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What America Read

Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920@-1960

Gordon Hutner

Publication Year: 2009

Despite the vigorous study of modern American fiction, today's readers are only familiar with a partial shelf of a vast library. Gordon Hutner describes the distorted, canonized history of the twentieth-century American novel as a record of modern classics insufficiently appreciated in their day but recuperated by scholars in order to shape the grand tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. In presenting literary history this way, Hutner argues, scholars have forgotten a rich treasury of realist novels that recount the story of America's confrontation with modernity. Hutner explains that realist novels were frequently lauded when they first appeared. They are almost completely unread now, he contends, largely because they record the middle-class encounter with modern life. This middle-class realism, Hutner shows, reveals a surprising engagement with the social issues that most fully challenged readers in the United States, including race relations, politics, immigration, and sexuality. Reading these novels now offers an extraordinary opportunity to witness debates about what kind of nation America would become and what place its newly dominant middle class would have--and, Hutner suggests, should also lead us to wonder how our own contemporary novels will be remembered. In this manuscript, Gordon Hutner remembers novels written for middle class American readers during the period of 1920-1960, arguing that beloved works of mainstream fiction were cast aside by the literati to make room for the favored few works that comprise the canon of this period. By bringing forward the history of neglected works of fiction -- many of which won national awards, were argued over in editorials, and bought by thousands of readers--Hutner critiques the process of canonization that excluded works of middle class realism, pointing to factors of academic prejudice and class-based taste making. In this recovery project he finds that the excluded works of fiction, often decried as "potboiler" or "bourgeois," and against which literary critics defined their position, were especially concerned with the social disorientation facing the middle class during the time period and reveal a surprising engagement with issues of race, sexuality, and gender concerns. Hutner describes the distorted, canonized history of the twentieth-century American novel as a record of modern classics insufficiently appreciated in their day but recuperated by scholars in order to shape the grand tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. In presenting literary history this way, Hutner argues, scholars have forgotten a rich treasury of realist novels that recount the story of the American middle-class's confrontation with modernity. Despite the vigorous study of modern American fiction, today's readers are only familiar with a partial shelf of a vast library. Gordon Hutner describes the distorted, canonized history of the twentieth-century American novel as a record of modern classics insufficiently appreciated in their day but recuperated by scholars in order to shape the grand tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. In presenting literary history this way, Hutner argues, scholars have forgotten a rich treasury of realist novels that recount the story of America's confrontation with modernity. Hutner explains that realist novels were frequently lauded when they first appeared. They are almost completely unread now, he contends, largely because they record the middle-class encounter with modern life. This middle-class realism, Hutner shows, reveals a surprising engagement with the social issues that most fully challenged readers in the United States, including race relations, politics, immigration, and sexuality. Reading these novels now offers an extraordinary opportunity to witness debates about what kind of nation America would become and what place its newly dominant middle class would have--and, Hutner suggests, should also lead us to wonder how our own contemporary novels will be remembered. Despite the vigorous study of modern American fiction, today's readers are only familiar with a partial shelf of a vast library. Gordon Hutner describes the distorted, canonized history of the twentieth-century American novel as a record of modern classics insufficiently appreciated in their day but recuperated by scholars in order to shape the grand tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. In presenting literary history this way, Hutner argues, scholars have forgotten a rich treasury of realist novels that recount the story of the American middle-class's confrontation with modernity. Reading these novels now offers an extraordinary opportunity to witness debates about what kind of nation America would become and what place its newly dominant middle class would have--and, Hutner suggests, should also lead us to wonder how our own contemporary novels will be remembered.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Cover

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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xii

I received a great deal of help in writing this book. The first person to thank is Dale Bauer, my most favorite colleague, who read every line on every page in several drafts for more than a decade. Her patience was extraordinary, her instruction luminous, her queries acute and resonant, her corrections insistent and, of course, right. ...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-36

Why are so few novels remembered while so many thousands are forgotten? Is our literary history incomplete without accounting for these books? These questions, and others like them, have stimulated this study of ‘‘better fiction’’—novels that were better than formula fiction but not as good as high art. ...

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One: The 1920s

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pp. 37-116

In this chapter, I examine the history of the 1920s as it unfolded rather than the anxious study of its self-consciously modernist literature. I begin with the momentous occasion of William Dean Howells’s death to suggest how much the realist tradition survived him. ...

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Two: The 1930s

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pp. 117-193

This chapter provides an alternative way of reading the fiction of this decade. I begin by restating the special circumstances under which ’30s historiography has been written and then turn to mainstream critical opinion and its sense of the decade’s achievements and challenges, pausing to examine the adjudicating of taste that book reviewing played at the time. ...

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Three: The 1940s

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pp. 194-268

I begin this chapter by studying early ’40s critical values, first by reading such key cultural texts as Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Faith for Living, among other important works of the first two years of the decade, to help recuperate the kind of fiction that educated Americans were reading before Pearl Harbor ...

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Four: The 1950s

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pp. 269-328

This last chapter observes the waning of the middle-class novel in the twentieth century before its revival in the 1980s. I begin by assessing the cultural opinion of the early fifties, first by looking at the kind of documents, like the famous colloquium, ‘‘Our Country and Our Culture,’’ that usually mark this discussion, ...

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Conclusion

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pp. 329-336

For some readers, the history of the American novel will always be one of its formal changes—from Cooper, through Hawthorne and Melville, to James and onward through Hemingway and Faulkner, on through the early postmodernists, culminating in Pynchon or DeLillo or Morrison. ...

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Postscript

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pp. 337-346

In writing a book devoted to the middle-class realism of mid-twentieth-century American fiction, three concerns of method and scope persisted. Since I was describing a subject of previously unregistered proportions, I first had to determine what kind of literary history I was writing: ...

Notes

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pp. 347-364

Bibliography

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pp. 365-424

Index

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pp. 425-450


E-ISBN-13: 9781469605210
E-ISBN-10: 146960521X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807832271
Print-ISBN-10: 0807832278

Page Count: 464
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Realism in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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