Beyond Us, Yet Ourselves
And they said then, ‘‘But play you must
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves . . .’’
—Wallace Stevens,
‘‘The Man with the Blue Guitar,’’ 1937∞
The innovations that the major hard-boiled crime novelists brought
to the detective story depended on a central intuition: that the dis-
course of literature and that of law were analogous and that, in the
middle third of the century, each had come to an especially problem-
atic stage in its history. What made those discourses seem alike was
a shared, fundamental paradox rooted in their common status as
simultaneously specialized and public languages. By the terms of
America’s dominant traditions, both law and literature were sup-
posed to be democratic and public—an expression of popular will or
national culture. But both were also expected to transcend mere
prejudice, custom, or interest—to defend principles or truths that
were not simply an expression of majority will. In Wallace Stevens’s
formulation, the ideology of liberal democracy assumed that art and
law alike were beyond us, yet ourselves.
By the New Deal era, that paradoxical assumption had come to
seem, as Stevens implied—and as artists and intellectuals through-
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