essays

Mar 1, 1980

The National Letters

“One thing at least is certain: [our] literary aristocracy…is not supporting American literature, but rather European colonial literature.”

There is a serious problem here. Its outlines first became prominent on the intellectual horizon about two years ago, when John Gardner announced in his then newly published On Moral Fiction that “we are living, for all practical purposes, in an age of mediocre art.”

“When one talks with editors of serious fiction,” Gardner charged in April of 1978, “they all sound the same: they speak of their pleasure and satisfaction in their work, but more often than not the editor cannot think, under the moment’s pressure, of a single contemporary writer he really enjoys reading. Some deny, even publicly, that any first-rate American novelists now exist. The ordinary reader has been saying that for years.”

By the end of 1978, Gardner’s lament had found its way into the magazines. “No previous decade in this century,” Henry Fairlie declaimed in the pages of The New Republic, “has been so barren of anything in art and literature to which one might think of attaching the label of greatness.” And as the last year of the ’70s wore on, more voices were added, and more: “Traveling to Washington several months ago with a literary and theatrical agent who had left Germany in the 1930s and who had known both Brecht and Mann, I asked him why no American author in the past thirty years had written a major novel or play.” Thus Lewis Lapham in Harper’s. “We no longer live in a time of great writers…. When instead of Joyce and Mann and Proust and Faulkner, we have in our midst John Barth, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gunter Grass, and—at best—Saul Bellow, it is understandable and not necessarily reprehensible that both readers and critics should turn to the literary past with a certain degree of nostalgia.” Thus Robert Alter in Commentary. “There isn’t much to read these days, and when something even semiliterate comes along, a kind of panic sets in.” Thus Bryan Griffin in the Atlantic, in a piece on “the malaise of the novel” and how “some of us want desperately to be living in a great literary age” but are stuck instead with the one we’re in. Even the dead have been joining in the chorus, with Lionel Trilling’s newly reissued The Liberal Imagination in the forefront. “It is now more than twenty years,” Trilling wrote nearly 25 years ago, “since a literary movement in this country has had what I have called power. The literary movement of social criticism of the 1920’s is not finally satisfying, but it had more energy to advance our civilization than anything we can now see, and its effects were large and good. No tendency since has had an equal strength. The falling off from this energy may not be permanent. It could, of course, become permanent.”

And to look around ourselves and survey the literary landscape is—how can one avoid it?—to agree. For who are our novelists who fare so poorly under the critical eyes now trained on them? A mediocre and undistinguished lot, to be sure: Saul Bellow, our latest Nobel laureate, goes on year after year passing off garrulous monologues (and an occasional barely retouched biography) as novels, and never managing to convey much of anything very definite or memorable except, perhaps, what it is like to be, all one’s life long, a querulous, vaguely intellectual, prematurely old man. John Updike writes book club novel after book club novel, dressing up the monotonous unimportance of his stories in would-be fine sentences. Bernard Malamud muses interminably on what it is to be Jewish. Phillip Roth goes on interminably telling 200-page tasteless jokes. Truman Capote has become a professional talk show guest. And Norman Mailer has served up yet another generous slab of his idiosyncratic and ingenious journalism and seen it climb the bestseller lists in the “fiction” category by the simple expedient of asserting that it is a novel.

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Our leading critics present no fairer spectacle, however. In the wilds of New Haven, Harold Bloom grinds out unimaginative gloss after unimaginative gloss on the idea (derived, it would seem, though without acknowledgement, from Ortega y Gasset) that young writers have to struggle to develop their own distinctive voices and avoid the pitfall of merely imitating those who have most influenced them. In Hollywood, Gore Vidal thunders curses upon all those dangerous novelists who seek to challenge their readers to active intellectual involvement with their fiction, rather than lull them with safe, predictable stuff like Mr. Vidal’s own very popular novels—stuff which, like TV, requires no intellectual effort whatever to get through. And in New York, Irving Howe goes on … the only word is pontificating. His latest book, Celebrations & Attacks, like each of its dozen weary predecessors, is fairly representative of his mind. And it may surely be said of it without fear of exaggeration that of all the unimportant literary events of 1979, the publication of this retrospective collection of Howe’s pretentious discursions on diverse matters and occasions over the past 30 years must be counted one of the least memorable. Howe is the Irving Babbitt, the Stuart Pratt Sherman, of our day. Like Mr. Thompson in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, he becomes indistinguishable in any group of three and when all by himself seems to evoke a group of his own, composed of the countless critics he resembles.

It is surely a measure of Howe’s remoteness from his own time that he devotes ten essays and more than a third of his book to the literature of the ’60s, and expends not a word, not the barest passing reference, to Ken Kesey or Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion or Donald Barthelme or William Gass or Sylvia Plath or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.—not so much as a passing reference, that is, to a single one of the writers who made the ’60s the most fertile and exciting literary decade since the ’20s. One writer of that earlier period, James Branch Cabell, used to refer jokingly to writing as “spoiling paper.” In Howe’s case, the joke is literally true. Yet Irving Howe is commonly held, by those who concern themselves with such matters, to be our most eminent critic, as Saul Bellow is held to be our most eminent novelist—for all that it may be said of them both as H.L. Mencken said of their counterparts of 60 years ago (and with equal justice) that “one never remembers a character in the novels of these aloof and de-Americanized Americans; one never encounters an idea in their essays.”

The fact is, however, that we have agreed too soon with the fashionable literary doomseers whose pronouncements opened our discussion. Surely for any “common reader” who approaches our contemporary American literature with a mind free of preconceptions, the literary situation must appear altogether otherwise. For not only has the year just past seen publication of important new works by some of the leading writers of our era—new essays by Didion and Wolfe, new fiction by Barthelme, Vonnegut, Ursula K. LeGuin and Samuel R. Delany—but the past two decades have fairly surrounded us with fiction and essays of what would appear to be permanent importance. One thinks of Mother Night and Cat’s Cradle and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Omensetter’s Luck and Dhalgren and The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest and The Dead Fatherand Play It As It Lays and The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Underground Man and Naked Lunch and Pale Fire and Orsinian Tales and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Advertisements for Myself and Genius and Lust and Against Interpretation and Fiction and the Figures of Life and The World within the Word and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Female Man and Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine and On Being Blue and the Diaries of Anais Nin and the list could continue for a while longer, but the point’s made.

Or is it?

For while any modern day “common reader” who set about compiling a list of notable contemporary works would probably end up with a list not unlike the one I have just offered, anyone associated with the current literary aristocracy of Howe and Gardner and Alter and Lapham and Griffin would raise very serious objections indeed to my modest list. Such a critic would very probably begin by disqualifying the entire second half of it as beside the point. The essay, he would point out, has been moribund, as far as any real cultural influence is concerned, since the days of Charles Lamb. He might even flatly assert, as Leslie Fiedler does in his well known study of Love and Death in the American Novel that “our national literary reputation depends largely upon the achievement of our novelists.” And as for the novels on my list, fully half of them are the work of science fiction and detective novelists, a fact which speaks for itself.

The tale is told that after the publication of Slaughterhouse Five, his first successful book outside the science fiction field, Kurt Vonnegut attended one of those New York literary cocktail parties from which he’d ordinarily have been excluded before, and there met Jason Epstein, longtime Random House editor, founder of Anchor Press and cofounder of the New York Review of Books. It is said that Epstein listened to Vonnegut’s name, frowned for a moment as though trying to place it, then, brightening, said simply, “science fiction” and turned and walked away.

And hasn’t Ken Kesey been consigned permanently to oblivion by Morris Dickstein’s finding that he is “offensive and overrated as a writer” and by Norman Podhoretz’s description of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest inBreaking Ranks as a “popular novel” of “mass appeal”? And surely everyone knows that one can’t look for permanent importance in a Hollywood novel, even one as inspired as The Day of the Locust, much less one as popular as Play It As It Lays ? This leaves us with a handful of more or less avant garde pieces by Gass, Barthelme, Nabokov and Burroughs, books which are, in varying degrees, either difficult or simply inaccessible for the common reader. Not much to show for two decades of writing in a nation whose literary reputation depends largely on her novelists, eh?

