Confessions of a Literary Barbarian

Benjamin Reiss

Mark Twain. Click image to expand.Mark Twain

I recently learned that I had "killed American lit."

In a lengthy diatribe in the Wall Street Journal against the Cambridge History of the American Novel (which I edited with Leonard Cassuto and Clare Eby), Joseph Epstein identifies the usual academic murder weapons: multiculturalism, literary theory, and hatred of America. English professors have abandoned the central task of criticism—defending great works from pop-cultural rubbish—and have given ourselves over exclusively to such buzzkilling concepts as race, class, gender, and disability. Epstein rails against our focus on contexts, especially those that might trouble happy narratives of national progress. He calls for a return to the glory days of "40 or 50 years ago," when the "centurions of high culture" guarded the fortress of high art against "the barbarians who now run the joint." If only we could just teach students to love the canon again, we could return to the golden age.

While I find Epstein’s characterization of our 71-chapter volume—which covers everything from the publishing business to Henry James, dime novels to modernist aesthetics—closed-minded and inaccurate, his rant does raise a good question. What is literary history, and how should it be brought to bear on the genre of the novel? The Cambridge History of the American Novel is really a biography of the novel as it intersects with American history. Part of the explanation for the changing shape of the American novel involves individual genius (i.e., great writers), but it also involves the stuff of national history: wars, slavery, emancipation, democracy, territorial expansion, civil rights, women’s rights, immigration, and capitalism.

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