of the contemporary brain sciences have been scarcely applied to early American literature, Hogan's project is highly promising. In a long introductory chapter on identity formation, especially on the formation of American identity from the Revolution to the Civil War, Hogan examines some of the research within the cognitive and affective sciences on in-group and out-group distinctions to frame the psychological dimension of national and subnational distinctions. He then dedicates three chapters each to a specific subnational identity: indigenous American identity in James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, and the writing of Pequod William Apess; African-American identity in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Frederick Douglass's autobiographies, specifically his Life and Times; and gender/sexual difference in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," and the plays of Judith Sargent Murray. In a concluding chapter on Herman Melville's Moby Dick, he synthesizes all three of these categories.

In close readings of individual works, Hogan's interpretations are often convincing. Yet while promising to shed new light on familiar texts, his analyses of them will seldom enlighten any scholar deeply familiar with American literature and the criticism of it. Since Poe's "The Black Cat," for instance, plainly reveals the narrator's hatred of women (or at least his wife). it is hardly news to say, as Hogan does, that the story is all about misogyny. Even though his comments on the works he treats might engage a class of undergraduates new to this literature, he pays little attention to previous criticism of it. In a footnote to his chapter on Stowe, he contends that "no critic has clarified the nature and patterning of Stowe's variable and apparently contradictory attitudes [towards Black people], in part because they lacked the conceptual and empirical resources provided by recent cognitive science and social psychology" (97). Yet since at least George Fredrickson's The Black Image in the White Mind (1971), it is hard to find any critic working on Uncle Tom's Cabin who has not tried to plumb its ambivalence toward African Americans. Particularly telling to me are Hogan's attempts to combat critiques of Stowe's racism by focusing on George Harris. In arguing that Stowe's flattering portrayal of Harris disproves such critiques, Hogan never mentions that she distinguishes him from other slaves by stressing his "Anglo-Saxon" heritage. In other words, Hogan's reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin overlooks considerable textual and extra-textual evidence (including secondary criticism) that might have generated a more nuanced account of how it represents African-American identity.

I use the word "evidence" purposefully. Like many other specialists in cognitive literary criticism, Hogan seems to prioritize one kind of evidence--broadly conceived as scientific, experimentally verified, and empirical--over other kinds. But Hogan's book prompts us to interrogate the nature and reliability of different kinds of evidence and the kinds of arguments we can make with them. Most broadly conceived, scientific arguments rest on findings that are both replicable and falsifiable through experimental procedures and/or empirical observation. Ever seeking closer approximation of how the physical world works, science presupposes that knowledge is cumulative, building toward ever greater accuracy. Literary interpretation has other aims. Though respecting rules of evidence and the desirability of progress in the knowledge it produces, it tends to prize originality and difference. While scientific studies aim to reveal a single truth or set of truths about (for instance) the molecular structure of a rock, literary critics often generate contradictory readings of the same text. But as Tony Jackson has explained, such readings can be complementary rather than mutually exclusive (" 'Literary Interpretation' and Cognitive Literary Studies" Poetics Today 24. 2 [2003] 191-205).

Furthermore, in spite of his overall aim, Hogan does not consistently read his chosen literary texts through scientific lenses. As already noted, he largely ignores critical studies that highlight what these texts reveal about race, gender, and national identity, because those studies tend to apply psychoanalytic or poststructuralist frameworks rather than insights drawn from scientific methods. But the latter are almost invisible in Hogan's readings of specific texts. Even in the introductory chapter, which sets out major terms and trends, his references to specific research are thin, and the chapters on particular authors are even less grounded in recent science. In his chapter on Last of the Mohicans, for example, his only citations to research on psychology and cognitive science appear in one paragraph, and several of the studies he cites are more speculative or synthetic than empirical. In humanistic writing, the most effective applications of a scientific study explain how it was undertaken, how its measurements were made, and what assumptions undergirded it. As far as I can recall, Hogan never furnishes such information about any study he cites. He simply shares what he takes to be its conclusion and its relevance to the topic of national identity-- although almost none of the scientific studies in the bibliography directly refers to this topic.

In other words, even though he promises to base his account of American literature and American identity on "a great deal of research in social, cognitive, and affective psychology" (8), he offers just a cursory overview of that research. His analyses of particular literary works rely instead on what literary critics most often consider its most objective evidence--elements of the text itself. But he largely ignores other literary evidence-- extratextual statements and references, including other literary works, by the author; contemporaneous documents and readings of the text; and the history of previous interpretations. As a result, his readings often seem merely impressionistic, relying on phrasing such as "I take it that . . . ," "I suspect. . .," or "it seems . . ."

One way to make literary studies more scientific--and more congruent with the cognitive sciences--would be to conduct empirical research into readers' responses. One might use surveys or data about readers to reconstruct how a text works. Or one might apply what disciplines such as psychology and cognitive science have revealed about how readers process texts. But besides occasionally mentioning his students, Hogan makes no sustained effort to base his readings on any responses other than his own. Instead he uses limited textual evidence (while sometimes refusing extratextual evidence, as with The Scarlet Letter) to affirm conclusions not much different from those offered by New Critics, New Historicists, or any other school of contemporary criticism.

One could simply conclude that Hogan has bitten off more than he can chew in a relatively short book. Since he admits that some of his selections are less related to national identity than others, he could have covered less ground and devoted more space to the latter. In a chapter on Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, he might have elucidated the importance of experimental work on identification. Specifically, he might have explained how the novel's success (in the 1850s at least) sprang from its portrayal of identification across racial lines or between similarly gendered people. While certainly not unique to the post-Compromise decade of the 1850s, these kinds of identification took on particular dimensions in that era.

It may also be that Hogan is not writing for specialists in nineteenth-century American literature and culture. He could simply be trying to furnish a stronger foundation for interpretations that are largely accepted within the field-- so as to make them scientifically replicable. But he explicitly sets out to bring something new to the well-trodden field of American literature and American identity.

I truly believe that the brain sciences, including social psychology and cognitive science, have the potential to shed new light on our experience of literature. I also believe that empirical studies from different domains may generate radically new understandings of literature (broadly considered) and its function within the modern nation-state, including the somewhat anomalous example of the United States. But as Barbara Herrnstein Smith has shown, most such attempts to "scientize the humanities" fail to grapple adequately with the literary and cultural scholarship that already exists, to thoroughly and critically explore the scientific studies cited, and to show how their foundational or theoretical premises lead to new insights ("Scientizing the Humanities" Common Knowledge 22.3 [2016] 353-372).

Paul Gilmore is Administrative Dean of the Honors College, Rutgers University- New Brunswick.


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