In the face of such an argument, what is one to say—except that apparently it is not American literature which is wanting, but American literary journalism and criticism? If the fiction of Vonnegut, Kesey, Delany, LeGuin, and Ross MacDonald is not literature, why isn’t it? How is it exactly that critics, many of whom otherwise exhibit their keen intelligence and sensitivity on their every published page, should prove so insensitive to the literary talent—even, here and there, the literary genius—on display all around them?

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In answering these questions, we will find ourselves posing other and much more fundamental ones. And this is as it should be. For if we wish to understand why the classic American literature in the making today is going largely unrecognized and unrewarded by the most demonstratively educated and even literary segment of the American populace, it is high time that we addressed ourselves to such fundamental questions. It is high time, in fact, that we did no less than reconsider our entire national literary history and our standards for judging what is of importance in it.

Perhaps the most fundamental of all the questions we must ask in the course of such a re-examination is also the best one with which to begin: What is a national literature? Librarians (and not a few literary historians) apparently believe it to be identical with whatever literature happens to be produced by whatever writers happen to be born in a particular country. Yet considerations of national origin are in fact less relevant than anything else in determining the national literature, if any, to which a writer belongs; Henry James and T.S. Eliot, both native Americans, are as obviously English writers as Ayn Rand and Vladimir Nabokov, both native Russians, are American. Moreover, as Van Wyck Brooks has aptly put it, “all kinds of writers exist in every country”; for the critic in search of a national literature, “the writers who are most interesting are those in whom the country differs most from others, in whom one feels the uniqueness of the country.”

And this uniqueness, this national difference, is not a mere matter of geography. D.H. Lawrence loses not one whit of his Englishness by relocating himself and his work in Taos, New Mexico—no more than Henry Miller forfeits even a trace of his fundamental Americanness by basing most of his major works (and much of his life) in Paris and Greece. What makes Lawrence English and Miller American, what makes any distinctively national writer the kind of national writer he is, is rather more psychological and philosophical than geographical. “When one turns to any national literature,” H.L. Mencken wrote in 1920, in the long, rambling, intermittently brilliant essay from which the present article derives its name, “one is conscious immediately of a definite attitude toward the primary mysteries of existence, the unsolved and ever-fascinating problems at the bottom of human life, and of a definite preoccupation with some of them, and a definite way of translating their challenge into drama. These attitudes and preoccupations raise a literature above mere poetizing and tale-telling; they give it dignity and importance; above all, they give it national character.”

One might argue that, looked at in this way, Russian literature—and especially the Russian novel from Gogol through Goncharov and Dostoevsky and Turgenev to the early Solzhenitsyn—is preoccupied with the attitude that it is ideas—however they might be acquired, whatever might be their quality, be they mystically religious or rationally scientific—which motivate men and determine their actions. From the doctrinaire cynicism of Tchichikov, through the utopian indolence of Oblomov and the philosophical amoralism of Raskolnikov and the nihilism of Bazarov, to the bare, illusionless survival ethic of Ivan Denisovich, the characteristic obsession of Russian literature is that we are what we believe.

Similarly, one might argue that the English novel, as represented by Jane Austen, Dickens, the Bröntes, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Hardy, Lawrence, Maugham, Huxley, Mervyn Peake and John Fowles, is preoccupied with human social relations, especially those which develop between men and women, and those which obtain among social classes.

What then are the characteristic attitudes and preoccupations which distinguish American literature? I submit that they are basically three in number: the irreplaceable uniqueness, and therefore importance, of every individual in the world; the importance of individual political freedom; and the importance of individual self-expression.

Now, identifying American literature with a kind of individualism is not, in itself, particularly controversial. Even Irving Howe, who is careful never to entertain an idea until it has become commonplace, has acknowledged the fundamentality of the individualist ethos in American letters. In his essay on “Literature and Liberalism,” for example he writes of Thoreau that “for most of his life, though apparently less so toward the end, He looked upon freedom as an absolute state of being, which might be reached by men who shook off the torpor of convention and penetrated the roots of self. He was openly contemptuous of those who saw freedom as an arrangement between authority and citizens that necessarily involved social constraints. His vision of freedom was asocial; except by way of preliminary it did not depend on collective effort or established government; it was a state of being that each man could reach for himself….”

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And, says Howe, this “commitment to an absolute self-hood [which] implies an antipathy not only to the idea of government but to the very nature and necessary inconveniences of liberal government” is not unique to Thoreau. “A somewhat similar pattern,” he writes, “can be seen in major fictions written by Americans in the nineteenth century: Cooper, Twain, Melville.” These fictions, Howe argues, concern “not the usual struggle among contending classes nor the interplay and mechanics of power, but a politics concerned with the idea of society itself, a politics that dares consider whether society is good and—still more wonderful question—whether society is necessary. These are the questions ultimately posed by the stories of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Huck Finn and Nigger Jim, Ishmael and Queequeq…. A literature that on any manifest level seems hardly to be political at all, becomes the one to raise the most fundamental problems in political thought: what is the rationale for society, the justification for the state.

“And if we agree for a moment so to regard nineteenth-century American writing,” Howe continues, “we discover running through it a strong if subterranean current of anarchism. Not anarchism as it is known in Europe, but anarchism as a … community of autonomous—one might almost say, Emersonian—persons, each secure in his own self …. [a community in which] the oppressive system of laws, oppressive because they are laws, gives way to a self-ordering discipline of persons in a fraternal relationship.”

Yet uncontroversial though it may be to propose such a radical individualism as the sine qua non of American letters, to pursue that proposal to its ultimate conclusions for American literary history and for contemporary American literary criticism will prove controversial indeed. How could it be otherwise when such a pursuit of ultimate conclusions must lead to a dethronement, as it were, of certain writers we have all been taught to regard as Great American Authors, and to a promotion of certain other writers from their present status as popular hacks to a new status as major literary figures? .

The first of these dethronements, properly enough, belongs to Cooper. For though Howe is exactly right in his identification of the essential spirit of nineteenth century American literature, he is, typically, wide of the mark in the group of writers he adduces to represent it. Twain represents it, and admirably, as we shall see. And Melville represents it—with reservations, as we shall also see. But Cooper? Far from being a distinctively American writer of distinctively American books, Cooper was merely the best known and most popular of the numerous imitators of Walter Scott who labored on this side of the Atlantic during the ’20s and ’30s of the last century. If today we remember James Fenimore Cooper when we have forgotten John Pendleton Kennedy and Robert Montgomery Bird, it is not because the saga of Natty Bumppo is any more finely crafted than those of Kennedy or Bird, or any more novelistically ingenious or intellectually meaty; but merely because it is more “accurate” in its local color—and, to that extent, cleverer in its adaptation of the Waverly formula to the setting of the American frontier.

Yet there is more to national character than geography and scenery, as we have seen, and geography and scenery is all James Fenimore Cooper has to offer us that is distinctively American. With regard to every essential of his art as a novelist, save only setting, he was a thoroughgoing and uncompromising Englishman. As Frank Norris remarked of him in 1903, “his heroes and heroines talk like the characters out of Bulwer in their most vehement moods, while his Indians stalk through all the melodramatic tableaux of Byron, and declaim in the periods of the border nobleman in the pages of Walter Scott.”

Yet in this Britishness Cooper was quite typical of his age. Those of his fellow novelizers who were not busy imitating the historical novels of Scott were busy imitating the sentimental novels of Richardson or the gothics of Horace Walpole; and the best the fledgling Republic had managed to come up with in the way of a poet or belletrist—William Cullen Bryant on the one hand, Washington Irving on the other—were equally busy imitating still other English models (in Irving’s case, stealing from his Dutch models outright) and laboring to build a literature which can only be called, not American, but Colonial English.

And the reason for this state of affairs was not far to seek. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, where cultural matters were concerned, America simply didn’t exist. As Van Wyck Brooks writes, “How much the state of German literature before the Napoleonic wars resembled the state of American literature before the world-war epoch! Hear what Carlyle said a hundred years ago: ‘During the greater part of the last century, the Germans, in our intellectual survey of the world, were quietly omitted; a vague contemptuous ignorance prevailed respecting them; it was a Cimmerian land where, if a few sparks did glimmer, it was but so as to testify their own existence, too feebly to enlighten us. The Germans passed for apprentices in all provinces of art; and many foreign craftsmen scarcely allowed them so much.’

