As editor of Criterion in the 1920s, T. S. Eliot was once asked whether he believed most editors are failed writers. "Perhaps," Eliot replied, "but so are most writers."
The remark is relevant in varying degrees to most of the six volumes here under review. The least successful of the group, to my mind, is Tony Tanner's Scenes of Nature, Signs of Men, a collection of "essays, introductions, lectures, and a radio talk, along with some unpublished papers." Tanner readily allows that there is "no continuity or binding theme" to his new volume. The potpourri "simply represent aspects of my interest in American literature over some twenty-five years." I daresay, however, that no such collection of miscellaneous pieces could have been published by an anonymous critic. That is, I fear what unifies this volume is not theme or theory or period but merely the commercial appeal of its author's name.
At the very least, Tanner should have updated some of these pieces, the earliest of which appeared in print in 1961, in light of recent scholarship. His failure to revise leads him to reiterate several statements that are problematical if not demonstrably incorrect. For example, he asserts in his essay "Henry Adams and Mark Twain" (1961) that "we have no record of a meeting" between the two men he discusses. In 1968, however, Charles Vandersee marshaled evidence that Adams and Twain indeed met on January 28, 1886, at the home of their mutual friend John Hay. Tanner alludes in the same essay to the despairing conclusion to Twain's The Mysterious Stranger without acknowledging the fundamental doubts raised by John Tuckey in 1963 about the integrity of the Paine-Duneka text of the novella, especially its conclusion. Similarly, Tanner observes in his 1965 introduction to W. D. Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes, also collected here without [End Page 611] substantive revision, that "there has been no great renewal of interest in [Howells'] work." Since the comment first appeared, however, there has been a general renewal of interest in Howells, best evinced by the twenty-two volumes of the authoritative Howells Edition published by Twayne and Indiana University Press between 1968 and 1983. Tanner also presumes that the wafer image that concludes chapter IX of The Red Badge of Courage "evokes the Christ who was mangled and sacrificed," although the Christian-symbolist reading of the novel popularized by R. W. Stallman was thoroughly discredited by Stanley B. Greenfield and Edwin Cady over twenty-five years ago.
Unfortunately, these are not Tanner's only errors. He attempts to distinguish between English and American romantics in part by contending that the Americans "do not give the impression of valuing auditory responses" to nature, thus ignoring such evidence to the contrary as the "Sounds" chapter of Walden and all of Whitman's songs and chants. Tanner quotes in passing Hawthorne's "rather odd speculation" on the Salem town-pump that concludes the Introduction to The Scarlet Letter, apparently unaware that Hawthorne merely alluded to his own early sketch "A Rill from the Town-Pump," the most popular of all his works before his mature romances. Tanner alleges that Howells "was never a party man or an active reformer," thus neglecting his work on behalf of Edward Bellamy's Nationalism in the early 1890s. Tanner suggests, moreover, that the character of Colonel Woodburn in Hazard is a "prophetic touch by Howells," betraying not the least recognition that Woodburn's ideas in fact echo those...