Book Essay - Winter 2007

Going Native

When American literature became good enough for Americans, what happened to the literary canon?

By Morris Dickstein | December 1, 2006

For the longest time American writers got little respect from condescending arbiters of taste abroad or even from literary scholars at home. Professors of English were in thrall to the mother country, with its awesome cultural traditions. Snobs at heart, they saw American literature as little more than a provincial offshoot, decorously genteel but with a handful of talents (Melville, Poe, Whitman) who were almost freakishly original. In Memoirs of Hecate County, Edmund Wilson recalled how his teachers at Princeton, just before the First World War, either ignored or patronized American writers. “In those days the English department stopped short with the Victorian age and did not admit the importance of any American writers at all.” This began changing soon afterward, but the celebration of our native literary genius has accelerated tremendously in recent decades. Since 1975, when I first started teaching graduate students, I’ve seen their interests shift dramatically from earlier writers to modern and contemporary ones, from poetry to prose, and from English to American literature. These changes have been reflected in reading patterns outside the university, and they helped set off a genuine upheaval in the literary canon.

I confess to misgivings about all these trends, especially the shameful neglect of poetry and the inexorable tilt toward the contemporary. Readers have grown impatient with the difficult and the unfamiliar. Through the first half of the 20th century, universities balked at teaching writers whose work had not yet found their historical niche. Dominated by scholars rather than by critics, literature programs took a curatorial approach to literary history, building monuments to authors long dead and safely canonized. They were agnostic about teaching the greatest modern writers, such as Franz Kafka or Marcel Proust, let alone postwar figures like Saul Bellow and J. D. Salinger. They felt that literary instruction should concentrate on works distanced by history or estranged by shifts in language and social customs. As they came to be influenced by the close reading methods of the New Critics, they saw poetry as the concentrated essence of literature. Prose works, especially fiction, were far easier to grasp, so why bother to teach them? Literature was part of a long tradition that had to be mastered as a whole, even when its links had been shattered. Students needed to be immersed in works hallowed by time.

In the aftermath of the 1960s, colleges tossed out many requirements, including core courses, survey courses, even distribution requirements. Students were encouraged to do their own thing, though they often had no idea of what that thing was. The undergraduate program at Brown became famous—and a big draw with high school seniors—for its taster’s-choice curriculum. Competing for funds and students, departments everywhere grew more market driven. With precious little help from their elders, students cobbled together programs as if from a Chinese menu. Contemporary courses provided just the recipe for consumer satisfaction, not for historical breadth. As graduate and undergraduate programs featured more courses in recent literature, doctoral candidates began writing up-to-date theses on current authors. Most important of all, there was a rising tide of attention given to American writers who had once seemed of merely local interest—imposing figures in their time and place but scarcely of world class.

As an undergraduate at Columbia, I earned my spurs in the required humanities course—the Western classics from Homer to Dostoyevsky— but also signed on for a three-year survey of English literature from its medieval beginnings to 1900. It was an ambitious but Eurocentric literary education. Though I was an English major, I didn’t take a single course in American literature, and I was never urged to do so. This blatant omission was largely my own choice. The American writers I’d bumped up against in high school bored me to distraction. Besides anthology chestnuts like “A Man Without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale, high school textbooks of the 1950s featured works by such cozy Victorian “fireside poets” as William Cullen Bryant and John Greenleaf Whittier in company with “O Captain! My Captain!”—Walt Whitman’s least typical poem. The modern poets were Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost, decked out as harmless old gaffers dispensing cracker-barrel wisdom. (We also read Julius Caesar and Macbeth— too slowly to appreciate them.) The only American book that excited me in those years was Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, which I chose as the subject for a paper. When as a freshman in college I stumbled on Joyce and Conrad, a new world seemed to open before my eyes.

Under the impact of the new modernist sensibility, the traditional American canon had already been drastically revised, but the news had yet to reach most high schools. Starting in the 1920s with critics like Lewis Mumford, D. H. Lawrence, and F. O. Matthiessen, Melville was rediscovered, Emily Dickinson was discovered for the first time, Stephen Crane’s work from the 1890s was revived, and new writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and a host of difficult modern poets created a cultural revolution. But while advanced critics drew attention to some neglected American writers, including Hawthorne and Henry James, they cast others into purgatory, above all the social realists who had emerged from the ferment of the Gilded Age.