“So Americans were regarded only the other day. There was a sounding-board behind European writers that carried their voices across the ocean, while American writers, facing the other way, faced a keen east wind.”

“In the four quarters of the globe,” Sydney Smith asked in the Edinburgh Review in 1820, “who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play?” Even in America those of cultivation and learning displayed their good taste by preferring everything as European as possible and by leaving the unmistakably American to those too besotted to want anything better. This prejudice was systematically taught in the schools, both the lower schools and the leading colleges, both here and in Europe, throughout the last century. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, who attended Bryn Mawr at the turn of this century, has written that “American literature had no place in the Bryn Mawr curriculum—no Melville, no Hawthorne, no Poe, no Dickinson, no Whitman. Henry James and Edith Wharton were the only modern fiction writers; expatriates, you see; and we read them for pleasure, not for study. When, ten years after my graduation, I told one of my English professors that I had discovered a genuine first-class work of American fiction,… she looked at me skeptically.”

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Commenting on this passage in 1958, Van Wyck Brooks exclaimed: “How typical that was not only of Bryn Mawr but of Harvard and all our colleges fifty years ago!” But it remained typical far longer than that. Norman Podhoretz, the enormously powerful and influential New York critic who attended Columbia in the 1940s, reports in his 1967 memoir Making It that “in the context of the idea of Western Civilization to which I had been converted at Columbia … America was definitely a minor province and definitely to be treated as such. Thus only one small survey course in American literature had been offered at Columbia when I was there, and I had not even taken it—Why bother with things inferior, things parochial, when there was so much else of greater significance to learn?”

The situation in European schools was better—they began offering courses in American literature as early as the 1850s. But predictably, the only American writing they deemed worthy of serious study was that writing which imitated European models. “Washington Irving was used for language exercises in British schools,” writes Sigmund Skard in The American Myth and the European Mind, “as he was everywhere in Europe: in 1855 the boys at Harrow decided by a formal vote that Longfellow was the first poet of the age. But these Americans were read as ‘English’ authors—anything else would have been regarded as ridiculous.” Similarly, the young American collegians of Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant’s day considered the English Colonial Henry James and his disciple and imitator Edith Wharton the foremost “American” writers of their time. And the highschoolers of the same period were encouraged by the same parents and teachers who advised them to read Kipling and A. Conan Doyle to avoid Mark Twain, who was regarded as “vulgar.” For the greater part of its history as a nation, the United States has been, as Poe called it in the early 1840s, “a literary colony of Great Britain.”

And, as Mencken argued 60 years ago, the plight of the genuinely creative writer in such a colony leaves much to be desired. “Looking within himself, he finds that he is different, that he diverges from the English standard, that he is authentically American—and to be authentically American is to be officially inferior. He thus faces dismay at the very start: support is lacking when he needs it most. In the motherland—in any motherland, in any wholly autonomous nation—there is a class of men like himself, devoted to translating the higher manifestations of the national spirit into ideas—men differing enormously among themselves, but still united in common cause against the lethargy and credulity of the mass. But in a colony that class, if it exists at all, lacks coherence and certainty; its authority is not only disputed by the inertia and suspiciousness of the lower orders, but also by the superior authority overseas; it is timorous and fearful of challenge. Thus it affords no protection to an individual of assertive originality, and he is forced to go as a suppliant to a quarter in which nothing is his by right, but everything must go by favor—in brief to a quarter where his very application must needs be regarded as an admission of his inferiority. The burden of proof upon him is thus made double. Obviously, he must be a man of very strong personality to surmount such obstacles triumphantly. Such strong men, of course, sometimes appear in a colony, but they always stand alone; their worst opposition is at home.”

So it was, certainly, in the United States in the fourth and fifth decades of the last century, when, in the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville and Whitman, a national literature first began unmistakably to emerge from the surrounding sea of epigones and hacks. The new literature was not entirely unwelcome, of course. Emerson had excited considerable sympathetic agreement all around the country when he had argued in 1837 in his famous lecture “The American Scholar” that it was high time “our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, [drew] to a close.” There was even, here and there, a critic like James Russell Lowell, who not only went on favoring the new literature even after it had begun to emerge (as in his famous 1845 essay on Poe), but actually demanded more of the same. In his notorious “Fable for Critics” of 1848, Lowell excoriated the American literary public for displaying “the gait and the manners of runaway slaves.”

“Though you brag of your New World,” he wrote, “you don’t half believe in it;/ And as much of the Old as is possible weave in it;/ You steal Englishmen’s books and think Englishmen’s thought,/ With their salt on her tail your wild eagle is caught;/ Your literature suits its each whisper and motion/ To what will be thought of it over the ocean.”

But most critics and educated readers of the American 1840s and ’50s couldn’t have agreed less with Lowell. If they had agreed with Emerson in 1837, their agreement had been purely theoretical; and it evaporated very quickly once the literature Emerson had called for began to materialize. Most ironic of all, but needless to say, they found the new literature wanting precisely in the degree of its failure to faithfully reflect the old—the English. “Neither Poe nor Whitman,” says Mencken, “made the slightest concession to what was the predominant English taste, the prevailing English authority, of his time. And neither yielded in the slightest to the maudlin echoes of English notions that passed for ideas in the United States…. What happened? Imprimis, English authority, at the start, dismissed them loftily, they were, at best, simply rare freaks from the colonies. Secondly, American stupidity, falling into step, came near overlooking them altogether.”

Poe, of course, never really ran any risk of going entirely unnoticed. But as Mencken argues, though “it is true enough that he enjoyed, during his lifetime, a certain popular reputation,… that reputation was considerably less than the fame of men who were much his inferiors…. Not many native critics of respectable position would have ranked him clearly above, say, Irving or Cooper, or even above Longfellow, his old enemy. A few partisans argued for him, but in the main, as Saintsbury has said, he was the victim of ‘extreme and almost incomprehensible injustice’ at the hands of his countrymen. It is surely not without significance that it took ten years to raise enough money to put a cheap and hideous tombstone upon his neglected grave, that it was not actually set up until he had been dead twenty-six years, that no contemporary American writer took any part in furthering the project, and that the only one who attended the final ceremony was Whitman.”

Whitman himself met with little better. “Nothing, indeed,” says Mencken, “could be more amazing than the hostility that surrounded him at home until the very end of his long life. True enough, it was broken by certain feeble mitigations. Emerson, in 1855, praised him—though later very eager to forget it and desert him…. Alcott, Thoreau, Lowell and even Bryant, during his brief Bohemian days, were polite to him. A group of miscellaneous enthusiasts gradually gathered about him…. But the general tone of the opinion that beat upon him, the attitude of domestic criticism, was unbrokenly inimical; he was opposed by misrepresentation and neglect. ‘The prevailing range of criticism on my book,’ he wrote in “A Backward Glance on My Own Road” in 18 84, ‘has been either mockery or denunciation—and … I have been the marked object of two or three (to me pretty serious) official bufferings.’ ‘After thirty years of trial,’ he wrote in “My Book and I,” three years later, ‘public criticism on the book and myself as author of it shows marked anger and contempt more than anything else.’”

