Category Archives: Literary history

The Economist gets confused about what century it is

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably already read about the Economist’s puzzling decision to criticize Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by defending American slavery. The unsigned review concludes by speculating:

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy. [emphasis mine]

I’m not going to spend much time on the obvious, if rather alarming, historical ignorance here, though I will point out that the Economist is making literally the same argument in defense of slavery that nineteenth-century slaveholders made, and it is no more reasonable or accurate today than it was then. The historical research on the efficiency of slave labor is complex and inconclusive, but regardless, the final word on slavery as a system really ought to rest on the fact that it is fundamentally inhumane and abhorrent.

But that’s not actually the point I want to make, because it’s been made far more eloquently in other places. I want to note that the final line of this review, like the reasoning itself, is also drawn directly from the nineteenth century. Again, this is literally the same argument people used in the nineteenth century to dismiss criticism of slavery and Jim Crow. Below are excerpts from reviews of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), which gave a fictionalized account of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre:

Unlike Mr. Booker Washington, who in his grand book on the race question deals so fairly and squarely with both white and colored, the writer of “The Marrow of Tradition” is decidedly one sided, and paints the white man as little less than a fiend. (Christian Work)

The treatment of the question is faulty, in that the contrast between the two races is marked with all good on the side of the negro and all bad on the side of the white. (St. Paul Globe)

If the Negroes were not so blameless and the Whites not so unrelievedly bad, it would be more convincing. (World’s Work)

He divides his community up into whites and blacks, and then proceeds to make all the white people black as to character and all the black people white. (Dallas Morning News)

The story tells how the white people plot against, oppress and persecute the negroes. Every white man in the book is made to be a villain, and the white women are made to be designing creatures without a semblance of honesty or any other virtue that is esteemed in the south… And then the negroes of the book! They are all depicted as absolutely honest and upright. There is no such thing as a negro villain in Chesnutt’s book. (Atlanta Journal)

That these authors were all intent on dismissing Chesnutt’s criticism of race relations in the South is understandable, if regrettable: they were steeped in racist ideology and threatened by calls for change. Charging Chesnutt with a lack of balance provided an easy way of rejecting his criticism without really considering its substance (and, I’ll note, there are a few admirable white characters in the book, so these accusations, which are repeated in several other reviews, are not even strictly accurate). It’s a rhetorical move, not an analytic one, and as in the Economist‘s review, it often comes at the end of these reviews, as if to make an emphatic and definitive point that is in actuality more like a sleight of hand.

We’re still steeped in racist ideology today, and as the Economist demonstrates, that ideology remains rooted in the rhetoric of nineteenth century racism.

Update: The Economist has wisely withdrawn the review. You can still find the full text here, along with a brief and rather unreflective apology.

Narrative and fragmentation, part 2

More from the Times on the significance of narrative. Unlike Steve Almond’s grandiose account, Alissa Quart’s analysis of cable dramas emphasizes the individual, escapist benefits of narrative:

By pulling us away from Twitter, texts, e-mails, pointless videos and all the other technological distractions demanding attention, “Homeland,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” provide a coherent (albeit sometimes disturbing) refuge from our fragmented lives. I, for one, find a sense of narrative order, however fleeting, from these shows…

For many among today’s intelligentsia, television serials like “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” with their continuing fables of Alicia Florrick and Walter White, Don Draper and Carrie Mathison, occupy the cultural position of the Dickens tales that were famously doled out in monthly installments. (Except that spoilers are possible now in a way they were not in the age of Pip or Little Nell.) Narrative shows have become the entertainment of choice. And that’s because stories, not algorithms, give order to our hectic world.

In Quart’s account, narrative is pleasurable, rather than moral. Unfortunately, that description of the pleasures of narrative is accompanied by an elitism that makes it tough to take what’s she’s saying seriously. “Today’s intelligentsia” may find a comforting pleasure in narrative, but so, too, does everybody else. That’s why narrative is so powerful: because it provides comfort and entertainment to nearly everybody. To treat the cultural power of narrative as a function of intelligence or education is to misunderstand much of narrative’s attraction.

Narrative and fragmentation in the age of the Internet

Steve Almond’s New York Times essay, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’” laments the demise of the Dickensian omniscient narrator, or at the very least, what Almond sees as a reduced cultural imperative to produce unified narratives. The internet, Almond claims, has chopped the parts of our lives up into small, consumable pieces, each of which is dissociated from the others, removing the context necessary to produce narrative. Almond writes,

In the past, our nation has been summoned to social progress by leaders like Lincoln and F.D.R. and Martin Luther King Jr., who served as narrators of a larger story about the American experience, our sins and duties and moral potential. Last summer, President Obama conceded that he had failed to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.” He needed to be a better narrator.

