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The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume Three:
Prose Writing, 1860-1920
General Editor, Sacvan Bercovitch.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
Hardback, £85.00. ISBN-13: 9780521301077 | ISBN-10: 0521301076.

Reviewed by Robert Sayre


The volume under review is the final one to be published of Cambridge University Press’s monumental History of American Literature, bringing the latter to completion almost twenty years after the first tome appeared in 1986. The different volumes of the overall work have come into print out of sequence—a sequence that roughly follows the periods of chronological coverage, but also separates treatments of poetry and prose—, and this explains how the final publication can be volume three in a series of eight. The fact that this third among eight covers a period beginning on the eve of the Civil War and carrying over to the aftermath of World War I is, we might add, a striking reflection of the lateness of the flowering of American literature. Six of the eight volumes are at least partially concerned with the twentieth century, and a full half of them are exclusively focused on that century.

The publishing project that is here brought to a close is the most recent of several large-scale American literary histories produced in the past, the first of which, also by Cambridge University Press, dates from 1917, while another, by Macmillan, appeared in the post-World-War-II years. The most recent avatar of this reference resource is intended as a thorough updating of its material, a new departure that brings to bear on its object of study some of the major critical trends that have developed in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, especially from the 1970s on. Volume three bears the earmarks, most particularly, of a number of these tendencies in theory and critical practice: post-modernism, multiculturalism, cultural studies, new historicism, feminist, gender and race criticism.

As with other volumes in the series, volume three is constructed with the goal of creating what the introduction calls a “polyphony of large-scale narratives” [4]. Eschewing both the one-author overview, which sweeps the broad field from a single perspective, and the encyclopedic compendium of multiple entries by specialists on limited sub-areas, the editorial policy has been to allow largely overlapping treatments of the general area to be dealt with—late 19th- and early 20th- century prose literature—by four scholars whose interests and points of view are diverse while at the same time having much in common. Two women and two men, who all teach at major American universities: Richard Brodhead (Yale), Nancy Bentley (U. of Pennsylvania), Walter Benn Michaels (U. of Illinois, Chicago), and Susan Mizruchi (Boston U.). The authors, then, are all embedded in the intellectual matrix of American academia.

Each of the four sections by a separate author defines its chronological span differently, although much of the temporal spread is the same: Brodhead covers the period 1860-1890, Bentley covers 1870-1920, Michaels 1880-1920, Mizruchi 1860-1920. The volume therefore features a flexible and pluralistic approach to periodization. This might appear to be preferable to a rigid, monolithic time frame such as literary histories have often proposed in the past, but in the opinion of this reviewer what is missing nonetheless is a coherent reflection on the rationale for the periods chosen. One finds little or no justification for the découpages made, either in reference to the individual sections or to the work as a whole. As regards the latter, choosing 1860 and 1920 as outer chronological limits might indicate a desire to offset a common tendency to make literary periods correspond exactly with historical periods. Yet if there is an attempt to destabilize traditional periodizations, the choice of those beginning and ending dates is rather baffling, considering that they are just one year off from those two major historical cleavages, the Civil War and World War I. Also, in spite of the apparent de-centering intention, there is considerable reference in the texts to widely and currently used lines of demarcation, notably antebellum/postbellum. In the absence of discussion of the principles governing periodization, the reader may be left with an impression of arbitrariness in the delimitation of time periods.
The significant overlap in the time frames of the four sections means that often the same author, work or trend is dealt with several times by different authors. On the positive side, this multiplication of treatments of the same subject can deepen and enrich understanding of the material by submitting it to refraction through different lenses. On the negative side, though, a sense of fragmentation and lack of unified focus can result as well.

Although they are in principle symmetrical in status, the sections are of greatly differing lengths, a circumstance that creates an impression of disequilibrium and cannot but give unequal weight to the various parts. Richard Brodhead’s entry, the first in the volume, is a mere fifty-one pages long, whereas Susan Mizruchi’s, which comes last, at 326 pages would qualify as a (rather large) book in its own right. The two middle sections stand somewhere in between those extremes in length, though there is also a sharp difference in size between them: Nancy Bentley’s runs 219 pages, and Walter Benn Michaels’s only 122. Here, as with the question of periodization, a certain arbitrariness is evident in the structuring of the work.

Brodhead’s short opening section, titled “The American Literary Field, 1860-1890,” draws implicitly on Bourdieu’s theories of socio-cultural fields (though only the latter’s Distinction is cited in the bibliography), and emphasizes the development of “cultural stratification” in the late 19th century (the cut-off date of 1890 is never fully explained). Brodhead analyses the division of literary culture in that period into a “messianic or imperialist” [35] high culture of the (largely Eastern) elite, a growing “middlebrow” culture and a multifarious popular one that includes the industrially-produced “dime-novel” of frontier adventure and the Horatio Alger success story. He deals with the rise of regional literature as well, pointing out that it came at “the moment when local culture is still known but known to be being abolished” [50] ; he also observes that authors from non-elite groups often were admitted to high literary culture via regionalism, or “local color writing.” This would apply to women (Sarah Orne Jewett), laborers (Hamlin Garland) and African-Americans (Charles W. Chesnutt).

