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This ambitious literary history traces the American novel from its emergence in the late eighteenth century to its diverse incarnations in the multi-ethnic, multi-media culture of the present day. In a set of original essays by renowned scholars from all over the world, the volume extends important critical debates and frames new ones. Offering new views of American classics, it also breaks new ground to show the role of popular genres - such as science fiction and mystery novels - in the creation of the literary tradition. One of the original features of this book is the dialogue between the essays, highlighting cross-currents between authors and their works as well as across historical periods. While offering a narrative of the development of the genre, the History reflects the multiple methodologies that have informed readings of the American novel and will change the way scholars and readers think about American literary history.
Literary history is a messy business. Novels refuse to stay contained within categories, and periodization – that other stock in trade of literary history – is often necessary, yet invariably contingent. Examining very different terrains, John Carlos Rowe and Elizabeth Freeman reflect on the consequences of imposing ideas of order on the disarray of literary texts. Rowe shows how the category “war novel” obscures internal conflicts in the US that culminate in military action and how “recognized ‘wars’” shape literary history by determining its “periodizing” markers – and so we have antebellum literature, literature between “the wars,” and so on. Freeman demonstrates how “male dominated, nationalist military history or presidential policy” can dictate the periods of literary history, obscuring as much as they reveal. She argues that “gender/sexual dissidents” challenge “even the principal terms that organize this volume: ‘History,’ ‘American,’ and ‘Novel.’ “
This section of The Cambridge History of the American Novel especially chafes against literary-historical period markers and labels: it centers on the period from the 1920s through the 1970s but spills out chronologically in both directions and mingles discussion of internationally acclaimed innovators with accounts of formula-driven popular practitioners. Thus the “beyond” in the title describes this section's contents as much as does the leading term, “modernism.”
The chapters here illustrate that the practitioners of popular forms – as much as the towering innovators whom Ezra Pound had in mind when he urged writers to “make it new” – respond creatively to modernity.
Theodore Dreiser is one of the most penetrating observers of the greatest period of social change the United States ever saw. Writing as America emerged as the world's wealthiest nation, Dreiser chronicled industrial and economic transformation and the birth of consumerism with an unmatched combination of detail, sympathy, and power. The specially commissioned essays collected in this volume are written by a leading team of scholars of American literature and culture. They establish parameters for both scholarly and classroom discussion of Dreiser. This Companion provides fresh perspectives on the frequently read classics, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, as well as on topics of perennial interest, such as Dreiser's representation of the city and his prose style. The volume investigates topics such as his representation of masculinity and femininity, and his treatment of ethnicity. It is the most comprehensive introduction to Dreiser's work available.
In November 1913, Dreiser wrote his friend and literary champion, H. L. Mencken, “After I am dead please take up the mss of The Financier, Titan and Travel book and restore some of the woman stuff.” It may come as a surprise that considerable “woman stuff” was eliminated from The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914), from A Traveler at Forty (1913), and indeed from many of Dreiser’s other works, for women do not exactly flicker in the sidelights of his writing. As heroines, lovers, and antagonists, they frequently share center stage, often even crowding out their male counterparts. Notably, two of his novels, Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911), take their titles from the names of female characters, while none display the proper names of men.
Now that a century’s discussion has passed, a trajectory has started to become evident in readers’ reactions to Dreiser’s portrayal of women. Until recently, two responses predominated. Those who disliked his writing frequently saw Dreiser’s non-judgmental treatment of “fallen women” as proof of his literary and/or moral ineptitude. Those who admired his books would often, to the contrary, laud his open treatment of sexuality and evident sympathy for women as an important aspect of his crusade against restrictive American “puritanism.” When the tide of feminist criticism beginning in the 1960s and 1970s began to crest on Dreiser, the discussion shifted, and an area of increasing concern became the extent of his investment in gender stereotypes. This question is complicated by the fact that, as Donald Pizer observes, most of Dreiser’s plots derive from popular literature - which itself can draw heavily from gender stereotypes. While some recent accounts depict Dreiser as challenging conventional views of women, many conclude that he is, in the words of one author, “Hell on Women.” In particular, examinations of Dreiser’s treatment of female sexuality often reach negative and even censorious conclusions.
“Dreiser more than any other man, marching alone, usually unappreciated, often hated, has cleared the trail from Victorian and Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty and boldness and passion of life. Without his pioneering, I doubt if any of us could, unless we liked to be sent to jail, seek to express life and beauty and terror.” The speaker of these words was Sinclair Lewis, on the occasion of becoming the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Lewis spoke for a generation of writers when he lauded Dreiser for sweeping aside old models and providing American literature’s “first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman.” In acknowledging Dreiser’s leadership, Lewis gave voice to a widespread feeling in the American literary community: that Dreiser was the one who should have won the prize.
Dreiser’s recognition as America’s leading novelist during the period preceding World War II marked the apex of a circuitous lifetime odyssey that saw him move from anonymity to notoriety to triumph. His work went briefly into eclipse after his death during the heyday of the New Criticism (which privileged modernist experimentation and looked down on Dreiser’s straightforward storytelling). With historically oriented approaches to literature regaining ground in the past generation, Dreiser has risen once again to a central position in the American canon. Ironically, years after his death, Dreiser is now getting what he always wanted: a uniform edition of his work, an enterprise sponsored by two university presses. His fiction has become a staple of the American literary curriculum. In short, his importance is now assured.