June 12, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReading

Eric J. Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature

Often as conceptually layered as the texts it considers, for a current project I recently looked again at To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1994), Eric J. Sundquist’s pivotal study of the interweaving of black and white American literary traditions. Although it could include more work on women writers, it’s a good book to pick up for anyone  who wants a more multifaceted understanding of U.S. intellectual history.

Rather than treating African American writing as a brief detour in the overarching excursion into American literature, as many scholars do, Sundquist approaches it as one half of a shared, albeit fraught, genealogy. What is most striking about his method is that he does not merely collapse the two lineages into a single one, but rather insists that, while no nuanced understanding of one can come about without the other, they should still be understood as distinct categories that overlap––two threads in a braid. That is, he is eager to “keep alive the necessary contradiction that the two traditions can be seen as both one and separate.”

In keeping with this “necessary contradiction,” Sundquist centers his study on the torturous doubleness that runs through the African American experience and its corresponding narratives. He also delves into the question of mislabeled doubleness early on by way of Franz Boas’ concept of “Alternating Sounds,” which debunks the position that less evolved languages contain arbitrary deviations––when these perceived deviations are, in fact, a result of the untrained ear of the auditor.

Sundquist’s understanding of duality manifests itself in more expected ways—how “the plural, ‘nations,’ encompasses the double cultural worlds of ‘American’ and ‘Negro’ which Du Bois made the foundation of his famous theory of double consciousness,” for example—but also in more unexpected ways, as in the case of “the doubleness of the democratic ideal born in the Revolutions of 1776 and 1789, matured in continuing European revolutions, but still awaiting fulfillment in the colonial holdings of Latin America as well as in the southern United States.”

In later postbellum sections of the book, this twofold theme extends into the tension between opposites in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, which, according to Sundquist, was “pervaded by paralyzing bifurcations and doublings” and in Charles Chesnutt’s ability to perform the ostensibly paradoxical task of applying the tools of the elite literary world to an African American writing rooted in slavery.