This is a laudable goal. But even if Obama tried to tell such a story, would we be able to hear it? Or would we hear only the bits and pieces run through our chosen media filters — filters designed to neuter the force of any larger narrative by snipping it into sound bites?

The underlying and more ominous question is whether the story of our species — the greater human narrative — has simply become too enormous, too confused and terrifying, for us to grapple with. This might explain why so many of us now rely on a cacophony of unreliable narrators to shape our view of the world and ourselves.

Most striking are Almond’s assumptions and value judgements about narrative and narrators: coherence and reliability is good, while fragmentation is an understandable but unfortunate consequence of modern culture. Of the omniscient narrators of the nineteenth century, Almond writes, “These stories don’t just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge our moral imagination. They offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it.” In Almond’s eyes, story tellers are better leaders, and we should prefer narrators who tell large-scale stories over those who are unable to rise above fragmentation.

Of course, the act of narration is one of imposing the narrator’s idea of order on an unordered set of circumstances. It can be a violent act, or an oppressive one, or an actively manipulative act, depending on who’s doing the narrating and whose stories are being assembled into narrative. And narrative can lend a false sense of security by implying an order or a purpose that isn’t actually present. Good narrators can be compelling leaders by telling persuasive stories, not necessarily by telling true stories.

I love a good omniscient narrator as much as the next guy, but I think we want to be careful about ascribing an inherently positive valence to narrative. Which, I would argue, a closer reading of those classic narrators would actually reveal.

YOIT: William Dean Howells will not be your advance-agent

William Dean Howells to Hamlin Garland:

York Harbor, August 4, 1917.

My dear Garland:

I have most decidedly refused to let Macmillans quote from my letter to you. I hope to be your friendliest critic, but not their advance-agent. To let a publisher advertise from such a letter as I like to write a brother-writer would take all heart and trust out of friendship, and I never do it…

Yours sincerely,


Citation: MS Am 1784.1 (61), Houghton Library, Harvard University

YOIT: Upton Sinclair does not like contentment

A letter from Upton Sinclair to Henry Wysham Lanier, editor of the Review of Reviews:

Pasadena, California
March 21, 1925

My dear Lanier:

It has been so long since we met that perhaps you have forgotten me. I am reading your magazine with interest; it was a fine idea and deserves success, but I note in your selections a great excess of the literature of contentment with the world as it is. I think you ought to give the discontented a wider hearing, and I take the liberty of sending you a copy of “The Cry for Justice”, in which you will find a great mass of selections and references to books which you have overlooked.

Upton Sinclair

Citation: MS Am 800.52 (231), Houghton Library, Harvard University

More Walter Hines Page

And a quick link to a post I wrote over on the Houghton Library’s blog about a few of my favorite letters from the Walter Hines Page papers:

You’ve Got Mail: “We cannot feel sufficient confidence in our ability to make a success of your book”

From the archives: famous writers edition

From Frank Norris to Walter Hines Page, concerning a letter that Norris’s landlord evidently sent to Page (Norris’s publisher):

My Dear Mr. Page:

The old beast that wrote you I had forgotten to pay my rent will I hope die a sudden and violent death and fry on a particularly hot grid.

The last I heard from him was that he was hoping to sublet my old apartment so that I would not have to pay September’s rent. Very naturally I waited to hear from him again. And then he knifes me.

Well I sent him his damn money to day and may it perish with him.

Citation: MS Am 1090 (792), Houghton Library, Harvard University

From the archives

From the Walter Hines Page papers: WHP records “Typical Tar Heel Specials.” Most are uninteresting, with these exceptions (all misspellings sic. The document is undated, but if I had to guess, I’d say the late 1880s):

Trespasres Notice

Trespasers will take notice that they will be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law by one mongrel dog which aint never been over friendly to strangers and one double barl shot gun which aint loaded with no sofy pillars. Dam if I aint getting tired of this here helraisin on my property.

A notice found on an old shop door in Anson county: The copartnership heretofore resisting between me and Mose Skinner am this day resolved, and them what owe the firm will settle with me and them what the firm owes will settle with Mose,
Ned Barley.

Citation: MS Am 1090.3, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Why I study reception: teaching edition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work I do and what it has to offer—partly because the isolation and hyper-focus of trying to work on the dissertation all day, every day may be getting to me, partly because it’s a question I need to have a compelling answer for as I get closer to the job market, and partly because what I do is in many ways so removed from the sort of work most other graduate students in the department do that I sometimes feel as if I must be going about things all wrong.

That last part makes it sound like I’m some sort of iconoclast or innovator, which could not be farther from the truth. But I work on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reception, and I spend a lot more time looking at what people had to say about books when they were first published than I do putting forth new or challenging readings of a novel. To some people, that looks very little like literary study.

