How Reading Shapes Us: Derek C. Maus

By Derek C. Maus

I spent a good deal of my childhood and early adolescence in the 1980s sleepless with nightmares about nuclear war. I even wrote to the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. at some point during junior high, requesting more information about the nation that ostensibly justified the omnipresent threat of nuclear apocalypse. The multicolored poster I received in return certainly informed me about the population and major exports of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, but it didn’t bring me much clarity about whether the people in this far-flung realm were my friends or enemies. Partly out of adolescent idealism and partly out of terrified desperation, I gravitated towards almost any worldview that transcended the predominant binaries of the day.

The idea of defining myself in a way that transcends geographic, cultural, or linguistic boundaries had always appealed to me because I felt like I had grown up largely without such inherent limitations. I came into self-consciousness as a bilingual (and eventually quadrilingual) child of multinational parents, having lived in both Germany and the United States before starting school. After my parents’ divorce, I experienced a binary childhood and adolescence in which I generally spent the school year in one place (Little Rock, Arkansas) and the summer in another (Kansas City, Missouri). Although these two locations are not so radically different from one another in the grand scheme of things, for a ten-year-old trying to navigate the often-turbulent waters of social interaction, the peregrination from one context to the other required (re-)learning a completely different set of social “codes” every few months. Moreover, my early experiences of race and class in Little Rock created a third level of what one might call partial or incomplete integration. My mother and I were unusual white “immigrants” into a lower-middle-class inner-city neighborhood undergoing “white flight” in the late 1970s, and I was part of the racial minority at almost every school—including the infamous Little Rock Central High School—that I attended from 1978 to 1990. Rather than seeing these various layers of liminality as barriers to belonging (and, frankly, having had the privilege of ultimately not needing to assimilate in order to belong) within the various societies in which I have lived, I have come to think of them instead as the stimulus for the perspective with which I have tried to view the world, personally and professionally. 

When I started graduate school in 1995 and began in earnest my professional development as a literary scholar, I had a relatively simplistic understanding of how and why ideals like multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism might become a part of my critical perspective. If nothing else, they provided a political/philosophical explanation for why I was drawn to writing from countries to which I had not yet traveled and by writers from ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds far removed from my own. They also aligned with my desire to write critical work that challenged the conventional critical wisdom about such things as the ostensible anti-Americanism of leftist writers during the 1930s (the subject of my MA thesis) or the inherently binary nature of the Cold War (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). Cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism seemed like the perfect antidotes to the ethnocentric bigotry and/or nationalistic provincialism regularly expressed during the 1990s by such “culture warriors” as Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, or Harold Bloom.

The notion of being a scholar of “world literature” initially struck me as fairly uncomplicated. I naively thought that being a scholar of world literature was as simple as stepping outside the traditional American literature and British literature “tracks” of study available to most undergraduate English majors in the United States at that time. Not only had the broader implications of reading works in translation rather than in their original language not occurred to me yet, but I was also wholly unfamiliar with Goethe’s 19th-century concept of Weltliteratur, to say nothing of related concepts put forth by Diogenes, Immanuel Kant, Homi Bhabha, Franco Moretti, Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Paul Gilroy, just to name a few. Studying world literature – at least in my conception of it at the time – would allow me to glean knowledge in works from other cultures and incorporate it into my own. What I imagined as the result of such study was a cosmopolitan intellect comparable to a World’s Fair, with as many cultures as possible represented by at least a single exemplar in their respective pavilions.

 With time and experience, the unsavory aspects of this metaphor became clear to me. I recognized, for example, that every nation’s opportunities for self-representation within a World’s Fair were constrained by the values and desires of the society hosting those exhibits (e.g., the absence of a Soviet exhibit from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair). Every work of literature exists wholly independent of my (or any other critic’s) desire to reframe it from my own perspective. Such acts of reframing are understandable, since every reader is a unique individual who invariably brings his or her own background to a given text. An excess of cosmopolitan or multicultural zeal, however, can unwittingly appropriate a text by downplaying or otherwise erasing its cultural origins; such a process is equally onerous and damaging when it arises from a desire to define a canon of ostensibly universal “Great Books” and when it stems (as it did with me) from the desire to transcend cultural distinctions in favor of an overarching humanism.   

Thankfully, James Baldwin helped lead me to a far better critical practice. I had read a considerable bit of Baldwin’s writing as an undergraduate and had appreciated him both as a stylist and a contrarian, but it was not until years later that I understood what I now see as his profoundly necessary (and as-yet largely unheeded) advice to white people who wish to stop perpetuating and benefitting from America’s racism. As anyone who has read even one of his works must surely recognize, Baldwin pulls few punches when it comes to speaking his mind about the causes of racism in America. As I revisited various writing by Baldwin, I started to notice that he calls out not just overt white supremacists but also white liberals who revel in the putative correctness of their attitudes even as they remain ignorant of the ineffectuality or even harmfulness of their (in)actions:

People talk to me absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation. I mean, I walk into a room and everyone there is terribly proud of himself because I managed to get to the room. It proves to him that he is getting better. It’s funny, but it’s terribly sad. It’s sad that one needs this kind of corroboration and it’s terribly sad that one can be so self-deluded. (Baldwin, “Uses” 74)

Baldwin wrote those words in 1964, but I felt their relevance in 1996 as much as I still feel it in 2021. When I hear presumably idealistic rhetoric that seeks to “raise awareness” or “promote tolerance” by studying literary works by members of “marginalized” or “historically underrepresented” groups, I almost invariably feel myself soaking in the metaphorical “bubble bath” of which Baldwin speaks. Although noble-sounding, these goals ultimately retain the inherent “othering” of such literatures and the authors who created them, much as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism often retain a quasi-colonialist subjective privilege. They do nothing to dismantle or even to question the social hierarchy of power that consigns Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Percival Everett (to name a few) to the category of “black” artist, whether or not they wish to claim that label—and what Baldwin called the “burden of expectation” that accompanies it.

