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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 421-423
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Sean McCann's Gumshoe America and Michael Szalay's New Deal Modernism share not only a common period (roughly the late 1920s through the 1950s) [End Page 421] and a common concern with the specific institutional formations of liberalism during the economic and political crises of the Depression but also a set of methodological and theoretical commitments. These have their roots in new historicism, cultural materialism, and the "New Americanist" scholarship of Donald Pease, Walter Benn Michaels, and others. Each of these books reads literary texts, that is, for the coded and complicated ways in which they dramatize and explore deep cultural conflicts or contradictions. McCann finds in the hard-boiled crime story, whose rise coincides with the 1920s crisis in liberal assumptions, a form peculiarly attuned to the welfare state's displacement of the individual and development of social control. He argues that the careers of Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, Ross McDonald, and Chester Himes stand as generic metonyms for the shifting relations between decentralized individualism and various discourses of state power. Michael Szalay surveys an apparently broader textual archive. Unbounded by genre, he analyzes texts by Jack London, Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, John Steinbeck, Betty Smith, Robert Frost, Richard Wright, and Busby Berkeley, seeking in each case evidence of the New Deal's welfare state. In Szalay's readings, that state's tracks take the shape of a new and self-conscious authorial professionalism, a distinctively performative aesthetic, and a range of metaphoric and textural manifestations of a newly actuarial worldview. Both projects contribute to our evolving understanding of modernism as a complex set of strategies for comprehending the brave new world of the early twentieth century.
Each book suffers at times from the occasional strained homology, the willingness to shoehorn a writer or text into its critical framework. McCann risks marring his otherwise convincing argument about Chandler, for example, when he finds in the writer's eagerness to "cannibalize" his earlier pulp stories for his "oddly shaped" novels a cultural figure for Franklin Roosevelt's contemporaneous calls on the Depressed public to "preserve and manage precious resources" (166). And Szalay builds his weakest chapter around a series of rather forced readings of ostentatiously "closed" or "hermetic" or "invulnerable" texts by Stein, Hemingway, and Rand. His readings in this chapter follow too immediately from the authors' expressed disdain for the New Deal and fail to take into account each one's much more complicated political loyalties, to say nothing of the ways their lived politics intersect with the repressive "politics of textual integrity" Szalay finds in their writing.
For the most part, though, both books offer nuanced, well-researched, and ultimately persuasive readings. Szalay's chapter on The Grapes of Wrath and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a tour-de-force exploration of the forms and functions of sympathetic identification in New Deal discourse. Both novels address the central question of "how to organize and justify care for strangers . . . during an economic climate that had gone a long way in eroding traditional distinctions between the public and the private, between domestic and reproductive labor on the one hand and wage labor on the other" (176). Szalay reads the [End Page 422] staged sympathy of Steinbeck's conclusion and the sentimental representation of authorial vocation in Smith's novel to show how the "anticivic impulses of maternal care" are (or need to be) transformed into institutions capable of "caring for," without necessarily caring about, strangers in need...