Drawing on Edward Said's method of “contrapuntal” criticism relating culture and empire, and also on Frank Kermode's understanding of the “classic” in relation to empire, this essay addresses two major American works a century apart to suggest a pattern that joins important American works with works from more recent postcolonial nations. Imperial eclecticism names the technique by which writers in a new national culture freely manipulate the materials of the larger “world” cultural heritage as a resource for innovation, as Melville does with Shakespeare and Ellison does with Dante, Eliot, and Melville. This, in turn, is related to the narrative mobility that makes so striking a feature of both works.

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