Publication details [#5619]

Hartnett, Stephen J. 1992. Cultural fictions: The critical theory of historiography, the political economy of modernity, and the paradoxes of Whitman's America. San Diego, Calif.. 622 pp.


The purpose of this study is to explore the dialectical relationships between three relatively autonomous fields of research: the critical theory of historiography, the political-economy of early United States modernity, and literary criticism as exemplified in an analysis of Whitman's 1855 'Leaves of Grass'. The author uses the phrase "cultural fictions" to foreground the thesis that "reality" is always created, and that documents that strive to comprehend and/or reorganize their given historical moment - whether employing the rhetoric of critical theory, political-economics, or literary criticism - necessarily involve attempts to project plausible, comprehensible, and politically functional "cultural fictions" that can explain the apparent randomness and complexity of lived experience. The author's overview of the critical theory of historiography contains chapters on Marx, Baudrillard, Benjamin and Bloch, de Certeau and Foucault, and Laclau and Mouffe. The function of these analyses is to provide the theoretical background necessary for attempting to practice a form of historiography that is both "textually" sophisticated in the poststructuralist sense, and contextually detailed in the materialist sense. In the author's analysis of the early stages of modernity in the United States he emphasizes the linkage between new forms of production and exchange, slavery, and manifest destiny, with this work culminating in a detailed reading of Senator Robert Walker's famous "Letter" on Texas annexation. In his critique of Whitman the author addresses his epistemology, his use of synecdoche and metonymy, his manipulation of the daguerreotype as a "truth"-bearing symbol, his versions of gendering and sexual desire, his portrayals of slaves and slavery, and his attitudes regarding manifest destiny and the United States as the embodiment of "perfect equality." By reading Whitman against the detailed politico-economic context of the rise of modernity, and by reading both Whitman and early U.S. modernity through the lens of the critical theory of historiography, the author hopes to construct a form of hybrid, interdisciplinary culture studies that is theoretically sophisticated, aesthetically sensitive, and politically biting. (Stephen Hartnett)