READING THE AMERICAN NOVEL 1865-1914 by G.R. Thompson, Reviewed by Christopher P. Wilson
 

READING THE AMERICAN NOVEL 1865-1914
By G.R. Thompson
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) xvii + 434 pp.
Reviewed by Christopher P. Wilson on 2012-01-29.

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The author of this book was recently the co-editor, with Robert Lamb, of A Companion to American Fiction 1865-1914 (hereafter ACAF), also published by Wiley-Blackwell (2005; revised 2009). In many respects, this book is a sequel of sorts, a hands-on manual that works much like a knowing guide to the previous project and to the field it represented: a Companion's companion. (Full disclosure: I was a contributor to ACAF myself.) It is almost as if this new book fulfills that little-acknowledged, slightly taboo, but nevertheless recurrent editor's dream--a dream sometimes morphing into a nightmarish obligation, alas--of actually having to write the chapter or essay that one has previously commissioned. Indeed, Thompson freely admits that this new book is "an extension of, and at times in debate with" (xi) that other volume. There are many moments, in fact, where the new book recommends particular discussions in ACAF, or gently tweaks them, making them more accessible to a wider audience.

The wider audience sought here, obviously, is that of the classroom. In his introduction Thompson states that his new book addresses the same three audiences that ACAF ostensibly had: advanced undergraduates preparing for graduate school, beginning graduate students, and a more general, always-undefined grouping of non-specialist intellectuals (x). But by and large, the first two categories seem uppermost in Thompson's mind. He reads the American novel through three different lenses. The first, largely in the first part of the book, focuses on literary movements and genre categories (romance, realism, naturalism, impressionism and so on); the second frames thematic topics like "Marriage, Insanity, and Suicide," or Regionalism and Race, or (one of his most capacious) "War, Reconstruction, and Future History"; and a third frames a major author and an overview of his or her literary career. Rather ingeniously, Thompson then allows these lenses to overlap. Besides having chapters of their own, Mark Twain and Henry James loom large in the genre and thematic discussions. So besides tracking three major phases in the chapter on James's career, the book explains his international theme within the chapter on what Thompson (largely following the cues of Frank Norris) calls "American Quiet Realism." Elsewhere, a chapter on a "generic triangle" (73) of three naturalist texts finds in them variations of domestic and epic romance, hard and soft determinism, and so on.

Thompson argues that American fiction after the Civil War was largely shaped by three influences. First, he cites the "broader, primarily European, context of social and literary history" (ix). More narrowly, he charts the transatlantic, intellectual crosscurrents that shaped American conceptions of romance, realism, and naturalism (high and low). In so doing, he shows that the narrative modes of romance and sentimentalism--his second major topic--still strongly informed American fiction in this period. Thirdly, he stresses the importance of narrative structure, repeatedly diagramming the various story forms of this era in terms of an easily-understood, modified Freytag approach that parses plots or dramatic action through a sequence of (usually five) "Acts."

The result is an eclectic mix of the expected and the neglected. For instance, in the section on the realism that was championed by William Dean Howells, he counterpoints such familiar figures of English and European literary history as Scott, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. But Thompson also briefly credits George Eliot, rather than Jane Austen, as a stimulus to Howells's cause. Post-bellum American realism, we are told, flowed not just from the familiar Continental "matrix" of influences (30) but from the work of writers such as Gogol, Strindberg, and many others whom Americanists don't normally think about very much. Likewise, in discussing naturalism, Thompson links the movement not only to Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac and Herbert Spencer, but also to Sigmund Freud and the Viennese physician Josef Breuer (57).

Much more than ACAF, the tone of this book is informal, practical, and synoptic. Based in plot summary, the book is free-ranging in its opinions and often disarming in its humor and pragmatism. Fundamentally, Thompson re-grounds his Companion in soil freshly cleared, working to untangle and then re-tangle the dominant definitions in his field, patiently examining generic categories that often elicit only impatience within more specialized studies. Thompson also moves judiciously from some of the foundational studies of American realism and naturalism--such as those of Jay Martin, or Warren French, and Donald Pizer--to more recent criticism. Unusually flexible and beguilingly candid, his account is also humane, literate, and balanced. Sometimes he even adopts the diction of popular culture and thus of students themselves. He calls the fifth "Act" of Dreiser's famous novel "Carrie Rocks On" (120), and in a section on naturalist conceptions of power, a subhead reads, "The Force Be With You" (82). One imagines these graphic marking-outs of plot structure as being very useful for the classroom, particularly because, as Amy Kaplan once observed (in The Social Construction of American Realism [1985]), even the masterworks of this period struggle to contain the unruly "realities" they portray.

Thompson's Freytag designs also allow for some wiggle room. In discussing what might seem like two very different kinds of texts-- Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs--he finds a five act structure in each. This dramatic method of analyzing fiction certainly promises to help students organize what Thompson rightly calls "rambling" discursive structures like Dreiser's (116), or impressionistic, episodic, seemingly "randomly arranged" (308) stories like Jewett's. Thompson gives students their bearings, or what I would call a navigational "dead reckoning," from major genre conventions and intellectual landmarks. But Thompson's eye also spies transitional points of narrative structure, or what he likes to call unusual "hinges" between major Acts. In Norris's McTeague, for instance, Thompson discerns a hinge or intermediate moment between the penny pinching compulsion of Trina and--then--the growing greed of Marcus Schouler (102). In making observations like this, Thompson takes his vocabularies from contemporaneous editorial commentary; rather than working within the formal, theoretical categories of our own time, he adopts key terms and metaphors from the texts at hand. It is thus telling that Frank Norris's criticism (or, in some views, his polemic) makes several pivotal appearances in this book, since through his criticism Norris sought to invent his own literary tradition. So, for that matter, did Willa Cather--far less prominent here-- and Pauline Hopkins, who is barely mentioned. These additions might only have further buttressed Thompson's case.

