- Collected Essays Volume Two: "The American Novel" and "Reflections on the European Novel", and: Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola
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Q. D. Leavis' fourteen essays in this second volume of her collected essays are not great, but they are intelligent and entertaining readings that show a breadth of familiarity with her subject matter. Six of these essays appeared previously in print; the other eight were delivered at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1980. Among her genre subjects are essays on the American, French, Russian, and Italian novel. The subjects of the other essays include Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. G. Singh's introduction provides readers with brief summaries of each essay.
The "Editor's Introduction," however, does not do justice to Leavis' charm as an essayist. Her openings hook the reader: "I see the American novel as resulting from two conditions," she writes in "The American Novel," the lead essay. In exploring the American quest for a national literature, she selects Cooper, Hawthorne, Twain, Henry James, Wharton, and Jarrell as bases for contrast with the European traditions. Linguistic considerations, ambivalent feelings toward the land, folk-heroes' societal roles, and characteristic ironies permeate her examination and offer critical stances on which she builds in the ensuing pieces. In the second essay, "Hawthorne as Poet" (one of her best in the collection), Leavis acknowledges the seeming impertinence of an English critic evaluating Hawthorne's oeuvre, but she goes on to do so in an English context, isolating "the essential nature of his achievement." Her comparison of The Scarlet Letter to Anna Karenina is intriguing, and her demonstration of the links among Hawthorne, James, and Melville is convincing. In explaining Melville's The Piazza Tales and The Confidence Man, Leavis claims "the writings of the great 1853-56 phase are of more interest than the earlier novels, evidently more accomplished as art, more varied," a claim at odds with Julian Hawthorne's indictment of the later writings as "incomprehensible."
Henry James, though, receives the largest share of her attention—six essays on various aspects of James's writing and a seventh as transition into her analysis of Edith Wharton's novels. Working through James's flawed view of English society and his linguistic ineptitude with the idiom in the first two of these essays, Leavis then identifies in the third piece the "House Beautiful" theme, which she finds as important to an overall understanding of James's novels as his international theme. The last two essays are reviews: Fourteen Stories by Henry James, selected by David Garnett, Leavis criticizes severely for Garnett's choosing some of James's worst stories. And F. W. Dupee's The Question of Henry James, an anthology of critical essays, Leavis applauds for bringing together some otherwise inaccessible pieces, though the collection, she notes, "is not so well done as it might have been."
Although Leavis praises the better work of James's heiress, Edith Wharton, for its social commentary, she finds it wanting in "richness of feeling and sense of a moral order" when compared with George Eliot. But Leavis opens the next essay on Wharton more positively: "The real strength of The House of Mirth goes into the analysis of what was wrong with the protagonist Lily Bart and why." The evidence is clearly presented and substantiated; the analysis, rigorous and buttressed with a knowledge of Wharton's other works.
Leavis' reflections on the European novels operate with this plan in mind: to isolate a representative sequence of characteristic novels that in light of various cultural changes may help determine the nature and quality of their literary tradition. She suggests that the decline in the French novel is due to "the limitation [End Page 698] of French tradition," but she indicates the opposite is true in Russia with...