Wednesday, September 28, 2011

For the defense ...

... Confessions of a literary barbarian: a defense of the Cambridge History of the American Novel. - By Benjamin Reiss - Slate Magazine. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

While I find Epstein's characterization of our 71-chapter volume—which covers everything from the publishing business to Henry James, dime novels to modernist aesthetics—closed-minded and inaccurate, his rant does raise a good question. What is literary history, and how should it be brought to bear on the genre of the novel? The Cambridge History of the American Novel is really a biography of the novel as it intersects with American history. Part of the explanation for the changing shape of the American novel involves individual genius (i.e., great writers), but it also involves the stuff of national history: wars, slavery, emancipation, democracy, territorial expansion, civil rights, women's rights, immigration, and capitalism.

This reminds me of the professor referred to in The Pooh Perplex who was working on a book called All Previous Thought.


  1. I will never get the book, but he does have a point that context can help one understand a novel. The Last of the Mohicans strikes me as primarily very bad Scott; yet if you don't know about Fort George, how do you make what sense there is of it? And one might well suspect that of any given score of Americans a majority will be pretty vague about the course of the French and Indian War. Is a literature class to pick it up?

  2. Read "the place to pick it up"

  3. I think people should learn about history in history class. But given the popularity of historical fiction, it would seem somewhat redundant to focus on the historical aspects of even Cooper's novels rather than on the literary aspects, such as they are. D.H. Lawrence on Cooper is quite illuminating because Lawrence understood that Cooper's novels have less to do with history than with myth-making.
    It is sad to think that so many Americans may not be familiar with the French and Indian War, given that Washington's only surrender was at Fort Necessity and that Washington was also an aide to Gen. Braddock, best known for the defeat that bears his name.