Of course a book whose pragmatic aims require telescoped history and brisk plot summary will not suit the palates of many specialists in this field. And to reach its ideal tripartite audience, one wishes at times that it went a bit further. On the one hand, as I argued in reviewing an earlier Companion to the novels of this era (in American Literary Realism 1870-1910, 29 [Spring 1997]: 88-89), we still need a much fuller intellectual and institutional history of the critical method that, even with his own modifications, Thompson himself represents. His rather abbreviated, part-historiographical overview of early mimetic thinking on realism and naturalism only briefly reckons with the social constructionism of the 1980s and beyond. His own insistence on the intermingling of romance and realism, for instance, might have led to fuller engagement with Richard Brodhead's discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne's legacy among the realists, Eric Sundquist's introduction to his path-breaking collection American Realism (Johns Hopkins UP, 1985), or the work of feminist and historicist scholars who, for example, have examined the work of Rebecca Harding Davis.

In a similar way, Thompson's preference for the explicit critical discourse of the post-bellum period itself leads him to sideline thornier, more vexing hermeneutic questions about how we read in the first place: about the relationships between historical readers and formalist protocols, popular tastes and elite forms, the concurrent demands of publishing or book circulation and authorial intentions. He also tends to slight some of the chief topics that animate recent cultural studies of this period (empire, sexuality, corporate rule, contract law, and so on), but are less visible in plots. That is, he normally probes historical developments--such as trends in marriage, suicide, and urban sociality--only if they become thematically prominent in a text. (Despite his citations of Frederic Jameson, he seldom treats absent causes.) Nor does he clearly explain why five-Act structure fits so well the literary works of this particular historical moment. Even in his useful, Freytag-inspired ruminations on writers such as Dreiser and Jewett, I can imagine students asking why these two would use the same structure to organize such startlingly different stories. As Thompson himself surely knows, the ordering and mapping of literary works tends to cool them down and mute controversies that students might actually get excited about. Was it the portrait of race and slavery in Huckleberry Finn that proved controversial in its moment, or its portrait of an unruly adolescent? Via popular minstrelsy and/or journalistic mimicry, did Twain both love and steal black dialect to construct the famous, proto-modernist voice of Huck? Does Sister Carrie, for all of its laments about Carrie's rocking into loneliness, actually reinforce capitalist structures of identity and desire? For all of its virtues--really, because of its unbridled inclusiveness--Canada's book tends to bypass what Gerald Graff calls "teaching the controversies" on its way (back) to canonicity as such.

Nevertheless, Thompson's schematic approach hardly keeps him from making suggestive, detailed observations. Indeed, despite his urge to give students a dead reckoning--which, in some cases, means laying out the conventional wisdom--he does his best work in stretching the limits of such wisdom. By sheer coincidence, just as I was finishing Thompson's eclectic, wide-ranging last chapter on Twain as a modernist, I had been reading a brilliant essay by Susan Gillman on Twain's modernist notions of time and history ("In Twain's Times," Arizona Quarterly 61 [Spring 2005]: 7-39). Gillman argues persuasively that in casting Twain's late career as a phase of disillusion and despair, conventional literary history diminishes the intellectual seriousness of the author's final explorations. Moreover, such explorations included a view of history that was anything but teleological at its core. (Thompson himself tells us that after Connecticut Yankee in particular, the one-time realist casts doubt on "the transparency of language... [and on] the idea of a unified self and a unified world" [371]). Yet to cast Twain as a modernist is to employ precisely the kind of teleology that commonly informs our literary history-map in the first place. I mention this paradox not because it sheds any particular light on Thompson's literary teleology, but because it helps to illuminate a contradiction I myself have felt in my own classrooms: we cast doubt on the categories that have been driving the very narrative we've been steering. To readapt Melville's "The Conflict of Convictions," post-bellum U.S. literary history thus often "spins against the way it drives."

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I end my review here because I believe we need to "address"--in all senses of the word--the first two thirds of Thompson's audience: advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students. Where are they? How do we speak to them? How do we map our professional field for them: in pieces, or in a whole? (It is hard not to notice, for example, that Wiley-Blackwell copyrights each chapter of this book, as if expecting that each one will be individually copied and uploaded.) And what if these audiences, despite the recent proliferation of Companions, are actually getting smaller? What do we imagine students will do with this very thorough book? In my own case, I do not often urge students to read summaries of literary careers, or investigations of genre categories or literary movements, even if I sketch such matters in lectures. Instead, for their own work, I more often ask students to undertake contextual or interdisciplinary comparisons: for instance, to look for post-bellum photographs online, and to compare some of the faces they find to the debates about "faces" and human transparency in The Rise of Silas Lapham; or to find material in the archives of the Library of Congress' American Memory Project that would allow them to contextualize, say, a short story on immigration by Sui Sin Far. In other words, I would not normally send students out to get plot summaries of books that they are or will be reading. But I would ask them to consult this book and ACAF for concise, prudent, bibliographical notations at the end of each chapter. By doing their own archival research as well as consulting bibliographies, students can re-make the archive we provide for them, navigate for a while on their own--and again, perhaps, push back against the spins and drives of our own preferences. In other words, like Reading American Fiction itself, they may do their most complete work when they read beyond our own initial reckonings.

Christopher P. Wilson is Professor of English at Boston College.


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