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Gordon Hutner. What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009. xi + 450 pp.

Gordon Hutner begins by characterizing his project as a "study of 'better fiction'—novels that were better than formula fiction but not as good as high art" (1). While it is always problematic to establish or refer to such ideologically construed value judgments, his approach is grounded in a literary historian's point of view, and as such his purpose is not to establish a hierarchy but rather to argue for inclusion. He succeeds in providing a richly contextualized platform from which to view a largely overlooked category of American literary production from the 1920s through the 1950s, a category he identifies as middle-class realist fiction. His argument, as he expresses it in the introduction, centers largely on the idea that while certain authors and novels have been canonized for a variety of reasons, some valid and some questionable, these middle-class novels have been ignored mainly because they were too "middlebrow." Citing an "ever-diminishing crew of critics ferociously determined to uphold a modernist vision of culture" that "still deprecates the 'middlebrow'" (7), Hutner identifies an unhealthy and unnecessary allegiance to modernism that he attributes to "modernism's antibourgeois critique," as exemplified in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and Babbitt (21). This argument, though, is not supported in his text by any close examination and comparison of novels included and excluded under the terms of a modernist rubric.

More cogent, and substantially more useful, is the position he outlines in his conclusion: "Studying middle-class fiction should help us to see more clearly the accomplishments of the novelists we do cherish" (330). In fact, in underscoring the book's well-demonstrated point about the cultural history of novel production he undermines his earlier, difficult-to-support argument about middlebrow prejudice: "these are the novels the canon has been defined against, the literature of the not great, but of the pretty good" (333). Given the quantity of literary production faced by the contemporary scholar it is not unreasonable to spend less time on "pretty good" novels. But Hutner's point that "these forgotten novels may qualify and contextualize better-known works" is well taken (330). For whatever reasons these works have been left out, and the reasons are arguably manifold, our exploration and discussion of the American novel can only be enriched by their inclusion, even if only partially and occasionally.

Following the conclusion is an interesting postscript in which the author discusses his "concerns of methodology and scope" in constructing the text, providing useful insight into the evolution of his ideas and justifying the broad parameters of his study. Just how [End Page 167] far-reaching these parameters are can be seen in the variety of matters undertaken in every section, neatly summarized by the brief overview he provides at the outset of each chapter. His approach generally consists of identifying novels of a given period that engaged with middle-class concerns of the day or exhibited middle-class plots and then examining the critical response, both literary and popular, to these works. Along the way, in addition to this strictly literary context, he frequently manages to provide a broad sense also of the "social, cultural, often political" historical moment (337). For example, he begins chapter one with an examination of "the history of the 1920s as it unfolded," specifically with "the momentous occasion of William Dean Howells's death" in 1920 (37). Seeing Howells's passing as symbolic of the shift from American Victorianism to American modernism, he argues that Howells's star was already waning, partly due to modernists' critical need to marginalize middle-class realism. He goes on to demonstrate how unsuccessful this modernist project proved to be by identifying many middle-class novels that received much critical and popular attention. The chapter "culminates" not so much "in a reading of assimilation novels" (in the sense of literary close reading) (37), but rather in a cultural examination of these Americanization texts.

Chapter 2 begins "by restating the special circumstances under which '30s historiography has been written" and goes on to...


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pp. 167-169
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