Confessions of a Literary Barbarian

A defense of The Cambridge History of the American Novel.

Mark Twain

I recently learned that I had “killed American lit.”

In a lengthy diatribe in the Wall Street Journal against the Cambridge History of the American Novel (which I edited with Leonard Cassuto and Clare Eby), Joseph Epstein identifies the usual academic murder weapons: multiculturalism, literary theory, and hatred of America. English professors have abandoned the central task of criticism—defending great works from pop-cultural rubbish—and have given ourselves over exclusively to such buzzkilling concepts as race, class, gender, and disability. Epstein rails against our focus on contexts, especially those that might trouble happy narratives of national progress. He calls for a return to the glory days of “40 or 50 years ago,” when the “centurions of high culture” guarded the fortress of high art against “the barbarians who now run the joint.” If only we could just teach students to love the canon again, we could return to the golden age.

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.

The novel is our primary artistic vehicle for wrestling such “contexts” into aesthetic form. And there are more immediate but no less interesting contexts: Who wrote the things, and how did they ever expect to get paid for them? How did books get in the hands of readers? The answers change over the years, as novels are shipped along canals and now beamed across the Internet. Along these routes, fantastical, fanciful, thrilling, philosophical, spiritual, and psychologically penetrating tales traveled—certain kinds of narratives speaking to certain periods and communities, then slipping out of view as history moves downstream. For instance, historical fiction was in vogue until about 1830, a time when the nation’s cultural elite tried to fashion a usable past for the new republic. It then slipped into recession for over a century, only to be taken up with a vengeance by ethnic minority writers (like Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed) and political radicals (like E.L. Doctorow) who used it quite differently from their predecessors: as a form to challenge dominant national narratives.

Simply recording our appreciation for the “high truth quotient” (the measure Epstein wants) of a stream of canonical novels won’t do. It’s not clear what that “quotient” is for Epstein, but anything that smacks of pop culture is by definition excluded. Yet novels were and remain a vital part of popular culture, and their emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries was greeted as an affront to the “centurions of high culture” who appointed themselves to guard the gates before Epstein nominated himself for the job. Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of American novels published ever achieved—or even aspired to—the exalted status of high art.

The best of these novels are ones that our book analyzes in some detail: We have chapters on Hawthorne, James, Wharton, Cather, Ellison, and others who brought new aesthetic refinement to their craft. We also offer chapters on great writers who moved from the parlor to the mean streets: Melville, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Wright. We even have chapters on Epstein’s favorites, Cather and Dreiser—although Dreiser was an avowed leftist who would surely have been alarmed to find himself guarded behind the gates of Epstein’s fortress. (He’d blow up the joint and party with the barbarians.) Without accounting for these massively influential figures, our history would be incomplete. But organizing literary history exclusively around such a group would exclude whole subgenres from sci-fi to children’s novels, religious novels to graphic novels, all of which have affected what we mean when we say “novel” in the first place. Ignoring them would be spectacularly misguided in a book that aims at comprehensive treatment of the most popular of literary genres.

Epstein refers elsewhere to “victimology” as ruining scholarship. Call it what you will, but if we ignore struggles, are we also obliged to ignore the increasing acclaim received by black and other non-white novelists? Further, consider James Fenimore Cooper, a long-celebrated 19th-century novelist who is treated as exhaustively in our volume as anyone. In addition to his own chapter, Cooper also pops up in chapters on the historical novel, the history of publishing, literature of the frontier, environmental writing, maritime fiction, and Native American novels (which, not surprisingly, often battle with his legacy).

Cooper’s best works may have a “high truth quotient,” but is it discernible without attention to what conservatives denigrate as the victimologists’ holy trinity of race, class, and gender? The wartime frontier, Cooper demonstrates in plot after plot, is no place for a genteel white woman; and yet that is exactly the place she must be in order to serve his mythic drama of national origins. In The Last of the Mohicans, a multicultural approach is not a matter of claiming victim status: It’s a requirement for basic comprehension. How else can you understand this story of the French and Indian War involving French, English, Huron, Mohegan, Iroquois, and Afro-Caribbean characters?

Epstein also laments the inclusion of contemporary literature in academic study because it’s impossible to tell conclusively which new books will be worthy of the fortress. But there’s no good reason that students of literature should have to wait 50 or 100 years to write about what’s happening today. We can’t tell for sure where the novel will go as the world changes, but history can help us to spot patterns and ask questions. Certainly after all we’ve been through in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s worth knowing that Royall Tyler wrote The Algerine Captive in 1797, an aesthetically flawed but thrilling and culturally relativistic tale about America’s first military encounter with an Islamic state. Once you’ve read it, it’s interesting to compare Tyler’s framing of religious conflict with that of writers in our own day.

Finally, there’s the question of loving literature, an area where I think we can learn something from Epstein and perhaps he from us. In any kind of serious scholarship, it’s easy to slip so far into analysis that we lose sight of what brought us into this business in the first place: our love of great writing. While our book is not really the place for P.D.A., evidence of this love should not be absent from our teaching for a moment. But love can’t be confining. Sometimes it involves traveling to uncomfortable places, the area outside the fortress. If your love can’t survive that, it’ll never be safe—no matter how high the gates you build around it.