And the story was not far otherwise with Hawthorne or Melville or Emerson or Thoreau. Every one of these men consciously confronted the issue of literary nationalism, the issue of whether it was wiser to court popularity and critical acclaim by slavishly imitating the English or to risk literary ignominy by trying to capture a distinctively American flavor in his writing, and every one of them lost by his choice. Hawthorne endured penury and neglect for 20 years while producing, in certain of the short stories collected as Twice-Told Tales (1837, 1842) and Mosses From an Old Manse (1846), a distinctively American and original fiction. When, at the age of 46, finally, belatedly, he began producing novels in the approved English manner(s)—the first of these, a gothic historic with an American setting called The Scarlet Letter (1850) made his name and his fortune and the second, a gothic called The House of the Seven Gables (1851), made both all over again—it is not difficult to guess his motives. He had been denying himself too long. Melville launched his career with a series of seafaring adventure tales in the approved English manner—Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), and Whitejacket (1850)—and had achieved a not inconsiderable critical and popular following when, in 1850, he read Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse and became converted, so to speak, to American literature. The fiction he wrote after this conversion—including, of course, his great transitional work, Moby Dick (1851), although Pierre (1853), Israel Potter (1856), The Piazza Tales (1856) and The Confidence Man (1857),are in some ways even more genuinely American—destroyed his career in the space of a mere seven years. He who had been an established and popular professional writer found himself unable to support his family by his pen; he who had won the praise of all the critics saw his books go unnoticed and unreviewed. “Seldom,” says Willard Thorp in his article on Melville in the Literary History of the United States, “has a successful author dropped so suddenly from his pinnacle of fame.”

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The case of Emerson and his protege Thoreau is a more specialized one, but no exception to the rule. It is specialized chiefly in that it presents us with two bodies of work which must, for certain historical purposes at least, be thought of as one. Emerson himself did not want for popular or critical acceptance. As has been noted, he made a sensation in 1837 with his demand that America free herself from cultural and intellectual bondage to England; and from that time on, his fame and influence only grew. Yet, as Mencken has argued, his “reputation, to the end of his life, was far more that of a theological prophet and ethical platitudinarian, comparable to Lyman Abbott or Frank Crane,” or, we might say today, Norman Vincent Peale or Billy Graham, “than that of a literary artist, comparable to Tennyson or Matthew Arnold.” This is partly because Emerson found it most congenial—and most profitable—to cast his ideas in the form of lectures, which he later reworked into essays; and it is difficult to think of anyone—save, briefly and meretriciously, Robert Ingersoll—who ever made a reputation for himself as a literary artist by lecturing. And, as we have seen, it is certainly characteristic of the American reading public of the mid-nineteenth century that it should have seized upon the strain of pious, moralizing English Puritanism in Emerson’s work as its distinguishing feature and ignored the thoroughgoing individualism which made it different from anything being written in Europe. But if Emerson never did make a name for himself strictly as a literary artist, it is probably due at least as much to his actual defects as a literary artist as to his predilection for lecturing or to the superficial and Anglicized tastes of his audience.

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Emerson lacked, above all, originality. There was a certain originality to his thought, to be sure, but it was intertwined and admixed to such an extent with the contemporary European ideas he turned to for inspiration that it is still difficult nearly a hundred and fifty years after the fact to clearly separate his own ideas from his inspired borrowings. And as a stylist he was, simply, undistinguished; for all their originality of structural conception and prose style, Emerson’s Essays might almost have been written by any educated Englishman of the period. Almost. The Comtesse Marie D’Agoult said of the Essays that they were “not yet art,” but added that “the mingling heretofore unknown, of the protestant spirit of individualism, or self-reliance, with the pantheistic spirit which inspires this book, the combination and harmonizing of these two antagonisms in a superior intellect forms, incontestably, a new element from whence may be born an original art.” It remained for Henry David Thoreau to actually create the original art which lay tantalizingly nascent in Emerson.

Thoreau was twenty years old in 1837, when, as a member of the Harvard graduating class to which Emerson delivered his famous remarks on “The American Scholar,” he first met the 34-year-old sage of Concord. He was already bookish, already independent-minded, already bent on writing. But he was yet unformed, and Emerson set about forming him. He moved Thoreau into his home, turned him loose in his library, introduced him to his circle of intellectual and literary friends, published him in The Dial. And though it wasn’t long before Thoreau was being publicly dismissed as a mere Emerson imitator, he proved otherwise with his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), and rubbed the lesson in with his second, Walden (1854). Though he had learned his master’s lessons well, Thoreau was his own man. He was a greater prose stylist than Emerson, a profounder thinker and a more original artist. In the Week and in Walden, the only books he published during his lifetime, he invented a new and distinctively American hybrid of the English essay form and established one of the four main currents or traditions in our national letters.

In the English essay from Bacon through Addison and Steele and Dr. Johnson to Lamb, Thoreau’s contemporary, the emphasis is never on the essayist himself, always on his ostensible subject. It is the sine qua non of the essay as a form, of course, that its subject is always, if only implicitly, its author, his mind. “A personal essay,” says Edward Hoagland, “is like the human voice talking, its order the mind’s natural flow, instead of a systematized outline of ideas. Though more wayward or informal than an article or treatise, somewhere it contains a point which is its real center, even if the point couldn’t be expressed in fewer words than the essayist has employed. A personal essay frequently is not autobiographical at all, but what it does keep in common with autobiography is that, through its tone and tumbling progression, it conveys the quality of the author’s mind. Nothing gets in the way. Because essays are directly concerned with the mind and its idiosyncrasy, the very freedom the mind possesses is bestowed on this branch of literature that does honor to it, and the fascination of the mind is the fascination of the essay.” But the mind in the English essay is typically outward-looking, extrospective. It not only avoids autobiography, it avoids even introspection; and it is really personal, idiosyncratic,individual, only incidentally, only in passing, only in the characteristic attitude—which never itself becomes an object of scrutiny—which it adopts toward whatever happens to be its subject matter.

The American essay created by Thoreau is another kettle of fish entirely. It is frankly, even relentlessly autobiographical; its subject matter is the mind of its author—its adventures, its experiences, its ruminations. Always the essaying self is the center of attention. The American essay created by Thoreau might well be described, in fact, as a kind of self-portrait in prose—except that one of its greatest and earliest practitioners, Walt Whitman, has demonstrated that it may just as well be crafted in a kind of prosy and loose rhythmed verse. And what more appropriate vehicle than this new kind of essay to give literary form to that individualism which is of the essence of Americanism?

Yet, as we have seen, Whitman found no favor by writing such verse essays instead of imitating the officially admired English models, as Longfellow did. And Thoreau fared no better with his essays in prose. “Thoreau’s first book,” says Townsend Scudder, “fell stillborn from the press. Of the thousand copies printed, most were presently returned to the author as unsalable.” Because they were unsalable, his second book, Walden, went five years in want of a publisher. And when finally it was printed it was derided by Lowell, then the most influential native critic of letters, as the work of a man who had “so high conceit of himself that he accepted without questioning, and insisted on our accepting, his defects and weaknesses of character as virtues and powers peculiar to himself,” a man who made “his own whim the law, his own range the horizon of the universe.”

As we have seen, similar incomprehension greeted the work of Poe, when first that work saw the light of day in America. Yet, in his Poems (1831), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), and the assorted poems, tales and essays he published between 1840 and his death in 1849, pieces like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Raven” and “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe too created a new and distinctively American literature. Indeed, the remaining three of the four main currents in American letters may be traced directly to Poe: the science fiction tradition, the detective story tradition, and the symbolist tradition.

To begin with the last of these, it is widely acknowledged that Poe’s writings were instrumental in launching the Symbolist movement in France—“French Symbolism… .began,” says F.O. Mathiessen, “at the moment when Baudelaire recognized in Poe’s logical formulas for a poem his own half-developed thoughts ‘combined to perfection’”; “Poe’s critical writings,” says Edmund Wilson, “provided the first scriptures of the Symbolist Movement”—but it is not commonly realized how great a role American writers have played in the subsequent development of the symbolist tradition, or how deeply and fundamentally American that tradition is. It is commonly believed that Poe gave the French the idea, whereupon Baudelaire, Mallarme, Gautier, Huysmans, Rimbaud and Valery carried out the rest of the necessary work for themselves—with a little help from such Irishmen and Englishmen as Oscar Wilde, George Moore, Walter Pater, Aubrey Beardsley and their various colleagues of the Yellow Nineties.