The following section, Nancy Bentley’s “Literary Forms and Mass Culture, 1870-1920,” continues the emphasis on stratification, focusing on the opposition between “high Realism,” exemplified especially by William Dean Howells, and the mass-cultural phenomena, illustrated by P. T. Barnum’s and Buffalo Bill’s extravaganza shows, that were then coming into their own. She argues that the Realist novel, which she connects with the development of the museum and terms “museum realism,” is intimately linked to such popular entertainments and to mass-produced literature as well, precisely through its “vigilant codes of distinction” from them [122]. She claims that the Realist novel in her time frame, largely produced by men, reflects both male anxiety with the rising participation of women in the public sphere, and an impetus to portray and analyze it through fiction. Her lengthy treatment of the fiction of Kate Chopin sees it as “unsettling” museum realism through its concentration on the body and (female) desire. Another woman writer dealt with in some detail is Edith Wharton, particularly through the angle of her fascination with travel and ambivalent relation to modernity.

Walter Benn Michael’s “Promises of American Life, 1880-1920” is principally concerned with high-cultural novels, but relates them to the broader life of society in dealing with their portrayal of individuality. In his view the individual as he or she appears in turn-of-the-century novels must be understood in relation to one of the most significant social mutations of the time: the regimentation and bureaucratization of the individual in modern organizations. Near the opening of his section Michaels states his case: “By 1925, I will argue, individuality appears as an effect of standardization” [291]. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Jack London’s Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, as well as a number of lesser known works, are approached from this vantage point. Michaels sees not just a reflective, but also an active role for these literary productions in relation to their social environment; for him, the novels participated in the process of social transformation underway, since in them “new forms of social existence were imagined and articulated.” More precisely, in some cases they were vehicles for “thinking through the analogy between human beings and machines” [405].

The final section, Susan Mizruchi’s “Becoming Multicultural: Culture, Economy, and the Novel, 1860-1920,” is by far the longest, most ambitious and most comprehensive of the contributions (it covers the entire chronological span of the volume as a whole, and seems in some way to bring in virtually all the material dealt with by the others, while adding much that is new). Two themes that Mizruchi emphasizes particularly are the new heterogeneity of writers in the period covered, in terms of geographical locale, ethnicity and race, gender and class, etc., and the concrete conditions of production of literature in the “literary market.” She also has chapters that focus on work, on the modern corporation and the figure of the capitalist manufacturer/entrepreneur, and finally on utopia. This last, which closes the entire volume as well as Mizruchi’s part of it, is one of the most interesting. Entitled “Realist Utopias,” it adopts a very broad-ranging notion of the utopian novel, discussing in that framework not only Edward Bellamy’s classic Looking Backward and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia Herland, but also Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Jack London’s dystopian The Iron Heel.

Mizruchi’s broadly comprehensive contribution can, in conclusion, serve to illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses, as perceived by this reviewer, of The Cambridge History of American Literature, volume three. In her section, as generally speaking in the others, we find a wealth of interconnections developed between literary texts and their social, historical and cultural contexts. Literature is not treated as an isolated phenomenon, and is not limited to a “canon” of major works and authors. The “canonic” works of Twain, Cather, Dreiser, London, Bellamy, etc., appear in conjunction with expositions on the workplace and big business, the evolving situation of African Americans and Native Americans in US society, analyses of works by writers from these groups (W. E. B. Du Bois figures importantly, among others), and treatment of works not generally defined as literary: anthropological (Lewis Henry Morgan on the Iroquois), economic (Henry George’s Progress and Poverty), and sociological (Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class), to name only a few. In addition, there is extended discussion of many prose literary works that have fallen into obscurity but that had some importance in their day. Much of this wealth of contextual information and linkage is welcome and allows for a richer, fuller understanding of literary history than would be possible without it.

However, these strategies, which the various critical tendencies alluded to at the beginning of this review have promulgated in different ways, have significant associated drawbacks. We might generalize by saying that the foregrounding of context and the blurring of distinctions has led to a relative inattention to literature per se, that is to “literariness” (what distinguishes literary works from other kinds of writing) and literary quality (what makes some works “better” than others). This kind of flattening, or homogenizing of the cultural landscape is strikingly illustrated, for instance, when Mizruchi treats Henry Blake Fuller’s novel The Cliff Dwellers side by side, and more or less on a par with Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, as parallel portrayals of business “titans”; then she continues, without transition, into a similarly presented discussion of an anthropological study by Marcel Mauss, and beyond that Andrew Carnegie’s The Empire of Business (692ff). It is not that those works are not relevant to each other, but that the nature of their relationship should be articulated, and attention paid to their specificity and difference. Moreover, since a literary history is involved, the point of focus around which the rest is organized and to which it is subordinated, should be literary texts, and foremost among these, the ones of most lasting significance. In The Cambridge History, volume three, the opposite is often true: the important writer or text is subordinated to the context, and treated in fragmentary, partial fashion as part of thematic discussions in which non-literary or lesser literary works are on an equal footing.

This having been said, when used by a discerning reader in conjunction with other studies, particularly those that explore important literary figures in depth, this volume can provide a valuable resource for understanding a fertile period of American literary history.

The volume includes some twenty black-and-white illustrations, all associated with the Mizruchi section, a chronology in three columns (“American Literary Texts,” “American Events, Texts, and Arts,” and “Other Events, Texts and Arts”), a selected bibliography and an index of persons and subjects.



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