Changing Horizons

It was an interesting experience, rereading E. B. White’s Here is New York on 9/11. It reminded me how valuable a tool the concept of the horizon of expectations is for literary critics. Coined by the literary historian and reader-response theorist Hans Robert Jauss, the term refers to the set of expectations against which a literary text — indeed any work of art — positions itself when it is conceived and then brought before the public. This horizon is created both by social practice—what Jauss describes as “the milieu, views and ideology of [the] audience”—and by literary tradition. Jauss argues that

A literary work, even when it appears to be new, does not present itself as something absolutely new in an informational vacuum, but predisposes its audience to a very specific kind of reception by announcements, overt and covert signals, familiar characteristics, or implicit allusions. It awakens memories of that which was already read, brings the reader to a specific emotional attitude, and with its beginning arouses expectations for the “middle and end,” which can then be maintained intact or altered, reoriented, or even fulfilled ironically in the course of the reading according to specific rules of the genre or type of text. … The new text evokes for the reader (listener) the horizon of expectations and rules familiar from earlier texts, which are then varied, corrected, altered, or even just reproduced.  (“Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”)

This model suggests that the meaning of a literary text is a function not only of its author’s intention in writing it but also of the milieu into which it is received, which includes its reader’s social, cultural, historical, aesthetic, and personal contexts. Meaning, in other words, is a negotiation between writer and reader through the medium of the text.

As a result, the “meaning” of text can shift when the historical milieu of its readers shifts. (It can also shift when later works force us to reread it in a different light, or when critical opinion or literary scholarship forces a change in expectations.) For example, White’s Here is New York is often taken to present an abiding portrait of New York and its inhabitants. That’s what Hillary Clinton believed when she cited it during a debate with her challenger Rick Lazio during her campaign the fall of 2000 to become one of New York’s U.S. senators. (See our earlier post on this subject.)

But on closer investigation, we that White’s book is truly a product of its historical moment, and not just because it is full references to once-recognizable names that now beg for footnotes. here are darker ways in which White’s essay is marked by the historical moment in which it was written:

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

White’s prose suggests that the dropping of the bomb changed everything, that New York would never be the same now that it “must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.” White’s contemplation of “the destroying planes” seems uncanny in the wake of 9/11, which White did not live to see: in some fundamental ways, the “meaning” of his text has changed.

Perhaps it always was a prophetic text, but it strikes me that the nature of its prophetic vision has subtly  shifted. Where once it was a jeremiad, crying out against the evils of its present moment, now it seems like something of a Delphic oracle, whose prophecies have come true — not, perhaps, in the way we (or it) expected, but in a way that is even more terrifying and continues to haunt us still.

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