A COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL by ALFRED BENDIXEN, ed., Reviewed by Brian Yothers
 

A COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL
Ed. ALFRED BENDIXEN
(Blackwell, 2012) lxx + 633 pp.
Reviewed by Brian Yothers on 2013-04-20.

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America and the novel seem to be made for each other. For better or worse, the impulses we associate with the novel mirror the nation's middle-class culture, democracy, capitalism, and a complex array of other attributes: a strong streak of moralism blended with an equally strong streak of commercialism, and an ambivalent combination of reverence and dismissiveness toward the arts. This book examines the mirror. Encompassing the history of the novel in America, it provides a number of useful frames for reading American fiction while also presenting exemplary approaches to various literary movements and even to individual novels.

The collection is divided into three major sections: Historical Developments, Genres and Traditions, and Major Texts. Section one shows how to read the American novel diachronically, by era; section two shows how to read it synchronically, by genre or theme; section three shows how a variety of critical methods can illuminate major works of American fiction such as Moby Dick, Portrait of a Lady, and Huckleberry Finn. In general, the essays in the first two sections tend toward broad synthesis: mapping the scope of American literature, linking its periods and movements to American history and world literature, and identifying major authors, themes, and arguments. In the third section, contributors make particular and often provocative arguments about specific texts.

In the first section, which offers a coherent historical narrative, contributors show how the novel was constructed and reconstructed by American writers ranging from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. In his introductory essay, Alfred Bendixen usefully reminds us that while America has a great and perennial affinity for the novel, it did not invent the genre; inheriting the novel from English writers such as Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Americans discovered that it suited American culture. Following Bendixen's useful introduction, Maria Karafilis sketches the development of the American novel from its origins to the American Renaissance. But in doing so, she prompts some questions: when and where did the American novel originate? How do we distinguish the often transatlantic British novel of the eighteenth century from the fiction that will ultimately be labeled "American"? Finessing the transatlantic question for the sake of conceptual and chronological clarity, Karafilis posits that the American novel began with the first group of novels published by residents of the early republic after the colonies declared independence from England. She then ably tracks the continuities and discontinuities among three eras: the late eighteenth century, the early nineteenth century, and the mid nineteenth century.

While her viewpoint is necessarily panoramic, given the size and complexity of the periods she surveys, the ensuing essays in this section work within frameworks that are thematically and chronologically more compressed. Tracking the movement from realism to naturalism in the later nineteenth century, Jeanne Campbell Reesman stresses the chronology of this sequence but also recognizes that Frank Norris linked naturalism to romanticism, and she also argues that naturalism culminated in the short stories of Jack London and the novels of Theodore Drieser. Peter Hays situates the modern American novel in the wider context of international Modernism, arguing that the multiple definitions of this term do not keep it from applying centrally to the work of Hemingway and Faulkner, and more tangentially to the work of Stein, Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos. Notably, Hays draws his definition of Modernism from the poetic theories of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and according to Hays, the most important pioneer of the Modernist novel was Gertrude Stein, who tilled the borderlands between literature and visual art as well as between fiction and poetry.

The problem with bolting literary movements to specific eras becomes clear in the remaining essays. In discussing the American novel between the two world wars, Bendixen notes not only that popular fiction abounded in the first half of the twentieth century (from which he cites a generous range of works), but also that major novels by writers such as Willa Cather and Zora Neale Hurston defy easy categorization by combining elements of naturalism, realism, regionalism, and modernism. On the other hand, according to Sharon Becker and Wendy Martin, the still more widely disparate elements of the Cold War novel came together as a wide range of novelists contested sexual, political, and racial patterns of conformity and discrimination. In particular, Becker and Martin argue, James Baldwin and Flannery O'Connor showed how writers renowned for their work in other genres could significantly advance the development of the novel after World War II. Concluding Part I, Martha J. Cutter finds the American novel since 1970 deeply shaken by the explosion of multiculturalism. Though post-modernism, she notes, undermines a belief in authorial identity, the multicultural impulse reaffirms ethnic identity and thus engenders what she usefully surveys: the efflorescence of African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latino/a literatures during the past forty years. While ranging from Toni Morrison to Sherman Alexie, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Julia Alvarez, Cutter also speculates provocatively on the emergence of post-postmodern fiction in the work of writers such as Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Tim O'Brien, Lorrie Moore, and the later Philip Roth.

Among the most impressive lessons taught by the second section is the range of categories into which the American novel can fit. Individual contributors define the Gothic novel (Charles L. Crow), the historical romance (Emily Miller Budick), the sentimental novel (Marion Noble), the political novel (Chip Rhodes), the war novel (James Meredith), comic traditions in the novel (Judith Yaross Lee), the Jewish American novel (Derek Parker Royal), the Chicano/a novel (Juan J. Alonzo), the African American novel (Melvin Donalson), the crime novel (Leonard Cassuto), science fiction (Eric S. Rabkin), and the utopian novel (Jean Pfaelzer). Finally, Deborah Carlin applies queer theory to the American novel and Robert M. Luscher explains its relation to the short story cycle.

