Postmodernism in the United States and Canada

Julia Breitbach

In this chapter, I will treat postmodernism in the United States and in Canada predominantly as a historical phenomenon, which peaked in cultural production and scholarly discussion from the 1960s through the 1980s. Exploring the field of literature, my survey of postmodernism in both countries will chart what I deem the heyday of the critical reception and promotion of postmodernism in the respective national literatures, while also pointing out the blind spots and fault lines that come with this perspective. More precisely, I will examine, for the United States, the literary production and critical debate of the 1960s and 1970s—notably the "theoretical turn" of writers and critics toward experiment and "surfiction" (Raymond Federman). For Canada, the 1970s and 1980s will be of major relevance, with literary texts and scholarship concentrating on a postcolonial revaluation of marginality, "ex-centricity," and the rewriting of history. The focus will be on Anglophone Canadian literature, while neglecting the literary production of Quebec and other French-speaking literatures in Canada (see chs. 7 and 8 for approaches across linguistic and intranational borders). Likewise, for reasons primarily of practicability, I will narrow down my exploration of postmodernism to the genre of fiction writing, thus eclipsing poetry and drama.1

For both Canada and the United States, the investigation into literary production and its criticism will be contextualized within the larger cultural and sociopolitical climate of the time. In Canada, postmodernism coincided with an unprecedented flowering of the arts and letters, sometimes referred to as Canada's "Elizabethan Age" or "the Canadian Renaissance." As those two terms signify, cultural production, on the one hand, sought to emancipate itself from the heritage of a colonial mentality with regard to the motherland Great Britain, and on the other hand to draw level with the cultural sovereignty of the United States.2 Canada's cultural output at the time, and not least its literary production, thus played a major role in the building, or "writing," of a nation. In the United States, by contrast, postmodernism developed in close alliance with the concerns of an iconoclast counterculture and a general disenchantment among writers and intellectuals with contemporary US society and politics. Experiences such as the McCarthy era, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War contributed to a profound sense of alienation and threat, and called for a deconstruction and "rewriting" of national myths.

Before I turn to the comparative analysis of postmodernism in the histories of American and Canadian literature, some preliminary thoughts on postmodernism and its fate in the twenty-first century are in order to ground my take on American and Canadian postmodernism within an international literary context and critical debate, which have surrounded, for the last (at least) fifty years, a notoriously volatile phenomenon.

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