A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner
Writing literary or cultural history is a project of paradigm installation: beginnings, middles, and ends; tops and bottoms; before and afters; goods, betters, bests; ours and theirs. The chronological parameters are, in function, also spatial or even judgmental: what comes later is, arguably, new and improved, more aware of the common theme, more adept in expressing it. It would seem that, by its very nature, there is nothing definitive about this project. Each moment abolishes the past as a construct, rebuilds it. Emerson made this an American motto: Why can’t each one of us have an original relation with nature? Why must we relate to our experience through a mediating past?
The project of literary history is a performance skated on thin ice. David Minter’s A Cultural History of the American Novel, an adjunct to the more comprehensive Cambridge Literary History of the United States, is strong in compulsory figures, occasionally superb above the ice. Minter sets his beginning at James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and stops with Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942). Within those limits, he proposes to “think historically about novels of the period” (xiii) and to add to his thinking “cultural events” such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the Armory Show, and Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. This mix, Minter hopes, will result in clarified cultural meanings that will identify “American” in time and place.
There is a presumption of “unity” (xiv) in Minter’s study, the presumption that each and every event or text will disclose not only its patterns of resistance but also its “motive” toward “restoration if not the preservation of `unity”‘ (xiv). He sees as fundamentally American the will to freedom in rhythmic contestation with the will to order. Readers of Richard Chase’s The American Novel and its Tradition will hear echoes of the romance and realism paradigm. In fact, as the performance begins with James on page one, the romance/realism debate establishes a kind of benchmark. For the span of time Minter has chosen, and for the multiplicity of texts and events, the simpler the over-arching paradigm the better:
The urge to consolidate and the urge to resist consolidation remained strong throughout the period I survey. “Dissensus” found expression within the shifting consensus, just as resistance to ideology found expression within the dominant ideology. (xvi)
Minter, as literary historian, is a consensus man, defining consensus as more comprehensive than its Other. The novel as a kind of objective correlative of “shifting consensus” (a literary form or genre that is never actually solid as form but always straining not to be what it was, forever molting into what it might be) traces the main path through this history. In opposition to what he calls “our new hermeneutics of suspicion” (xviii), Minter forges a plot from James to Faulkner that concludes with a resonant but still problematical resolution.
Minter warns us that his narrative will be complicated by his “unorthodox way of jumping and circling” (xix). What this means is that many of the twenty-eight “chapters” distributed among three “parts” serve as the site for mentioning or discussing an event or text that has been taken up earlier. Sister Carrie shows up several times, as does Dos Passos’s US.A., for illustrating both theme and technique in the novel. This practice of overlapping discussion is not, in actuality, very disturbing. Other instances of repetition, however, are a little disconcerting, as for instance reading of Werner Heisenberg quoting “Chinese sage Chang Tsu” on page 8, then again and more fully on page 37. Or being told on page 64 of Dreiser’s newspaper peregrinations when we have read about them already on page 61. Along with the problems of repetition are problems of transition within the “chapters.” In the midst of a discussion of Dreiser’s trilogy of desire (63), Minter devotes half a paragraph to a comparison with Norris’ McTeague, then resumes with Dreiser and the career of Charles Yerkes. A discussion of the stylistic ambitions of the writers of the 1920s gives way, with few connectives, to observations on jazz as an artistic form (85).
Perhaps these sorts of objections reflect more negatively on this reader and his reading than on the text. A book of this sort, meticulously prefigured in its table of contents and well-indexed, is perhaps designed to be read piecemeal, not whole. Piecemeal, the repetitions disappear; the transitions are no problem because they are never needed.
What is so good about A Cultural History of the American Novel are its “macro-” qualities. Minter’s configurations of periods, styles, movements, and individual authors are concentrated, clear, detailed. Many are traditional, as are his readings of Dreiser and Hemingway, but many are not. The “Hollywood Novel” makes an appearance here that bodes well for its future in literary history. Nathanael West is joined by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Horace McCoy. Minter gives McCoy’s novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) a sympathetic reading that will surely bring it into many courses on the modern American novel (179 ff.). Margaret Mitchell receives credit for writing a novel significant to the cultural history of the U. S. Minter sees Gone With the Wind (1936) as more revealing of the 1930s than the 1860s and 1870s, thus putting this “epic” into its rightful context of economic depression. Nor does Minter fail to note that GWTW is also “an emphatically white novel” implicated in a vicious kind of racism (210).
Minter’s final movement is a homage to William Faulkner, the writer to whom he has devoted most of his previous professional work. No matter how many untied ends appear from the 1880s to the appearance of Faulkner on the literary scene, the classic Faulkner writing from The Sound and the Fury (1929) to Go Down, Moses (1942) can, in Minter’s reading, knit them up. Despite his literary historical mission, announced in the preface, Minter resorts to triumph of and through “technique” in his encomium to Faulkner. “Thinking historically” is suspended for the moment. It is the great writer’s command of “technique” (repeated five times in ten lines, page 228) that brings the cultural history of the American novel to closure. Faulkner possessed the “boldness of spirit and moral courage” to reconcile any set of opposites, to solve any conundrum (229). This is the public Faulkner of literary historical establishments-our Shakespeare, summing up the vision of the nation. No matter his quite obvious misogyny, his ambivalence on race, his youthful bad poetry or his falling off after the Nobel Prize.
The hero of Minter’s book is the American Novel, not “american novels” or individual authors. His version of “historical thinking” is quite different from the postmodern version as, for example, counselled by Frederic Jameson. Although A Cultural History of the American Novel might not trigger the next wave of literary criticism, it will undoubtedly have material results in the conception and preparation of individual courses.
Copyright West Chester University Jun 1996
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