Yet even as they categorize novels, these often very stimulating essays prompt us to see how they can be classified under more than one heading. Royal's discussion of thematic emphases in Jewish American literature, for instance, meshes with Rhodes's work on the political novel and Lee's work on comic traditions. Reading Budick on the historical romance, Noble on the sentimental novel, and Pfaelzer on the utopian novel, we can also see that all three kinds of fiction share uneasy relationships to race, gender, and history--something that Lee shows is ubiquitous in American comedy. Cassuto and Rabkin illustrate how the boundaries between genre fiction and literary fiction are more porous than they appear. So too, as we learn from Donalson, are the boundaries between fiction, non-fiction (particularly autobiography), and music in African-American literature, and Alonzo finds a similar range of generic impulses in the Chicano novel. Likewise, Carlin shrewdly demonstrates how novels drafted from a gay or lesbian perspective invite a wider inquiry into gender and sexuality.

In section three, which examines major novels, Monika Elbert vigorously defends Hawthorne's foregrounding of the personal and in particular his portrait of Hester Prynne, who--says Elbert-- explodes dichotomizing myths about women "and becomes Woman Thinking" (388). Re-imagining what the terms "major work" and "major author" can mean, Wyn Kelley argues that Moby-Dick re-creates authorship by turning the novel into "a collection of such books--great not so much because of its 'original composition' but because of its capacity to include and mix the rich potentialities of all kinds of book-making" (397). Reviewing the reception history of Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose cultural impact surpassed that of any other nineteenth-century novel, Susan Belasco builds upon the scholarship of the last forty years to make a compelling case for the value of Stowe's artistry: besides the political efficacy of her text as a brief for abolition, it created opportunities for sympathy. Turning from the art of Stowe to that of Henry James, Greg W. Zacharias shows that for all its literary sophistication, Portrait of a Lady can be linked not only to the work of international "masters" like Ivan Turgenev, but also to popular American novels representing beset young heroines. Michael Kiskis reminds us that while the themes of Huckleberry Finn are often meant for adults, it chiefly etches the vulnerabilities of childhood. Analyzing a novel that has been raised from oblivion to canonization in the past half century, Emily Toth shows how Kate Chopin's The Awakening combines elements of American popular fiction with features of French literary fiction.

In his sensitive reading of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, James Nagel closely examines both its biographical sources and affective themes. As in Kiskis's reading of Huckleberry Finn, Nagel argues that Crane's novel subordinates large-scale matters of political and military strategy to personal experiences of pain, vulnerability, and fear, and in a separate essay on The Sun Also Rises, Nagel finds that Hemingway likewise foregrounds loss in relation to war. According to Kathy Fedorko, biography and affect form a similarly substantial backdrop for The House of Mirth: through the story of Lily Bart, Fedorko suggests, Edith Wharton asks how a woman can become an agent and an artist rather than a commodity.

The essays on The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury each consider how these novels contrapose large-scale history with personal discovery and loss. In Richard Lehan's account of Gatsby, Fitzgerald situates Nick Carraway's representative individual disenchantment between American myths of time (progress) and space (infinite possibility). To Philip Weinstein, Faulkner's novel communicates "a sense of value despoliated beyond repair" (510) in the Compson family's existential struggles, in the larger story of American racial and regional relations, and in the still larger story of the human encounter with death.

The remaining essays each consider a novel in terms of race, ethnicity, regionalism, or all three. According to Andrew Warnes, Richard Wright's study of world literature -- of Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Zola-- helped him to reject the ideal of the "Great American Novel." By creating instead a thoroughly disillusioned black character in Native Son, Wright brought the alienated psyche of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov into the "blizzard of whiteness" that engulfed American racial politics in the early twentieth century (534). By contrast, John Carlos Rowe finds that Ellison's Invisible Man lacks precisely the international resonance that Warnes detects in Native Son, and because of this lack, Rowe questions the status of Ellison's novel as a critique of racism and empire. Working against the grain of these two essays, Ben Siegel argues that instead of staging irreconcilable tragic conflict, Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March makes its mark on American fiction by rejecting "negativism" and radiating optimism.

Yet if Augie March resounds with hope, tragedy comes to the fore in Beloved, which unflinchingly critiques and mourns violence and slavery. While finding the roots of Toni Morrison's widely revered novel in the historiography of slavery and revealing its thematic emphasis on memory, mourning, and healing, Valerie Smith particularly stresses the ambivalence of Morrison's language with regard to memory. For Smith, Morrison paradoxically poses the necessity of remembering and the threat of being "consumed" by "ghosts" of the past (580). Finally, in considering Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Olivia Carr Edenfield reiterates the emphasis on memory that has shaped so many of the essays in this volume as a whole. Taking memory as a kind of hope at the end of McCarthy's nightmarish story, she also suggests that this hope becomes gendered through the woman who becomes a surrogate mother to the protagonist.

In these essays on a century and a half of major American novels, then, contributors show how artistic, existential, racial, political, and gendered elements combine and recombine. One is tempted to wonder what additional light on these concerns might have been shed by considering novels published before 1850 (when The Scarlet Letter appeared), but even without them, the body of work discussed here is substantial and varied.

Perhaps the most important thing that any companion to the American novel can do is to display both the immensity and diversity of the field, and to leave the door open for even more wide-ranging investigations to come. For that purpose, an easily overlooked but very valuable component of this companion is its extensive chronology of the publication of significant novels in America. Students and scholars looking for new projects or for unfamiliar works that fit into already established projects will find a great deal to work with in this section, which shows how even something as humble as front matter can be at once a labor of love and an inspiration for future labors. But with its rich array of critical perspectives and its coherent narration of the history of the novel in America, this volume offers much more than just a catalogue. As a consolidation of prior scholarship and a spur to further investigation, it makes a meaningful and substantial contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation about the American novel.

Brian Yothers is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso.


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