Only a generation or two earlier, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis had weathered the antagonism of genteel taste to become the most celebrated writers of their age. In his later years, Howells, the friend of both Twain and James, had waged a campaign for realism in his magazine, where he sponsored the work of younger writers like Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Abraham Cahan. They wrote dark, gritty books, quite unlike the historical romances that were bestsellers in their day. Inspired by Tolstoy and other European realists, Howells espoused fiction and poetry that did not glamorize their subjects and remained true to ordinary experience. Before the advent of the new modernists after the First World War, these writers epitomized everything that was frank and daring about modern literature.

Between the 1920s and the 1950s the reputations of these realist writers faded. Their subjects, which included poverty, greed, heredity, crime, and religious doubt, were bold for their time but now seemed dated; their style could be clumsy, their books badly structured. The pioneering realists could not match the self-conscious art of the writers who emerged in the ’20s or the psychological subtlety of their forebear, Henry James. Caught up in the social suffering of the Gilded Age, their comfortless books were tuned to the lower frequencies of American life. But during the early years of the Cold War, writers and readers turned inward, dismissing the politics of progressivism and protest as an intrusion. The Depression was over, America seemed on a roll, and the social criticism of the realists—indeed, the social novel itself—looked like something left over from another era. In “Reality in America,” the influential lead essay in The Liberal Imagination (1950), Lionel Trilling compared the hard social reality reflected by Dreiser with the more complex psychological reality in Hawthorne and James. Trilling was an ardent admirer of European realists like Balzac and Stendhal but suggested that their tradition, infused with personal passion and ambition, had never taken hold here. Ignoring their best work, especially Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Trilling saw the American realists as crudely reductive and materialist, lacking the rich psychology and individuality pursued by their counterparts abroad, including the expatriate James. Trilling’s view became the critical consensus of the 1950s, the gospel that would be discarded by readers and scholars in the following decades.

When I was an undergraduate at the end of the 1950s, the works that seemed essential included Stendhal’s The Red and the Black; Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma; Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education; Dickens’s Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; almost anything by Dostoyevsky, but especially his Notes from Underground; Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Genealogy of Morals; Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents; Eliot’s Waste Land and Four Quartets; Yeats’s later poems; Joyce’s Portrait and Ulysses; the novels and stories of D. H. Lawrence; and so on. These reflected the modern sensibility of our teachers as well as the mood of the moment. They made up an international canon, strongly influenced by psychoanalysis and existentialism. Trilling had given up his course on American literature to teach these writers. He projected them as disturbers of the peace, unsettling originals, and he complained that his students had begun taking them for granted. He was quite wrong, for in those days the modern still had the power to unhinge us and challenge everything we had already been taught. They even became the lens through which we viewed their precursors in earlier centuries, some of whom we saw as modern before their time.

Everything in that canon, even the much challenged work of D. H. Lawrence, is still vibrant today, but now I find that my students, like me, are drawn to books like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; James’s Portrait of a Lady; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson; Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes; Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and his crisply ironic short fiction; Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs; Kate Chopin’s Awakening; William James’s Pragmatism; Wharton’s House of Mirth and Age of Innocence; Cather’s My Ántonia; and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Between them, Whitman and Dickinson have eclipsed the whole of 19th-century American poetry, particularly those three-named New Englanders who trafficked in regular rhymes and conventional poetic diction.

In short, this is not your father’s literary canon, nor was it mine when I was coming of age. It reflects the vast new interest in books by women and minority writers. And it flourishes outside the classroom as well, in adult reading groups and book clubs, including Oprah’s, which went from living writers like Toni Morrison to earlier works by Carson McCullers and Faulkner; in repeated film and television adaptations; in the PBS series American Masters, which recently profiled Cather and Hemingway; and in the reassuringly uniform black volumes of The Library of America, which since 1982 has done more to establish the American canon than any other institution. It advanced the novel idea that American writers have a real corpus of work, to be read whole, not simply a patchwork of isolated successes amid agonizing failures. It challenged the truism that there are no second acts in American lives.

