From Emerson to Rorty, American criticism has grappled in one way or another with the problem of modernity—specifically, how to determine critical and cultural standards in a world where every position seems the product of an interpretation. Part intellectual history, part cultural critique, this provocative book is an effort to shake American thought out of the grip of the nineteenth century—and out of its contingency blues.
Paul Jay focuses his analysis on two strands of American criticism. The first, which includes Richard Poirier and Giles Gunn, has attempted to revive what Jay insists is an anachronistic pragmatism derived from Emerson, James, and Dewey. The second, represented most forcefully by Richard Rorty, tends to reduce American criticism to a metadiscourse about the contingent grounds of knowledge. In chapters on Emerson, Whitman, Santayana, Van Wyck Brooks, Dewey, and Kenneth Burke, Jay examines the historical roots of these two positions, which he argues are marked by recurrent attempts to reconcile transcendentalism and pragmatism. A forceful rejection of both kinds of revisionism, Contingency Blues locates an alternative in the work of the “border studies” critics, those who give our interest in contingency a new, more concrete form by taking a more historical, cultural, and anthropological approach to the invention of literature, subjectivity, community, and culture in a pan-American context.