- Reviewed by
David Minter and David Shi have written magnificently constructed books of breathtaking scope. As the title of his book suggests, Minter attempts nothing less than to explore the cultural history of the American novel from James to Faulkner. Shi’s book covers much of the same period, but focuses more narrowly on the emergence of realism as an “intellectual stance and cultural style” (4). Each performs his respective task with elegance and grace. But having said that (and meant it), one cannot help but wonder whether we really need two more large, synthetic, literary histories to go on our shelf beside Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds and Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. The books under review are not the equal of these classic studies. (Kazin’s book covers much of the same material and does it better.) Nor do they break any new ground. In fact, neither book does much more than offer a reduction of existing scholarship. The first portion of Minter’s chapter on the thirties argues Warren Susman’s thesis without advancing it, while Shi’s chapter on the emergence of the social sciences-“The Mania for Facts”-is a pale version of Myron White’s Revolt Against Formalism. Why not simply read their bibliographies or endnotes and go right to the source?
These scholarly omnibuses quite understandably cannot offer the satisfactions of more focused studies. But those of us who have traveled [End Page 353] the same route on more than one occasion have a right to expect some variation. Instead, Minter offers us the same old point of departure-Gardencourt-and a familiar destination-Yoknapatawpha-with stops at Lafayette Square, Montparnasse, and West Egg along the way. Shi’s stops are somewhat different, but no less familiar. To be sure, both Minter and Shi imbue these landmarks with plenty of local interest. Minter manages to make fresh observations with regard to canonical figures (like Fitzgerald and Hemingway) about whom so much has been said already, while Shi’s scrupulous attention to the language of realism (as it was articulated by its various adherents) restores nuance and texture to what would otherwise be a fairly standard exposition.
Is this enough? For Shi, whose book is “intended as much for students and general readers as for scholars” (3), it may be. He frankly rejects the possibility of producing an “overarching interpretation [that] can adequately encompass the diverse motives and methods associated with the realistic impulse.” But with a thesis that possesses no “organizing framework” beyond “the era’s preoccupation with ‘facing facts’” (4), Shi is condemned to recapitulate much of what we already know, making Facing Facts more chronicle than history. Minter, on the other hand, promises a good deal more: a study of the “reciprocal relations . . . between novels and a series of cultural events (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, and New York’s Armory Show).” He argues that those events “function as cultural texts in which questions having to do with history, culture, society, art, and literature, and thus with ethnicity, class, race, gender, family and nationality were being reflected upon and acted out.” While Minter does invoke questions having to do with class, race and gender throughout the book, this often amounts to nothing more than a perfunctory gesture-a reminder that the canonical literary achievements under examination are predicated on the prerogatives of power enjoyed by their white male authors. One would hope that the sheer messiness of history, which Minter seems so determined to engage, would have elicited radically new configurations of text and event. But the author remains remarkably loyal to texts and events that have become all too familiar: Henry Adams and the White City, Mabel Dodge and the Armory Show, Ernest Hemingway and World War I. In the end...