But the facts were far otherwise. Not only did Poe virtually found the Symbolist Movement, his American followers remained among its leaders from that point forward. The New Yorker Stuart Merrill and the Virginian Francis Viele-Griffin, both lyric poets, emigrated to France and assumed positions of Symbolist eminence in that country alongside Mallarme and Valery. They are regarded as important writers in France to this day. Merrill also produced one of the first English translations of the work of his French comrades, Pastels in Prose (1890). His classmate at Columbia Law School, Edgar Saltus, author of one the most genuinely ’90s-flavored of the various personal memoirs of Oscar Wilde, remained in America for the greater part of his life (though he also traveled extensively in Europe), living sometimes in New York, sometimes in Los Angeles; his more than 30 books include novels of crime, luxury and decadence in a manner which derives about equally from “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and impressionistic, poetic essays on mostly historical subjects, which derive perhaps most obviously from pieces like “The Domain of Arnheim.” As Harry Levin has written of him in the Literary History of the United States, “When Saltus is recollected, he is sometimes regarded as an American disciple of Oscar Wilde … Actually he parallels, rather than emulates, the English aesthete, who was his junior by a year. In Love and Lore (1890), a year before the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Saltus defended fiction against the prudishness of Anthony Comstock by recognizing only two kinds: ‘stories which are well written and stories which are not.’ Two years before Salome he had touched upon the same subject…” He paralleled Wilde too in his cultivation of the art of the epigram.

And Saltus was by no means alone in thus remaining in America while carrying forward the symbolist tradition of Poe. He had his forerunners in the weirdly ornate fables of the early Hawthorne and the later Melville, and his contemporary counterparts in Ambrose Bierce of San Francisco, who combined a passion for epigram and paradox with a zest for telling tales of strangeness and murder; in Lafcadio Hearn of New Orleans, for whom exotic places loomed as large and as central as they did for Rimbaud; in the Chicago based editors and publishers of The Chap Book, which anticipated the better known English Yellow Book in most of its famous symbolist heresies; and in his fellow New Yorker, James Gibbons Huneker, whose critical essays on the arts for various New York newspapers won him the friendship and professional respect of the greatest of French symbolist critics, Remy de Gourmont.

And to say all this is to say nothing of the role played by Americans in the Yellow English Nineties of Wilde, Beerbohm and Beardsley. The doctrine of art for art’s sake which vitalized that famous decade was definitively formulated, not by Wilde or his Oxford mentor Walter Pater or even by Arthur Symons, but by the American James McNeill Whistler in his “10 o’Clock” lecture of 1885. The Yellow Book, which launched Beerbohm and Beardsley and ultimately lent its name and color to the entire decade, was edited by the American, Henry Harland. Even more important than Harland however, was Frank Harris, the American who went to London and became, in John Dos Passos’s words, “the center of the literary nineties.” As editor of The Fortnightly Review and The Saturday Review, “he discovered H.G. Wells … launched Shaw as a drama critic … encouraged Max Beerbohm … published Swinburne and Oscar Wilde and Beardsley.”

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But showing that symbolism was invented by an American and that its subsequent development was undertaken or overseen in the main by Americans is not the same as showing that symbolism is an American tradition in the sense with which we began: it is not the same as showing that symbolism is an individualistic tradition. In the case of the Thoreauvian tradition of the confessional essay such a demonstration is presumably unnecessary. The Thoreauvian essay is, as we have seen, preoccupied with the self of its author, with the qualities in virtue of which he is unique and individual; this is evident in Thoreau himself and in such of his best known successors as Whitman, Twain, Henry Adams, Mencken, Henry Miller and Joan Didion. But the individualism of the Thoreauvian tradition also extends beyond the purely personal to the level of more or less explicit social philosophy. One of Thoreau’s most famous essays is the one on “Civil Disobedience” in which he declares his acceptance of the slogan, “That government is best which governs not at all,” and further asserts that “we should be men first and subjects afterwards. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” For “government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.” Twain sneered that “there is no native American criminal class except Congress.” Mencken asserted that all forms of government are “inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest,—all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men.” And Didion was recently (and not unjustly) labelled a “libertarian” by a seemingly shocked Time magazine reviewer because she devoted an essay in her latest book, The White Album, to the government “Bureaucrats” who take it upon themselves, out of an “impenetrable sense of higher social purpose,” to rearrange other people’s daily lives for them.

Obvious though it may be that the Thoreauvian tradition in American letters is individualistic, however, it is perhaps less than obvious that the symbolist tradition of Poe and his successors is equally individualistic—individualistic to its very core. Yet listen to Remy de Gourmont: “What does symbolism mean?” he asked in 1896, and answered himself: “individualism in literature, liberty in art, the abandoning of the formulae of the schools, the tendency toward whatever is new, strange, even bizarre.” And what do tendencies toward the strange and bizarre have in common with individualism? Simply this: the symbolist writer, like the confessional essayist, is preoccupied with his unique self as the basic subject matter of his work; and the more unique and individual his work is, the better it can serve to symbolize his own uniqueness.

“The capital crime in a writer,” says Gourmont, “is conformity, imitation, submission to rules and teachings. The work of a writer should be not only the reflection but the enlarged reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for writing is that he express his own self, that he reveal to others the kind of world that is reflected in his individual mirror; his only excuse is that he be original….” Or, as Poe put it in his 1847 essay on Hawthorne, “in one sense and in great measure, to be peculiar is to be original, and than the true originality there is no higher literary virtue.”

In pursuit of such originality, not a few writers have gravitated toward science fiction—a genre characterized by the freedom of its writers to dream up literally anything they like in the way of fictional worlds and fictional events. The science fiction writer, like the symbolist writer, is unconstrained by the facts of the real world. He is free to create a world of his own, a world which, like his individual self, is unique and unprecedented.

According to H. Bruce Franklin, Poe was first called “the father of science fiction” in an unsigned 1905 essay in The Saturday Review. And he has been called it many times -since. The only writer who might reasonably seem to have a prior claim is Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein (1818) preceded the earliest of Poe’s science fiction tales by more than fifteen years. Yet the Shelley book is less a breakthrough into a new genre than an ingenious insertion of pseudo-science into an old one—namely, the gothic novel. In tales like “The Unparalleled Adventures of Hanns Pfaal,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” and “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe invented something altogether different—a sort of pseudo-scientific romance which owes little or nothing to Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. And, as was the case with his poems, tales and essays in the symbolist manner, he created an important American literary tradition in the process. H. Bruce Franklin has shown in Future Perfect that science fiction, as we now call it, is “somewhere near the center of nineteenth-century American literature.” Hawthorne wrote it; Melville wrote it; Twain and Bierce and Jack London wrote it. And well they might have, for science fiction was uniquely equipped among literary forms to deal imaginatively with the principal fact of nineteenth century American life—the industrial revolution.

Uniquely equipped as science fiction was, however, another distinctively American genre—the detective story—undertook a related task: the imaginative depiction of the quasi-ommipotent scientist-inventor who made the industrial revolution possible. As D.F. Rauber has observed in his recent essay on “The Role of the ‘Great Detective’ in Intellectual History,” “the ‘great detective’ can be seen as a vulgarization of the scientist, a popular surrogate for the less glamorous figure of the austere investigator of nature. Like the scientist, the detective collects data, forms hypotheses, checks these by the equivalent of experiment, and reaches conclusions through a combination of observation and logic. Indeed, at bottom the ‘great detective’ is a fantasy figure of the perfectly functioning mind, pure intellect proceeding inexorably onward, indifferent to, or rather oblivious of, emotional consideration. But on a larger cultural scale this is also the ideal of the scientist, partially as viewed by the scientists themselves and partially as the scientist is apprehended by the outside world. This type of fantasy figure does not appear in literature until after the emergence of modern experimental science….”

As everyone knows, Poe was the inventor of the great detective (in his famous tales of the exploits of Auguste Dupin), and it should therefore come as no surprise that the detective tradition is no less inherently individualistic—albeit for a different reason—than those other children of Poe’s, the symbolist and science fiction traditions. The difference is that while symbolist works and works of science fiction are inherently individualistic in virtue of their stress on imaginative uniqueness, detective stories are inherently individualistic in virtue of certain of their basic plot conventions.

