Few twentieth-century scholarship clichés have proved more resilient than postmodernism’s alleged ahistoricity. The dogma has had its positive effects too because, directly or indirectly, some of the field’s best books have been written to refute this orthodoxy. The first and probably the most influential is Linda Hutcheon’s 1988 A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, which responded cogently to the early 1980s articles Jameson worked into his 1990 Postmodernism. The latest and most firmly grounded in literary analysis is David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History. In a sense, the monograph is also the most relevant—and this relevance is perhaps twofold—in that Cowart makes his case for postmodernism’s historical substance in relation to a writer he deems not only the most important in the postmodern canon but also the greatest American author alive. At least, this is how I read chapter 4’s references to Pynchon as a “Creator of the most significant body of fiction in contemporary America” and to Gravity’s Rainbow as “the most important American novel published since World War II” (111).
Cowart’s assessment seems just about right to me, although, in all fairness—to others as well as to himself, for Cowart is also a highly respected DeLillo authority—he may have gone back and forth between Pynchon’s 1973 book and Underworld (the way I compromise on the issue is by letting students know that, to me, DeLillo’s 1997 meganovel represents the greatest US novel since Gravity’s Rainbow). Yet again, it is not the value claim that I find intriguing (as some might), but the specific argument on which Cowart stakes it, namely, the intensity and extensity of Pynchon’s engagement with history throughout his career. To chronicle this preoccupation—for Thomas Pynchon turns out to be indeed a critical chronicle, a “biography” or chronological account of the Pynchonian historical problematics—Cowart combines an approach that is itself historical (sequential) and one that might be called thematic. That is to say, he takes Pynchon’s books one by one, in the order of their publication, and pursues the treatment of history in each of them. But there are exceptions to this modus operandi: chapter 1, which presents the great writer’s storytelling “apprenticeship” with an eye to setting off Pynchon’s early wrestling with technique, modernist precursors, art history and history in general, and some of the themes he will become famous for, such as entropy; chapter 3, which dwells on Gravity’s Rainbow to discuss, more broadly, “Germany and German culture in Pynchon’s early work”; chapter 4, which is devoted to “the sixties” and their representation in the “California novels,” The Crying of Lot [End Page 869] 49 (1966), Vineland (1990), and Inherent Vice (2009); and chapter 7, the book’s conclusion, which marks out Pynchon’s place in US literary history.
Cowart’s interest in the dynamic of history and literature, on the one hand, and Pynchon, on the other, have already yielded important titles, with History and the Contemporary Novel (1989) and Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (1980) as prime examples. Both speak to the view of literary language the critic has further fleshed out in the intertextual studies milestone Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing (1993, recently reissued by University of Georgia Press) and elsewhere. This critical-theoretical model puts great stock in aesthetic allusion and textual-cultural reference through which, Cowart has repeatedly and insightfully argued, fictional discourse in general and postmodern fiction in particular capture, take apart, and retell history. Pynchon is, the critic offers, not just a case in point, nor is this case pertinent exclusively to postmodernism. “[M]ore than comic genius, polymath, forger of the postmodern, or deconstructive mythographer,” he maintains in the introduction—and this is the book’s central argument—“Thomas Pynchon merits recognition as America’s greatest historical novelist” (24).
Bold as it may strike some, this contention is rigorously substantiated throughout by meticulous and clear analysis. Needless to...