Killing American Lit.

Today’s collegians don’t want to study it—who can blame them?

JOSEPH EPSTEIN

The Editors of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" decided to consider their subject—as history is considered increasingly in universities these days—from the bottom up. In 71 chapters, the book’s contributors consider the traditional novel in its many sub-forms, among them: science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels, Jewish novels, Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability ("We cannot truly know a culture until we ask its disabled citizens to describe, analyze, and interpret it," write the authors of a chapter titled "Disability and the American Novel"). Other chapters are about subjects played out in novels—for instance, ethnic and immigrant themes—and still others about publishers, book clubs, discussion groups and a good deal else. "The Cambridge History of the Novel," in short, provides full-court-press coverage.

NOVEL

Illustration by John S. Dykes for The Wall Street Journal

"In short," though, is perhaps the least apt phase for a tome that runs to 1,244 pages and requires a forklift to hoist onto one’s lap. All that the book’s editors left out is 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. But, then, this is a work of literary history, not of literary criticism. Randall Jarrell’s working definition of the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it" has, in this voluminous work, been ruled out of bounds.

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