These conventions are apparent enough in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” but they are particularly obvious in the later “hardboiled” detective stories of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. The detective in such stories is almost always an individual operative, almost never an employee of an organization. He sells his services, if at all, to individuals, not to organizations. He confronts, typically, not counterfeiters or corrupt politicians or corporate embezzlers—criminals whose victims are groups (stockholders, taxpayers, or society as a whole)—but rather murderers, whose victims are, inevitably, individuals. He is is invariably an eccentric, highly individual personality—from Poe’s Dupin, who never opens his shutters and goes out only at night, to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes with his cocaine and his violin, to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee with his houseboat and his calculated effort to work as little as possible, so as to enjoy his retirement while still young enough to do so. And the police in these stories are often portrayed as bumbling fools, often as dedicated professionals hamstrung by regulations, often as criminals in their own right—but almost never as capable enough to solve the murder without the aid of the individual detective.

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Detective fiction, science fiction, symbolism and the confessional essay—these are the main currents in America’s national literature. All distinctively American fiction writers derive from Poe. All distinctively American essayists derive from Poe and from Thoreau. And all distinctively American writers have, from the time of their first appearance nearly a hundred and fifty years ago down to this very day, met with incomprehension and neglect at the hands of native critics and professors of literature; for these latter have always been convinced that Europe maintained a kind of monopoly on excellence in the literary arts, and have always judged all American writing by European standards.

Perhaps the most representative case of this problem in all of American literary history is that of Mark Twain. Twain invented no genres, but tried his hand at every one of those created by Poe and Thoreau—the confessional essay in Life on the MississippiRoughing It and his travel books; science fiction in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs’s Court; detective fiction in Pudd’nhead Wilson; symbolism in The Mysterious Strangerand in his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s great originality as an American writer lay in his perfection of a new prose style, a style at once colloquial, plain spoken and magnificently expressive. And his great contribution to the development of American fiction lay in having proved, with Huck Finn, that a symbolic fantasy as sensuous and strange and individual as anything by Poe himself could be made to look on its surface like a straightforward realistic novel. Twain showed that the supernatural—or even the atmosphere of the supernatural—was no more essential to the symbolist writer than was an elaborately ornate and “literary” prose style.

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This is no small achievement. It might even reasonably be argued that in demonstrating the possibility of a realistic, vernacular symbolism, Twain launched one of the most important subgenres within the American symbolist tradition—the hardboiled fantasy of crime, violence, and life under primitive conditions. The first masters of this kind of writing after Twain were Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and Jack London; its most important later masters were Hemingway, Horace McCoy (author of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) and James M. Cain. And for launching this subgenre, how did Twain fare at the hands of native critics and professors of literature? At this point in the argument, I trust there is no longer any need to answer the question explicitly.

Yet one answer needs to be made, if we are to see why Twain’s case is such a representative one: his books, and those of almost all of his followers from Crane to Cain, were not rejected by native critics and professors on the open and clearly specified ground that they were insufficiently European, but rather on the ground that they were inherently sub-literary, that they were not serious books at all, but merely works of “popular entertainment.” No American writer has ever been shunned explicitly because he was too American in his manner: other, more publicly respectable rationalizations have always fallen easily enough to the hands of our critics and professors. Thoreau was not called to task for being too American, but for being too self-centered; and this has continued to be the standard charge levelled against Thoreauvians from Walt Whitman through Henry Miller to Joan Didion (who was attacked only the other day in The Nation because “her subject is always herself”). The charge of committing mere popular entertainment when one ought to be doing serious (which is to say European) work has been much more widely used in American literary history than the charge of self-centeredness, however. It has been used from the days of Poe himself to discredit the work of science fiction writers and detective story writers, and also, as we have seen, to discredit the work of the hardboiled symbolists. It is therefore worth digressing for a few paragraphs to cast this distinction between the “popular” and the “serious” in literature in a somewhat clearer light.

Until around 1750, there were two kinds of imaginative writers in Western Europe. There were court poets, by which I mean that entire class of writers who lived on pensions given them by members of the upper class, which is to say, the nobility, the State. And there were the mostly anonymous authors of what we know today as ballads, folktales and Mother Goose rhymes—they didn’t make a living doing that, of course; they were farmers and blacksmiths, and, common sense might seem to suggest, a good many, perhaps even a majority, were housewives. Some of them, the unknown authors of “Cinderella” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” for example, were creative geniuses. But they were also members of the lower class and as such, in the eyes of the upper class, they were inferior—inferior in every respect, inherently and inescapably inferior—and so were incapable of producing literature which was not inferior to the literature produced by their betters.

But by 1750 the phenomenon known to history textbooks as the “rise of the middle class” had pretty well taken place. In the mid-eighteenth century there were no longer only two social classes; there were three. The old upper class had dwindled sadly in both size and real wealth and political power. And the new middle class found itself in the position of chief patron of the literary arts. Moveable type was by then a several hundred years old invention, and specimens of a new literary form called the novel, invented to utilize the mass production possibilities of Gutenberg’s miracle, had begun to appear.

Now the new middle class tried to equal or surpass the old upper class in every respect—wealth, “conspicuous consumption,” political power, patronage of the arts, and exclusivity. As the old upper class had dismissed folk literature as “vulgar” and for centuries had refused even to read literature written in the language of common people, so the new middle class sought a method of justifying contempt for the literature of the still existent, but increasingly literate and monied lower class. In the just pre-modern world of 1750, books were becoming available to elements which had never seen them before, and the new middle class ran the risk, so to speak, of liking the same books as those liked by literate servants and laborers. And this risk was a particularly real one in the case of the novel, that new form which seemed to win favor among readers of all sorts and to be written by writers of all sorts, even those who had previously had no recourse to print and therefore told their stories. It was becoming impossible to distinguish the work of these writers from the work of their betters. As Leslie Fiedler writes in his 1975 essay, “Towards a Definition of Popular Literature,” “Believing in the division of labor in all fields, [the bourgeoisie] appointed experts to tell them (to ‘brief’ them, we would say these days) whether novels were O.K. in general; and if so, which were more O.K. than others.

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“Obviously, they did not always take the good advice they sought. Quite often, in fact, they continued to read what their critical mentors had taught them to regard as ‘trash.’ But they did snatch such work from the hands of their children, especially their daughters, when they caught them reading it. In the light of this, it is clear that the function of modern critics and schoolmasters whose subject is literature was from the start rather like that performed by the writers of Etiquette Books, Dictionaries and Grammars. Like the latter, the former responded to the cultural insecurity of the eighteenth century middle classes by providing ‘rules’ or ‘standards’ or guides to ‘good behavior.’ The new rich wanted to know which fork to pick up; how to spell things ‘right;’ when, if at all, it was proper to say ‘ain’t’; and also what books to buy for display in their libraries or on their coffee tables.”

Of course, the advice they got from their experts varied as the experts themselves varied. Some announced that only the books of morally good men were O.K. Others recommended only books whose authors were dead or whose authors were living imitators of the dead. Still others advised against all novels, a form which they considered inherently vulgar. (And all these standards have endured into our own era. It is only a few years since the late Yvor Winters was arguing that only books whose implications are morally good may be considered artistically successful. It is only since World War II that a majority among critics and professors of literature have come to regard the novel as an artistic genre with as much potential as poetry to be “serious” and “important” and “elevating.” A significant number still believe otherwise.)

In America, as we have seen, the critics and professors have traditionally advised against books which did not resemble European ones; and they have thus dismissed as “popular” all of the most distinctively American books in the history of our national letters. Yet, as Fiedler argues, “popular literature is not, as a category, a type, a subgenre, the invention of the authors of the books which we have been taught to believe ‘belong’ to it, but of certain theorizers after the fact. It exists generically in the perception of elitist critics—or better, perhaps, in their misperception, their—usually tendentious, sometimes even deliberate—misapprehension. It will, therefore, cease to exist as a category when we cease to regard it in the way we have been misled into doing. Clearly, what we consider ‘serious novels’ or ‘art novels’: works, say, by Henry James or Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or James Joyce, are indistinguishable, before the critical act, from ‘best-sellers’ or ‘popular novels’ by Jacqueline Susann or John D. MacDonald, Conan Doyle or Bram Stoker. Despite peripheral attempts to sort them out before the fact by invidious binding or labelling, by and large, they are bound in the same boards and paper; edited, printed, distributed, advertised and peddled in quite the same way.”

