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Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction by Amy Elias

Amy Elias’s Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960’s Fiction  was published by John Hopkins University Press in 2001 and was the co-winner of the Perkins Prize from the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature.  Elias’s work asks: Has twentieth-century political violence destroyed faith in historical knowledge? What happens to historical fiction when history is seen as either a form of Western imperialism or a form of postmodern simulation?

Elias's Sublime Desire

In  Sublime Desire, Amy Elias examines our changing relationship to history and how fiction since 1960 reflects that change. She contends that postmodernism is a post-traumatic imagination that is pulled between two desires: the political desire to acknowledge the physical violence of twentieth-century history, and the yearning for an escape from that history into a ravishing realm of historical certainty. Torn between these desires, both historical fiction and historiography after 1960 redefine history as the “sublime,” a territory beyond lived experience that is both unknowable and seductive. In the face of a failure of Enlightenment ideals about knowledge and the West’s own history of violence, post-World War II history becomes a desire for the “secular sacred” sublime—for awe, certainty, and belief.

Sublime Desire is an eloquent melding of theory and practice. Mixing the canonical with the unexpected, Elias analyzes developments in the historical romance genre from Walter Scott’s novels to novels written today. She correlates developments in the historical romance to similar changes in historiography and philosophy.  Sublime Desire draws engagingly on more than thirty relevant texts, from Tolstoy’s  War and Peace to Jeanette Winterson’s  Sexing the Cherry, Charles Johnson’s Dreamer, and Charles Frazier’s  Cold Mountain. But the book also examines theories of postmodern space and time and defines the difference between postmodern and postcolonial historical perspectives. The final chapter draws from trauma theory in Holocaust studies to define how fiction can pose an ethical alternative to aestheticized history while remaining open to pluralism and democratic values. In its range and sophistication,  Sublime Desire is a valuable addition to postmodernist studies as well as to studies of the historical romance novel.

” Sublime Desire constitutes a major contribution to the growing body of work on contemporary historical fiction… a must for those who wonder about the pervasivenessof history in comtemporary literature.”— Luc Herman – Review of Contemporary Fiction

“Elias sets out to deepen our understanding of the ethical and political power of the historical romance, then and now… By the end of the book, however, she gives us much more than a thorough literary history. She gives us an increasingly intense investigation of how we might engage an ethics that resists the modern and the nostalgic.”— Nancy Jesser – Southern Humanities Review

“Fresh perspectives on the relationship between literature and traumatic historical experiences, historical truth and literary imagination, memory and narrative.”— Laura Savu – Symploke

“These arguments are well stated and clear, and Elias’s book is worth consulting.”— Jeremy Tambling – Yearbook of English Studies

“Elias not only offers a compelling analysis of postwar fiction but also reconciles much existing postmodern theory… Lucidly written, richly textured, and commandingly researched throughout.”— Timothy Melley – Pynchon Notes

“As someone who has written on the topics of history, postmodernism, and fiction, it is with great pleasure that I can honestly say that this book has made me seriously rethink my most cherished conceptions about this broad field of theoretical endeavor.”— Linda Hutcheon, University of Toronto, President of the Modern Language Association of America (2000)

“Elias manages to catch the postmodern intellectual zeitgest.”— Christoph Henke – Anglia


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