By most reasonable measures, The Columbia History of the American Novel is, like its predecessor, the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), quite good indeed. True, there are a number of authors, as well as several crucial topics, that would seem to demand fuller treatment than they receive here, but a certain amount of omission, compression, and selectivity cannot be avoided in volumes of this type. Inevitably, something has to be omitted in a comprehensive literary history, unless one expects a text of unmanageable length. (A much more serious criticism could be made as to the incompleteness of the Bibliography appended to the volume. A significant number of secondary works referred to in the body of the text are not cited in the Bibliography, thus failing in at least one of the goals the authors and editors should have set for themselves.)
At its best, The Columbia History of the American Novel takes its readers on a provocative tour of the varieties of longform American fiction of the last two centuries, emphasizing (as one might expect) the ideological approach to literary study that has dominated American Studies over the last ten or fifteen years. Pieces like Michael Gilmore's essay on the profession of authorship in the antebellum period, Christine Bold's essay on nineteenth-century popular fiction, Paul Lauter's "American Proletarianism," David Van Leer's "Society and Identity [in mid-twentieth-century American fiction]," and the paired, fundamentally opposed essays on recent fiction by Molly Hite and Robert Boyers that close out the volume all provide the best brief treatments of their subjects that I have encountered. Even more valuable are essays like Nellie McKay's "Autobiography and the Early Novel," Lora Romero's "Domesticity and Fiction," and Thomas J. Ferraro's "Ethnicity and the Marketplace," among others, which perform the valuable service of showing how an understanding of previously marginalized writing (by African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, women, gay men and women, and so on) is not just a matter of "political correctness" but is essential to a thorough understanding of the entire corpus of American fiction.
At this point, some readers of this review may be steeling themselves for yet another wave of creeping multiculturalism, and, at first glance, their fears might seem substantive. After all, this may be the first comprehensive history of the American novel in which "whitemale" appears as one word and Hawthorne's infamous "scribbling women" comment gets more play than the Preface to The House of the Seven Gables. Perhaps more threatening still to these readers will be Emory Elliott's declaration in the General Introduction that "[t]he texts of South America and North America are in dialogue with each other," and that "[n]ovelists [End Page 459] of Africa and the Caribbean have a profound effect upon writers in the United States and are affected by them in return." Such phrases smack of precisely the sort of political dilution and "special-interest" lobbying that many literary scholars feel have unfortunately taken over the field.
A quick check of the index will reassure such readers, however, that the canon is in no significant danger of being discarded. In fact, some of the most striking passages in the essays cited above deal with canonical authors, illuminating their work by viewing it within the wider context of all their contemporaries and not just through the saving remnant produced by years of syllabic and metacritical winnowing. There are also cases (like Arnold E. Davidson's appealing "Canada in Fiction" and Debra Castillo's equally compelling "Latin American Fiction") in which essays accomplish the worthy goals of making us examine our prior prejudices and enlarging our worldview to our intellectual profit.
Yet, as good as they are, Davidson's and Castillo's essays, as well as Sandra Pouchet Paquet's "Caribbean Fiction," point to a major flaw in the conception and execution of the volume. All three essays—indeed nearly all the volume's...