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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 146-148

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Book Review

The Cambridge History of American Literature. Vol. 7: Prose Writing, 1940-1990

The Cambridge History of American Literature. Vol. 7: Prose Writing,\, 1940-1990. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. xxiii + 795 pp. $80.

"It is seldom the case that an encyclopedia entry has changed its author's life as decisively as this account of contemporary fiction has affected mine" (vii), Wendy Steiner admits in this volume's headnote. As with other sections, her subject's scope corresponds with her own adulthood; hence the massive changes in both literature and culture that define these years have been witnessed first hand, perhaps even experienced as part of her own maturation. This makes for a great advantage in terms of personal understanding, but also introduces a significant risk: that the critic may track half a century of literary progress much like her own, concluding with a sense of satisfaction that literature itself has survived various struggles and is now, at the century's end, comfortably grown up.

Steiner's position in relation to postmodern fiction is shared by Christopher Bigsby (drama), Morris Dickstein (fiction and society from 1940 to 1970), John Burt (the American South), and Cyrus R. K. Patell (emergent literatures). Bigsby's subject is the least controversial. Although drama underwent revolutionary change since the days of Eugene O'Neill and Thornton Wilder, most critics would concur with Bigsby's line-up of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet as the major playwrights. Nor is Bigsby's conclusion likely to be challenged, that a new America produces a new drama only to a certain extent, because alternative views are so naturally expressed as ritual replayings. [End Page 146] Looking at the American South of these years, John Burt sees a dramatic structure of sorts, predicated by the aftermath of a Southern Renascence that today seems almost as problematic as the conditions that first mandated a cultural rebirth. From late work by William Faulkner to the popularity of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Burt regrets, it seems that for a time racial discrimination could be ameliorated only at the expense of a new scapegoat of social class. Younger writers of the past twenty years, much like the South itself, have found new contexts and created new freedoms--but only in the sense of an experiment. One senses that the satisfaction of maturity still eludes the subject, that the region in its culture and its literature might still be a renascence or two away from a comfortable fit with America at large.

Morris Dickstein finds a more confident mainstream in general fiction, thanks to the culturally defining influence of World War II and the Vietnam War. Between these two wars he sees a new culture searching to define itself and using as a vehicle the road novel. As bebop jazz musicians improvised and riffed while abstract expressionist painters slashed and dripped, Jack Kerouac mounted a similar rebellion, seizing the American landscape by means of its highways and using it to plot an inner rebellion. Dickstein's originality consists in broadening our view of the road novel to include not just Kerouac's masterpiece On the Road (1957), but J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and John Updike's Rabbit, Run (1960). Kerouac, Salinger, and Updike "thus represent in their different ways the inward turn of the postwar novel, its feminization, so to speak" (186), in which attention is directed inward from the masculine, the social, and the sophisticated in order to escape the presumed trap of conformity. It takes John Barth to mark the literal end of this road, in an exhaustion of both theme and technique. In terms of growth, Dickstein's favorite author is Philip Roth. With his childhood launched in the Great Depression and experienced in the domestic conditions of World War II, and with his higher education in the Eisenhower years of the 1950s, Roth...


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pp. 146-148
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