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Lost in the Customhouse

Authorship in the American Renaissance

Jerome Loving

Publication Year: 1993

In this vigorous challenge to dominant literary criticism, Jerome Loving extends the traditional period of American literary rebirth to the end of the 19th century and argues for the intrinsic value of literature in the face of new historicist and deconstructionist readings. Bucking the trend for revisionist interpretations, Loving discusses the major work of the 19th century's canonized writers as restorative adventures with the self and society.From Irving, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Thoreau, and Emerson to Whitman, Twain, Dickinson, James, Chopin, and Dreiser, Loving finds the American literary tradition filled with narrators who keep waking up to the central scene of the author's real or imagined life. They travel through a customhouse of the imagination in which the Old World experience of the present is taxed by the New World of the utopian past, where life is always cyclical instead of linear and ameliorative. Loving celebrates, enjoys, and experiences these awakened and reborn writers as he challenges the notion that American literature is preponderately “cultural work.” In the epilogue, he packs up his own carpetbag--the American ego--and passes through the European customhouse to find that American writers are more readily perceived as literary geniuses outside their culture than within it.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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pp. ix-xvii

The American Renaissance is defined here as commencing with the magnum opus of Washington Irving and extending to the first (and best) novel of Theodore Dreiser in 1900. I have given special attention to the word "Renaissance" as it denotes rebirth and connotes re-awakening.


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pp. xix-xx


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1. Irvings Paradigm

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pp. 3-18

Probably the most significant and yet paradoxical fact about American literature is that it begins in the middle of its official history and in the work of a dreamer, Washington Irving. Nothing before him in the brooding spirit of the Colonial writers or in the rational wisdom of the eighteenth century quite anticipates The Sketch Book (1819-20) as America's first acknowledged contribution to world literature as well...

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2. Hawthorne's Awakening in the Customhouse

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pp. 19-34

It is appropriate that the author of America's next "Sketch Book" is "A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR" another dreamer who loses his head in the abyss of the imagination. In recounting the story of his removal from the Salem Custom House, Nathaniel...

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3. Melville's High on the Seas

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pp. 35-52

If telling the primordial truth was the result of Hawthorne's dream in The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville in Moby-Dick probably realized that such "truth" was too deep to tell completely...

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4. Poe's Voyage from Edgartown

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pp. 53-71

In Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative ofArthur Gordon Pym (1838) it is difficult to know whether the tale has a proper ending. Indeed, its title reflects palindromically back on its author, whose three-part name is euphonically similar to the name of his character. The "Note" at the close announces "the late sudden and distressing death of Mr. Pym"...

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5. Emerson's Beautiful Estate

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pp. 72-87

Proper endings aside, Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have uttered on his deathbed, "Oh that beautiful boy." 1 The allusion, it is generally assumed, was to the poet's five-year-old son Waldo, who had succumbed to scarlet fever forty years earlier. Clearly, the child's early and swift departure helped to inspire "Experience," which, unlike the earlier (and later) essays...

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6. Thoreau's Quarrel with Emerson

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pp. 88-106

On his deathbed Henry David Thoreau is alleged to have said that he had no quarrel with God. The story is familiar to students of Thoreau, often quoted by professors to characterize Thoreau's sense of humor...


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7. Whitman's Idea of Women

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pp. 109-124

In an age when physicians rejoiced that neither the "emancipated" woman nor the prostitute "propagates her kind," Walt Whitman claimed that Leaves of Grass was...

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8. Twain's Cigar-Store Indians

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pp. 125-140

By the time Whitman's idea of women had become a memory instead of a dream, on the occasion of the poet's seventieth birthday party organized by his Camden disciples, Mark Twain wrote him: "You...

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9. Dickinson's Unpublished Canon

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pp. 141-159

Just as we have endeavored to bring Twain's view of black Americans into line with the utopian consciousness of our twentieth-century desires, so have we sought to update Emily Dickinson...

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10. Henry James's Pearl at a Great Price

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pp. 160-176

In The Portrait of a Lady (1881) Henry James compares Gilbert Osmond's daughter Pansy to a "sheet of blank paper-the ideal jeune fille of foreign...

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11. Chopin's Twenty-Ninth Bather

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pp. 177-194

It almost goes without saying that Henry James could never have written The Awakening (1899). The nearest he probably came to creating a character as corporeal as Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier...

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12. Dreiser's Novel About a Nun

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pp. 195-210

In this final chapter on authorship in the American Renaissance as extended to 1900 and to Sister Carrie, I want to begin with two assertions that run counter to the critical consensus about Theodore Dreiser's work.

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pp. 211-218

During the fall of 1989, soon after drafting the Dickinson chapter in this book, I had the opportunity of teaching as a Fulbright lecturer at La Sorbonne Nouvelle (Universite de Paris-III) and-because Walt...


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pp. 219-240


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pp. 241-248

E-ISBN-13: 9781587291357
E-ISBN-10: 1587291355
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877454045
Print-ISBN-10: 0877459223

Page Count: 268
Publication Year: 1993