How did it happen that literary works that not long ago seemed provincial, even secondrate, came to be regarded as newly vital and compelling? In part it reflects the advance of the nation itself from a distant English province and a longtime bastion of isolationism to a world power. Parts of the world have always appreciated American writers more than we have. British readers lionized Whitman while he was still a disreputable figure here. The French enthusiasm for Poe was succeeded by a passion for Faulkner, a warm welcome for Richard Wright, and a fascination with hardboiled film and fiction. The Russians published Dreiser and Jack London in huge editions, in part because their work was politically acceptable but also because it was couched in a straightforward realism that invited translation. Italian writers after World War II were deeply affected by Hemingway; in the hands of Cesare Pavese or Natalia Ginzburg, the impact of his work transformed Italian as a literary language. By the mid-20th century, the worldwide success of the new American writers and painters rebounded on their predecessors. The triumph of abstract expressionism awakened wonder about styles as different as the landscape art of the Hudson River school and the dour realism of Homer, Eakins, and Hopper. Faulkner and Hemingway lent a retrospective glow to Melville and Hawthorne. There were always skeptics who saw only a crude, primitive vitality in American culture, but the rise of American power commanded new respect for the originality of American art.

By the end of the 20th century, the growth of what we now must see as an American empire led to spasms of imperial self-absorption. The more our reach spread across the world, the less active interest we took in it. Cheap travel and instant worldwide communication gave us access to every corner of the globe, yet we seemed less curious about how other people lived. If we once felt like country cousins of European cultural traditions, more and more we began to show our arrogance, as if we had given birth to ourselves. As the rest of the world worked hard at learning English, we largely stopped studying foreign languages. We expected foreigners simply to become more like us, to speak our language, buy our technology, watch our movies and TV programs. We adopted their culinary traditions but could grow annoyed when they stubbornly persisted in speaking their own language. Literary translation, like film distribution, became a one-way street, from English to other languages. The provinces were now somewhere else as foreign visitors flocked to our shores. The inexorable course of modernization became synonymous with American influence across the globe.

Meanwhile, in the small world of literary scholars, art critics, and music critics, a new historical approach concentrating on the social context of art replaced a formal method that focused minutely on the works themselves. American literary classics, mistrustful of old world influence, insecure about technique, rarely provided satisfactory material for a purely formal analysis. Ours is a tradition rich in failed masterpieces—great or near-great books in which the writer lost courage or concentration before reaching the last page. This faltering touch can be felt in works as divergent as The Scarlet Letter, The Portrait of a Lady, Huckleberry Finn, and A Modern Instance. In this last book, perhaps Howells’s most daring novel, the story’s painful outcome—a failed marriage, abandonment, divorce—proved so disturbing that the author had a breakdown trying to finish it. But many American writers made up for their aesthetic shortcomings with their sharp social insight, which has proved as engrossing to today’s readers as it was off-putting to Trilling’s de-radicalized generation. Some of their current appeal is linked to politics—these writers were often matchless social critics—but their social views would not keep their books alive without genuine literary power. While nothing they wrote offers an ultimate key to the American experience, since no such key could ever be found, their books shed light on many significant features of our history and national character.

If historians better understood how to use this material, they would find buried treasure in the American literary canon, where urgent and still-troubling social problems take on a lived reality. No archival evidence could measure up to the vigorous treatment of immigrant life in Upton Sinclair’s Junge, Cather’s My Ántonia, or Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep; hardscrabble farm life in Hamlin Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads; John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath; and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; social mobility and the American dream in Howells’s Rise of Silas Lapham and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; slavery, of course, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; race in the work of Charles Chesnutt, Richard Wright, and many other writers; marriage and divorce in A Modern Instance and Chopin’s Awakening; faith and doubt in Harold Frederic’s once-famous Damnation of Theron Ware, which was one of Fitzgerald’s favorite novels; the cut-throat money society in Wharton’s House of Mirth and Custom of the Country; city life in innumerable novels from Howells, Crane, and Dreiser to Bellow. One could go on and on.

During the years following World War II, critics, reacting against the committed literature of the 1930s, saw many of these novels as defective simply because they were social novels, as if they were deformed by an extra-literary agenda. Today we no longer expect organic purity or structural perfection in works of art. We have come to question the very separation implied by the idea of a canon. We’ve become more aware of the mixed intentions of the writer, the complexities of all representation, and the limits inherent in language itself. Writers themselves could be eloquent about where they had fallen short. Faulkner, at the peak of his form, insisted that he had failed four times over in the four sections of The Sound and the Fury, each written from a different point of view. As readers we’ve learned to appreciate works with all their flaws and contradictions, above all if they have something powerful to say to us, as many longneglected American classics still do. We see them not as belonging to a select circle of masterpieces but as part of the long continuum of our cultural history.