My interest in reception is two-fold. The first and most important reason is that I want to know what readers and reviewers had to say about books, particularly novels. It gives me a better sense of how novels fit into nineteenth-century American culture (plus, people had some crazy and hilarious things to say). Novels and book reviewing had a different status at the turn of the century than they do today. In 1902 Frank Norris declared (with more than a little self-interest, of course), “The Pulpit, the Press and the Novel—these indisputably are the great moulders of Public opinion and Public morals to-day. But the Pulpit speaks but once a week; the Press is read with lightning haste and the morning news is wastepaper by noon. But the novel goes into the home to stay. It is read word for word, is talked about, discussed; its influence penetrates every chink and corner of the family.” It seems worth knowing, then, what kind of public opinion novels were molding.

Continue reading

Multiculturalism is not the boogeyman

I have better things to be doing, and Joseph Epstein’s review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel, published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t really deserve a second look, but there’s so much wrong with this piece that I couldn’t let it pass. Epstein, who Wikipedia tells me was a lecturer at Northwestern from 1974 to 2002 and a former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s magazine The American Scholar, takes issue with the recently published Cambridge volume for marking American literature’s descent into irrelevance, brought on by multiculturalism, represented somewhat puzzlingly in Epstein’s view by John Updike, Phillip Roth, and Norman Mailer.

The problem with The Cambridge History of the American Novel, Epstein says (aside from the academic jargon, at which Epstein takes a few none-too-original swipes), is that, “‘The Cambridge History of the American Novel’ could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.” Ah, yes, that time-honored, longstanding distinction between high and low culture that has informed the study of English literature for all of, say, 130 years. In fact, the categories of high- low- and middlebrow-culture emerged at approximately the same time as the English department as we know it today–the end of the nineteenth century, when anxious white dudes were worried, as is Epstein, about “barbarians” flooding the gates. The “centurions of high culture” whose disappearance Epstein laments were guarding the gates against literature written by and appealing to people unlike themselves. They did so by assigning value to certain kinds of writing (conveniently, the writing produced by other middle-class white dudes), while denigrating other modes (sentimentalism, for instance–conveniently, the kind of writing produced by “scribbling women”).

But that, I’d imagine, is more of that “literary history” that Epstein disdains because it leaves out “why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.” The study of literature, Epstein says, should be about what is good and why, not about that multiculturalism crap that lets people teach whichever novels they want, even if Epstein hasn’t heard of them. “Multiculturalism,” he says, “which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.”

Seriousness–now that’s an easily-agreed upon way to value literature. I mean, who can disagree that Melville was serious? But what about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? That seems like pretty serious business to me. Epstein’s examples of unserious literature are the aforementioned Roth, Mailer, and Updike, whom he calls “sex-obsessed.” No argument from me there, and Roth might not be my favorite twentieth-century author, but I wouldn’t call The Human Stain or American Pastoral lacking in seriousness.

Despite his jabs at “multiculturalism” (is anyone still using that word, anyway?), Epstein manages to make it through the entire review of a book that includes chapter after chapter on literature by non-white writers without mentioning a single non-white author. “Multiculturalism” may be the problem, but Epstein doesn’t single out any “multicultural” authors who fail to live up to his high culture standards of seriousness. He may not think Roth, Mailer, and Updike will have staying power, but he has no comment on Morrison, Ellison or Wright. Epstein’s nomination for best writers of the twentieth century? Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser.

As I said, the review doesn’t really deserve the attention I’m giving it. But there are scores of comments cheering Epstein on, lamenting the fact that English departments teach things like Asian American literature and nineteenth century experimental writing, rather than “the classics” like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton (ETA: As if English departments aren’t also teaching Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. It’s not like students are unable to take classes on Shakespeare because it’s all Aniza Yezierska and Jessie Fauset, all the time). All of this is predicated on the idea that the study of English is some sort of stable, longstanding institution that has undergone disastrous change in the last twenty or thirty years. The fact is, though, that the English department is the product of the late nineteenth century, and the study of American literature the product of the early- to mid-twentieth century. What, who, and why we study literature has been in flux for that entire time.

Epstein’s right about one thing: in today’s academic and political climate, English departments need to make a stronger case for the relevance of literary study and the English major. But the way to make that case is not through some conservative nostalgic fantasy about the good old days when we studied serious literature (by white people). Instead, we need to talk more about the value of exposing students to the diversity of American writing and a variety of critical approaches. Doing so challenges them to rethink and evaluate their own ideas and to consider ways other people in other times have appreciated literature (because, Epstein’s insistence on the universality of literary value notwithstanding, there are as many ways to appreciate and value literature as there are ways to write it).