Shook-up Generation

Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914

by Jay Martin
Prentice-Hall, 400 pp., $7.50

Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

by Donald Pizer
Southern Illinois, 176 pp., $4.50

The Novels of Frank Norris

by Donald Pizer
Indiana, 209 pp., $6.75

The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation

by Larzer Ziff
Viking, 416 pp., $7.50

Although there is little question about the importance of the period between the Civil War and the Great War, that half-century contains the greatest hazards for the American literary historian. “Our modern literature,” Alfred Kazin pointed out twenty-five years ago, “was rooted in nothing less than the transformation of our society in the great seminal years after the Civil War…in those dark and still little-understood years of the 1880s and 1890s when all America stood suddenly, as it were, between one society and another….” But Kazin himself despaired of telling “the whole story,” and apologized at the beginning of On Native Grounds for making only a tentative intrusion on the rhythms, the landscapes, the sensibilities that make up “what it has meant to be a modern writer in America.”

In the Twenties Parrington had glumly said that no scholar was yet equipped to write American literary history, and he himself died leaving unfinished the third volume of Main Currents in American Thought, which was to cover the years between 1860 and 1920. The poorest of Van Wyck Brooks’s histories was his last: The Confident Years: 1885-1915, which in spite of its title, conveyed confusion rather than confidence. Only Granville Hicks seems to have had no qualms about his own interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War. For, writing in the Thirties, he was confident that final shape had been given what he called The Great Tradition by the “revolutionary movement in literature” of his own day.

To the detriment of American literary history, “pure” criticism and biography have more recently attracted most of our best critical minds—with the always eccentric, always important exception of Edmund Wilson. Yet nothing would so sharpen criticism or enliven scholarship as the selecting and placing demanded by literary history. How necessary this is daily demonstrated to the hardy soul who observes the teaching of literature in the American high school—an experience that literary men might find as unsettling and as challenging as our scientists found it ten years ago when faced with the debasing of their own subject in the schools.

Word has somehow got out to English teachers that Literature is a transcendent thing, triumphant in its greatness over the petty concerns of time and place. Order, discrimination, and reality have therefore been allowed to vanish from the school syllabus, which assigns Macbeth a month before Kon-Tiki and after “The Gold Bug,” or inserts a novel by Hardy (there is nearly always a novel by Hardy) between The (adapted) Odyssey and Profiles in Courage. Chronological order is shunned as if it were an artefact imposed from without by pedants, and to take pride in the national quality of their own literature is regarded by our best teachers as the worst sort of provincialism. The failure to present the American tradition to the American young may, however, be the last gasp of American provincialism. Yet the English professors who looked into school English on assignment from the Council for Basic …

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Letters

The Whole Story June 15, 1967