Of course, Fiedler’s argument is not persuasive to everyone. American critics and professors of literature are helplessly bound by tradition, and tradition demands that a clear, unequivocal and unbridgeable distinction be drawn between the serious and popular in literature, and that the latter be firmly and unequivocally rejected. America’s critics and literary pedants have done this traditionally, and they are doing it today. Norman Podhoretz, who was named a few years ago by Richard Kostelanetz as one of the four most powerful members of the New York literary aristocracy, made his early reputation with essays like “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” in which he excoriated the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—arguably the most important American literary figures of the ’50s, creators of a uniquely twentieth century version of the Thoreauvian-Whitmanesque confession—for their “self-centeredness” and “self-indulgence.” Now, from his pinnacle of influence, he tells us out of one side of his mouth that Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is merely popular entertainment, and out of the other that the critical tradition to which he conceives himself as belonging takes “its bearings not from any American tradition of letters … but from heavier modes of critical discourse which could be traced to France or Germany or Russia.”

This quotation is taken from Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir Making It, in which he thus further describes the intellectual tradition he considers his own: “… it was mainly on Europe that the family [the New York literary aristocracy of the 1950s] had its eyes. There were so many people there who would in the coming years be revealed as relatives—Orwell, Koestler, Spender, Merleau-Ponty, Silone, and a dozen others—and so few outside the family proper in America itself. The terms in which the family discussed things, the language it spoke, was a language that seemed to make more sense to European than to American ears; the books which were the family’s touchstones and the issues it considered relevant all had greater currency in Europe than in America; and the ideas and tastes to which the family was attached constituted an ambience suggesting Paris rather more than it did New York (New York, appropriately enough, was the New Yorker crowd at the Algonquin Round Table, with one foot on Broadway and another on the best-seller lists). Thus, when the family spoke of itself or was spoken of as ‘alienated,’ the reference might be to any number of things, but the deepest thing of all was this; They did not feel that they belonged to America or that America belong to them” (emphasis in the original).

Podhoretz tells us that he himself felt this way, as a student in the ’40s, as a journeyman writer in the ’50s, and even in the early ’60s after he had become one of the leaders of the establishment. “Upon Johnson’s accession to the Presidency,” he writes, “I was asked, as one of six ‘intellectuals,’ to write a letter outlining the things I would like to see him do. I have never had so much trouble writing anything, and in the course of working on the letter I came to realize that the trouble stemmed from feelings of alienation from the country of my birth so deep that I could not even overcome them when they were decreed away from me personally by the President of the United States himself. By ‘alienation’ in this context I meant simply the feeling that this was not my country; I was not really a part of it; I was a citizen, and a highly interested one, of a small community in New York which lived by its own laws and had as little commerce as it could manage with a hostile surrounding environment.”

Podhoretz’s colleague among the top leaders of our current literary aristocracy, Irving Howe, who discusses American writing of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s without a single reference to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bradbury, Heller, Vonnegut, Didion, Barthelme, Kesey, or Tom Wolfe, and with only one, mildly disparaging, reference to J.D. Salinger (and one, patently dismissive, to Ayn Rand), has similar confessions to offer. “Young would-be writers growing up in a Jewish slum in New York or Chicago during the ‘twenties and ‘thirties,” he writes of his own boyhood in Celebrations and Attacks found the classical Americans, especially Emerson and Thoreau, a little wan and frail, deficient in those historical entanglements we felt to be essential to literature because inescapable in life.”

For example, says Howe, there is the issue of the Family. Where is the family, he asks, “in Emerson, or Thoreau, or Whitman? Even in Melville the family is a shadowy presence from which his heroes have fled before their stories begin. And where is the family in Hemingway or Fitzgerald? With Faulkner, despite all his rhetoric about honor, we might feel at home because the clamp of family which chafed his characters was like the clamp that chafed us. When we read Tolstoy we were witness to the supremacy of family life; when we read Turgenev we saw in Bazarov’s parents a not-too distant version of our own. But in American literature there were all these strange and homeless solitaries, motherless and fatherless creatures like Natty and Huck and Ishmael. Didn’t they know where life came from and returned to?”

Moreover, “what could we make of all the talk, both from and about Emerson, which elevated individualism to a credo of life? For most of us, individualism seemed a luxury or deception of the gentile world. Immigrant Jewish culture had been rich in eccentrics, cranks, and individualist display; even the synagogue accepted prayer at personal tempos, coming to a conclusion with about the same nicety of concord one finds in certain American orchestras. But the idea of an individual covenant with God, each man responsible for his own salvation; the claim that each man is captain of his soul (picture those immigrant kids, in white shirts and middy blouses, bawling out, ‘O Captain, My Captain’); the notion that you not only have one but more than one chance in life, which constitutes the American version of grace; and the belief that you rise or fall in accord with your own merits rather than the will of alien despots—these residues of Emersonianism seemed not only strange but sometimes even a version of that brutality which our parents had warned was intrinsic to gentile life. Perhaps our exposure to this warmed-over Emersonianism prompted us to become socialists, as if thereby to make clear our distaste for these American delusions and to affirm, instead, a heritage of communal affections and responsibilities.”

This distaste also drove the young Jewish literary men and women of Howe’s generation to embrace another national literature as their own. “The dominant outlook of the immigrant Jewish culture” Howe writes, “was probably a shy, idealistic, ethicized, ‘Russian’ romanticism directed more toward social justice than personal fulfillment.” The literary heroes of the young Irving Howe and his friends were not Poe, Thoreau and Twain, but rather “Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov.”

With men like this sitting in judgment on American writing from the time of its first appearance, is it any wonder that our native literary traditions should have encountered such incomprehension and neglect? To the contrary, the wonder of the matter is that some of the works in these native traditions have actually, in the face of this critical obtusity, been able to establish themselves as popular—and, in a few cases, literary—classics. The great irony of the matter is that so many of those American writers who have (often posthumously) won official recognition in their own country have done so by first winning it abroad. Poe, as we have seen, first became a celebrity in France, through the translations of Baudelaire and Mallarmé. He then, as Mencken says, “began to win a slow and reluctant recognition in England (at first only from rebels and iconoclasts), and finally [once it had been established that the Europeans, the arbiters of all taste, had given them official approval, designated them as O.K.,] even in America.” In our own century, the French were the first to recognize the genius of Miller and Faulkner, as well as the importance of McCoy, Cain and Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was a great favorite of André Gide. Camus was inspired to write The Stranger by his reading of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. And Sartre was astonished to learn during an interview with an American reporter in France in 1947 that his interviewer had never heard of McCoy. The New York Herald-Tribune Weekly Book Review reported in that same year that McCoy was “the most discussed American writer in France.”

Another of the great ironies of American literary history is that the word “popular” should have been so widely used to denigrate and dismiss the work of American writers. For, thanks largely to the efforts of our critics and professors, it was a long time before American readers felt any interest in the work of American writers—before, that is, the work of American writers could by any stretch of the imagination be called “popular.” As Montague Slater writes of nineteenth century America, “American book-publishing … frowned on American authors—they were unpopular. … American authors kept alive by taking official or academic jobs.”

But as European critics and readers began “discovering” the genuinely American authors the United States was producing, American readers began coming ’round—even though, as we have seen, American critics and pedagogues never did. Eventually, these newly re-Americanized readers became so numerous and so indifferent to the views of the European-minded critics and professors they found all around them that it became common to hear talk of the decline of literature and how our best writers were unable to find an audience and how our brightest young people were no longer interested in the national letters. In fact, of course, our young people are reading more books than ever before, and our best writers are reaching more readers than ever before, more readers than Poe or Thoreau would ever have dreamed possible. It’s just that these readers have finally learned to disregard the witless prattle of our critics and professors and to leave the writers these worthies nominate as our best to the oblivion they deserve.