A genuine sense of history is rare in America, where (as Philip Rahv once complained) nothing seems to last more than 10 years. Moreover, in recent decades realist novels have become a battleground in what the philosopher Simon Blackburn calls the “truth wars,” test cases for the skepticism or relativism at the heart of postmodern literary theory. Some gifted scholars see the novels of American realists as vessels of ideology, blinkered by the cultural assumptions of their moment. They deny that literary works can convey the truth about anything, including their own subjects. In The Social Construction of American Realism, one of the best of these critical studies, Amy Kaplan defends her interest in these writers, and their historical value, without defending the accuracy of anything they wrote:

If realism is a fiction, we can root this fiction in its historical context to examine its ideological force. How does the fiction of the referent become a powerful rallying cry for some, a point of contention for others, and an assumption taken for granted by still other writers at the particular historical juncture of the 1880s and 1890s? How do literary texts produce a social reality that can be recognized as “the way things are”?

Most readers, of course, are unconcerned about “the fiction of the referent”—that is, the illusion of actuality that these works convey. Ordinary readers harbor the unfashionable notion that these works are really about something. If a novel commands belief, or at least works well enough to suspend disbelief, readers are more than willing to follow where it leads, taking its people, its story, its milieu, and its social subjects as fully convincing. They understand that novelists frame their subjects subjectively, not impartially, and that this selection, or distortion, is precisely what enables them to go beyond mere documentation and to generate meaning. Accepting the identifications a good novel proposes to them, readers assimilate it as fiction at the same time they experience it as real, a process clever critics have belabored in vain. Strong readers identify with the predicament of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie, and Edna Pontellier in The Awakening without asking themselves whether things had to happen in just this way. Indeed, one source of power in the American novel has been its reflection of a woman’s point of view, not simply in women writers like Stowe, Jewett, Wharton, and Hurston but in key novels by men, including The Portrait of a Lady and Sister Carrie. Leslie Fiedler once argued that all the great American novels were boys’ books exploring male relationships, but this oft-repeated truism is confounded by most of the works mentioned here. It would be no exaggeration to say that second-wave feminism contributed more to the opening of the American canon than any other influence.

In the end, the rediscovered works of American literature stand several cuts below the greatest books in the Western tradition. Melville was a deep reader of Shakespeare, who lent fire and extravagance to Melville’s language; but in his range of sympathy he was no Shakespeare. Howells’s vast comédie humaine of American society cannot match Balzac or even Trollope on their own ground. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Dickensian in its weaknesses as well as its strengths, achingly alive yet relying on sheer melodramatic intensity to tear at the heartstrings. At the other extreme, Henry James had too much refinement and subtlety, too little saving vulgarity, ever to become a world classic. Yet their books cannot fail to engage us as Americans, even as we are leery of any form of cultural nationalism. When America was merely a remote province of world culture, its educated elites were Anglophile, Francophile, or broadly cosmopolitan. Education was grounded in classical learning, a respect for the ancients over the moderns, and a deeply ingrained respect for old Europe’s artistic heritage, though not its feudal and fratricidal politics. Only a few American writers, like Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain, were strong enough to emancipate themselves from this suffocating respect.

Now America itself has grown multicultural while the whole globe is being turned on its head by modernization, by the new politics of the post–Cold War era, and by the juggernaut of American popular culture. When Alfred Stieglitz took up the cause of serious American art in the first decades of the 20th century, and when Aaron Copland did the same for American music in the ’30s and ’40s, they were engaged in an uphill struggle, for much of the world, including our audiences at home, were convinced that we had little to contribute. In recent decades that battle has been won. As the nation assumed its paramount role on the world stage, everything once belittled about the arts in America assumed far greater weight, at the same time that art itself was under siege. But we need to take care that this newfound dominance doesn’t make us provincial again, incurious about other cultures or trampling on what they have to offer, expecting them to fall in line and become more like our own.

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