Simplistic “color-blind” or a “post-racial” mindsets rely on a related self-delusion that willfully ignores the persistence of systemic inequalities that are not addressed meaningfully by such concepts. I am not suggesting that extant discourses of cosmopolitanism and diversity are the ethical equivalents of chauvinistic nationalism and white supremacy, but rather that they are far less of a remedy than I (and others) have presumed them to be. The institutionalized forms of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in which I have participated as a scholar and teacher of world literature are not exempt from charges of “tokenism,” so I take to heart Baldwin’s assertion that the “sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to resolve hard problems” (Baldwin, Fire 101), especially in light of how quickly white Americans’ public desire for anti-racist reading lists subsided within a year of George Floyd’s murder.

Fortunately, Baldwin also offers a solution that can form the basis for a pedagogical and scholarly praxis that moves beyond such superficiality:

The only way [the white man] can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to be black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark. (Baldwin, Fire 110)

This act of “consent[ing]…to be black” goes well beyond the temporary empathy of “walking a mile in the shoes” of the putative Other, a non-binding performance of “risking oneself” that always allows the subject to return to the sanctity and safety of his or her starting point:

[W]hen we talk about what we call “the Negro problem” we are simply evolving means of avoiding the facts of this life. Because in order to face the facts of a life like Billie [Holliday]’s or, for that matter, a life like mine, one has got to – the American white has got to – accept the fact that what he thinks he is, he is not. He has got to give up, he has got to surrender his image of himself, and apparently this is the last thing white Americans are prepared to do. (Baldwin, “Uses” 74)

It is this act of “surrender” of one’s self-image that I believe can transform the study of literature by individuals and groups different from oneself from a shallow tokenism into a meaningful act of humanist solidarity.

I do not believe that such “surrender” requires either negation of one’s identity or uncritical acceptance of the values of all other cultures, the two anxieties that seem to trouble multiculturalism’s fervent opponents within and outside academe. It does, however, require a difficult and potentially uncomfortable process of discarding the presumption that what is important or desirable in others is defined solely by what is either “universal” or in some other way comprehensible through the lens of one’s own existence; in Baldwin’s terms, one must be willing to drop the “guard” on one’s “system of reality” for more than just a fleeting moment. Metaphorically speaking, it means disembarking from the air-conditioning, plush seats, and tinted windows of the tourist-bus and “risking oneself” among the locals on their own terms as much as possible.

Doing so involves navigating between an interpretive Scylla and Charybdis. On one side, we find overly simplistic readings that merely “honor” or “sample” local variations without also seeking to understand how and why they matter to a text’s reception outside its originating culture; on the other resides a canonizing impulse that assigns value to a work exclusively on the basis of its potential to transcend spatial and temporal borders. The narrow path between these two options involves remaining receptive to the unfamiliar without prejudging it – either positively or negatively – because of its alterity. In this way, the Other ceases to be defined either in opposition to the Self or as a desirable exoticism to be appropriated into it; instead, both Self and Other become voices within a grand-scale and often halting conversation whose cognates, untranslatables, neologisms, and double-entendres all demand consistently mindful interpretation.

Whether I choose to affirm it or not, I am a white American, both by the accident of my birth and by my acculturation over the course of nearly five decades. Because of the privileges this identity affords me, I strive to ensure that this identity is only the starting point for my subsequent investigations. There is nothing about my own experience of being American (or white, or male, or Southern, or second-generation German-American, or any other group identity marker) that should be perceived by me or anyone else as definitive or even particularly representative in terms of American-ness. The first step towards a productively cosmopolitan surrender of the privileged self is dropping the presumption that any part of my identity – whether assigned, assumed, or insisted upon – must invariably prescribe my relationship to others and vice versa. As I tell my students often, each of us can bring his or her personal experiences and values to bear productively on a text provided that those experiences do not become a source of confirmation bias that imparts rigid expectations about what kind of literature is worthy of attention or exertion.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Dial Press, 1963.

Baldwin, James. “The Uses of the Blues.” In The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Ed. Randall Kenan). Vintage International., 2010: 70-81.

Derek C. Maus is Professor of English and Communication and Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he teaches a wide range of courses on various literary topics. He is the author of Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire (South Carolina, 2019), Understanding Colson Whitehead (Mississippi, 2014; rev. ed. 2021), and Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire (South Carolina, 2011). He is also co-edited Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity since Civil Rights (Mississippi, 2014) with James J. Donahue, with whom he is editing another collection entitled Greater Atlanta: Blackness and Satire since Obama that is under contract and scheduled for publication in 2022. His full CV is available at