Let us consider, briefly, one case in point. Samuel R. Delany is a 38-year old black American novelist, short story writer and essayist whose first genuinely major work, the novel Dhalgren (1975), was preceded by fourteen years of mostly undistinguished science fiction and pornography. It might in fact be said of Delany, as it was once said of George Moore, that he has conducted his literary education in public. He published his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, in 1962 when he was nineteen years old, and he continued to publish at the rate of about a novel a year for the next seven years thereafter—The Fall of the Towers (1965), The Ballad of Beta-II(1965), Empire Star (1966) , Babel-17 (1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967) , and Nova (1968)—steadily and impressively growing in sophistication and ambition and dexterity from book to book to book, but never until the very end of this first period, 1967 and ’68, writing anything really distinguished, anything that mightn’t as easily have been written by any one of a number of other clever young men.

Then, from 1968 to 1975, the flow of books slowed almost to a stop. There was only a pornographic novel, The Tides of Lust (1972), a collection of short stories, Driftglass (1971), and a handful of critical essays later collected in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw:Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977). But a very great deal of important consolidation and growth was obviously going on behind the scenes. Certain of the short stories, notably “Aye, and Gomorrah” and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” were brilliant achievements, better than anything Delany had done up to that time (except possibly for the author’s journal entries used to introduce the larger sections of The Einstein Intersection). These stories proved that Delany was more than just a clever young man; they proved that he was an important literary talent.

And the essays which occupied his time during these same years—essays on science fiction, writing, reading, language and, inevitably, himself—could only add further conviction (if any were needed) to the proof. In the earliest of them, “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words” (1968), he argued for the Poe-esque doctrine that “put in opposition to ‘style’, there is no such thing as ‘content’.” In “Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction” (1970), he touched on the important and usually overlooked connections between science fiction and symbolism. And in “Shadows” (1973-4), he produced a long (almost book-length) confessional essay in what can only be described as a clever {and entirely successful) blend of the manners of, on the one hand, Thoreau and his fellow plainspoken autobiographers, from Twain to Miller to Didion, and, on the other hand, Poe and his fellow aesthete-impressionists, from Huneker to George Jean Nathan to Susan Sontag.

Then, in January of 1975, came Dhalgren, a nearly 900-page Joycean tour de force of a novel which still seems to me, after five years and two thorough readings of its entire text, to stake a better claim than anything else published in this country in the last quarter-century (excepting only Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck and Nabokov’s Bale Fire) to a permanent place as one of the enduring monuments of our national literature. Dhalgren is a novel which is at once rooted firmly in the American tradition of symbolism and caught up inextricably in the events and passions of its own time. And this is very nearly unprecedented (outside, perhaps of the now forgotten novels of Carl Van Vechten) in the entire history of our national letters. Even the hard-boiled symbolists, who habitually make their fables out of images drawn from the life they observe, have stopped short of actual social criticism. The dance marathon in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the seamy Southern California landscape of The Postman Always Rings Twice, the prep school vision of New York in The Catcher in the Rye—all these are merely settings; their importance (as in all symbolist fiction) is entirely as symbols of “the worlds reflected in the individual mirriors” of the authors and their character stand-ins. At no time in these novels does McCoy or Cain or Salinger seek to make his setting symbolic of the whole of American society or culture; at no time does any of these authors seek to make his book a description or protrayal of anything other than his personal vision of the human situation.

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Dhalgren incorporates such a personal vision, of course, but it also incorporates what will surely come to be seen as the definitive symbolic portrayal in fiction of the alternative culture of the ’60s and the relations in which that alternative culture stood to the rest of American life during that wild and woolly decade. And these are only two of the many different but interrelated levels of meaning—sociological, political, aesthetic, psychological, philosophical—which are woven into the warp and woof of this great book. This tale of Bellona, a Midwestern American city of more than two million which has been transformed by some catastrophe into a blazing ruin inhabited by about a thousand scavengers and adventurers, is, as Edmund Wilson once wrote of Joyce’s Ulysses, “animated by a complex inexhaustible life: we revisit it as we do a city, where we come more and more to recognize faces, to understand personalities, to grasp relations, currents and interest. [The author] has exercised considerable technical ingenuity in introducing us to the elements of his story in an order which will enable us to find our bearings: yet I doubt whether any human memory is capable, on a first reading, of meeting the demands … and when we reread it, we start in at any point, as if it were indeed something solid like a city which actually existed in space and which could be entered from any direction.”

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Since Dhalgren, Delany has published two more novels, Triton (1976) and Tales of Neveryon (1979), and two volumes of nonfiction, The American Shore (1978), a critical study of the contemporary American writer Thomas M. Disch (written largely during Delany’s term as visiting Butler Chair Professor of English at SUNY, Buffalo, and his subsequent term as a fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Twentieth Century Studies), and Heavenly Breakfast (1979), a personal memoir of ’60s commune life which shades off into general speculation on the issue of social order. Each of these books is distinguished in a way that little of Delany’s work was before Dhalgren. Each is the product of a mature and original creative vision. One at least—Tales of Neveryon—is, like Dhalgren, a major new work of American fiction. (Also like Dhalgren—which has sold nearly 100,000 copies a year for the past five years—it is finding readers.)

And what sort of critical response has this impressive body of work provoked? Exactly none. You may look as you will through the periodical indices in your favorite library: you will find no essays on Delany in our major magazines; you will find no author interviews with him; you will find not even so much as a single review of a single one of his fourteen books. Instead what you will find is the whining and fretting of such critics as those with whom we began our discussion. You will find John Gardner explaining that the English (notably John Fowles) have a monopoly on good fiction today, and that all American fiction is either immoral or fraudulent. You will find Henry Fairlie, an Englishman, lamenting the total absence of greatness from contemporary American writing. You will find Robert Alter bemoaning the passage of greatness in the novel and offering the names of ten Europeans (Woolf, Proust, Mann, Flaubert, Conrad, Stendhal, Emily Bronte, Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, and Dostoievsky) and only one American (Faulkner) as examples of what he means by “greatness.” You will find Lewis Lapham wondering “why no American author in the past thirty years ha[s] written a major novel or play.” You might even come upon a news item on the most recent presentation of the annual National Book Critics Circle Awards and learn that as far as the NBCC board of directors is concerned, the most outstanding book-length work of American fiction of 1979 was not Vonnegut’s Jailbird or Ursula LeGuin’s Malafrena or Donald Barthelme’s Great Days or Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage or Delany’s Tales of Neveryon, but rather The Year of the French, a painstakingly scholarly novel about an incident in 18th century Irish history. Just as Mencken observed sixty years ago, “the United States remains almost as much an English colonial possession, intellectually and spiritually, as it was on July 3, 1776.”

Have these members of our literary aristocracy—Gardner and Fairlie and Alter and Lapham and the directors of the National Book Critics Circle—not read Delany and LeGuin and Gene Wolfe and the other distinctively American writers who are now doing important work in fiction? Or have the foolish prejudices in which they were so energetically tutored by the literary pedagogues of a generation ago rendered them permanently incapable of passing reasoned judgment on a book because it is published as a paperback original by a mass market house like Bantam or Ballantine or Fawcett or Ace, or because it is called “science fiction” by booksellers?

Like Mencken six decades ago, I must end my inquiry inconclusively—and with a word or two (which may be quoted verbatim, so similar has my own task been to his earlier one) of special pleading and self-justification. “I have described the disease. Let me say at once that I have no remedy to offer. I simply set down a few ideas, throw out a few hints, attempt a few modest inquiries into causes. Perhaps my argument often turns upon itself: the field is weed-grown and paths are hard to follow. It may be that insurmountable natural obstacles stand in the way of the development of a distinctively American culture, grounded upon a truly egoistic nationalism and supported by a native aristocracy.”

One thing at least is certain: the literary aristocracy with which we are presently saddled is not supporting American literature, but rather European colonial literature, and only “an under-current of revolt, small but vigorous,” signals the possibility of any happier state of affairs in the future. The Anglophiles and Europhiles of American letters remain firmly in control. “Today, as in the day of Emerson, they set the tune. … But into the singing there occasionally enters a discordant note. On some dim tomorrow, perhaps, perchance, peradventure, they may be challenged.”


Jeff Riggenbach is Executive Editor of LR.

Beginning with Edgar Allan Poe at bottom, and circling clockwise around Mark Twain: Henry Miller, Henry David Thoreau, Ursula K. LeGuin, Walt Whitman, Samuel R. Delany, Joan Didion, H.L. Mencken and Raymond Chandler.