- The Cambridge History of the American Novel ed. by Leonard Cassuto, Clare Virginia Eby, and Benjamin Riess
With a 25-page introduction, a brief “Selected Bibliography,” and an index of proper names, this daunting doorstop of an anthology weighs in with 1174 pages of regular text in between these slight textual aids. The book mainly consists of seventy-one individual essays purporting to cover historically “The American Novel.” It begins a bit late with Cooper, the opening essay complicating rather unproductively the focus on Cooper by jumping further ahead to Charles Johnson and Toni Morrison; this awkward and unevenly transhistorical approach is in fact the methodology of the volume, as explained in the introduction (by editors Cassuto and Riess), where Cooper and Doctorow and Pynchon are invoked. So the reader figures out early on that there is no chronological progress scheme to this book.
One may think that volume heft and cover price would be seen as intrinsically valuable. But, in fact, individual buyers as well as schools and libraries will be put off by the price and confused by exactly how the chapters are supposed to constitute a “history” in the lengthy parade they make. Readers will be confused if they have any traditional expectations about period, major figures, major events, major movements and ideas; and people who are not focused on periods and movements and just want to browse in the reference section of the school library may not know how to find what they are looking for. It would be difficult to look up such topics as “romanticism,” “realism,” or “naturalism” in this book, the primary American literary movements.
As to this volume, perhaps as Cassuto describes it in his General Introduction, it is merely “a document of its time,” but one is not sure what that means. It certainly reveals the atmosphere of permissiveness that attended its writing, assembling, editing, and publishing by those involved at the turn of the twenty-first century. It does inform us that its “time” is now, but in questioning categories such as period it should offer some alternate form of organization, if anything just to make it a reference book at all.
The Amazon.com copy for this book reads:
This ambitious literary history traces the American novel from its emergence in the late eighteenth century to its diverse incarnations in the multi-ethnic, [End Page 271] multi-media culture of the present day. In a set of original essays by renowned scholars from all over the world, the volume extends important critical debates and frames new ones. Offering new views of American classics, it also breaks new ground to show the role of popular genres—such as science fiction and mystery novels—in the creation of the literary tradition. One of the original features of this book is the dialogue between [sic] the essays, highlighting cross-currents between authors and their works as well as across historical periods. While offering a narrative of the development of the genre, the History reflects the multiple methodologies that have informed readings of the American novel and will change the way scholars and readers think about American literary history.
Unfortunately the editors of the volume do not describe such a methodology. For potential buyers, the word “multicultural” still has some sway, but today sounds a bit vague. The editors of this collection do supply different contexts, many of which are quite illuminating, but they are hit-and-miss as to how to locate them.
Cassuto faults “older American literary histories” with their presumed “Great Man Theory,” even as his volume “calls attention to its own internal conflicts and especially to the contingency—historical or otherwise—of methodology and approach.” This he later explains as the energy created out of surprising juxtapositions, a central idea of postmodernism. These statements are true for the book, but relegate it to a mere occasional source consisting of a chapter by an individual, and throw into sharp relief the failures it presents in organization and logic...