- “The American Romance” and the Changing Functions of the Imaginary
In the emergence of the study of American literature and the formation of a separate discipline called American Studies, the “invention” of the concept of an “American romance” has played a crucial role. The 1940s and 50s were the period in which the search for a national, specifically “American” literary tradition took on a new urgency. This search was fueled by post-World War II visions of a new world power and the arrival of what Henry Luce called “the American century.” F. O. Matthiessen’s study American Renaissance (1941) had identified a literary tradition of great intellectual power and artistic originality and had provided it with a name that stuck. 1 Perry Miller had transformed the perception of American culture—still widely considered provincial and without a strong cultural tradition of its own—by recovering an imposing “Puritan tradition.” 2 However, his redefinition tied the interpretation of American culture to this Puritan legacy in a way that seemed too restrictive on regional and historical grounds. Similarly, Matthiessen’s book limited America’s unique cultural achievement to a particular period and to a small group of writers. It was the concept of the American romance which solved this impasse in matters of cultural self-definition. Ironically enough, the solution was suggested by an essay which developed the claim of a different tradition in American literature in order to describe this literature’s shortcomings, Lionel Trilling’s essay “Morals, Manners and the Novel.” 3 Trilling’s essay summarizes what was more or less the standard view of American literature in English departments on both sides of the Atlantic: While the European novel traditionally focuses on society and its manners (in the wide sense of the whole array of social relations and its determinants), American writers shy away from this social reality, and, thus, from the complexity and fullness of social life. Trilling’s argument was developed in the context and service of his own liberal critique of political radicalism and its narrow views of the purpose of literature. However, his argument that reality, in contrast to the epistemologically [End Page 415] naive versions of a Parrington, a politicized Dreiser and other radicals of the thirties, was not just lying “out there” as a self-evident moral touchstone, but was a complex phenomenon full of contradictions, unresolved conflicts, and inner tensions, paved the way for a new assessment of the romance, and, ultimately, for an inversion of his own argument.
For Richard Chase, Trilling’s colleague at Columbia University, it is the “romance-novel” in its characteristic reliance on unrealistic representational modes of excess and melodrama, its willful disregard for consistency in characterization and plotting, and its direct, forceful expression of imaginary desire which captures the conflicts—and thus the “realities”—of American society much more accurately than the smoothly controlled surface of the novel of manners and its realistic mode of representation. This “re-vision” of American literature was a redefinition that was tailor-made for the needs of the historical moment by turning weaknesses into assets: In drawing on predecessors like D. H. Lawrence, Chase converted the seemingly puerile into the culturally profound, a lack of formal unity into the bold expression of a vibrant nonbourgeois culture of contradictions, and a lack of realism into a radical resistance to the middle way and its much maligned cultural manifestation, middle-brow culture. 4 Chase’s claim of a unique American literary tradition based on the idea of “the American romance” was taken up by other Americanists and turned out to be extremely effective in justifying the study of American literature as a separate field with its own need for expertise and institutionalization.
Again, this breakthrough came at a price, however. It tied the legitimation of the study of American literature to a literary genre which was of central importance only in certain historical and critical contexts and was, thus, still of limited representativeness for American literary history as a whole. In the romance-theory of American literature, the romance looms large as major achievement, while, at the same time, a wide range of other literary forms and...