Federalism, Regionalism, and Central Role of Universities in Post-War American Literary Production

Ben Merriman, University of Kansas

Government activity has historically played a large role in the formation and reproduction of national literary fields, and the intervention of strong national governments is central in prevailing social scientific theories of how literary fields emerge. The national government of the United States has been a notable exception: it has always made very little direct material or symbolic investment in literature. Today, its most important forms of support are manifest indirectly, through tax exemption for non-profit organizations, extensive indirect federal support for universities, and more modest federal support for state library, humanities, and arts agencies. Many of the material and symbolic roles of government in other national literary fields are, in the United States, the work of universities. The role of universities in every aspect of American literary production has grown steadily over the course of the 20th Century. With reference to a wide, heterogeneous range of data, this paper examines two curious historical patterns associated with the steadily growing association of literary production with universities in the US. First, the national government took a strong interest in literature during the cultural cold war. This involvement did not yield an official or “administered” literature of the kind that became common in other wealthy democracies during the mid-20th Century. I argue that the by then established relationship between literature and universities is a major reason why an episode of government interest did not significantly reorient the field. Second, contrary to the claims of some critics, I show that the long association between universities and literary production has not spurred rationalization of literary production along the lines commonly seen in traditional disciplines. Indeed, literary activity in universities is in some cases the strict converse of the standard logic of disciplines: literature has been a century-long visitor in American universities.

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 Presented in Session 241. Knowledge Production and Culture in Historical Context