- General Reference Works
It is possible that in the past year a teacher of American literature or an undergraduate or graduate student pursuing the field has actually taken a reference book down from a library shelf. Possible, though not very likely. Internet search engines have made the time-consuming process of locating the appropriate printed source and turning to the right page for a specific item of information, whether obvious or arcane, unnecessary: even the clumsiest formulation of a question typed into a search box achieves a satisfactory result almost instantaneously. Uncertain of the spelling of an author’s name? Type “Fredric Duglas” into the box and receive “Frederick Douglass” in return. Type “Kate Chopin deathdate” and be promptly advised “August 22, 1904.” Take a stab at “Salvoj Zizak” and be corrected with “Slavoj Žižek.” I would even venture that the majority of us get essential information about book details not from the library catalog, either print or online, but from Amazon.com or Google Preview with their full reproduction of dust jackets, copyright and title pages, and tables of contents. This revolution in access to basic information has its continuing effects on reference publications: fewer of them are published (the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings over Gage Cengage are a saddening development) and still fewer emphasize the systematic organization of a core of factual information. Some recent publications from traditional publishers of reference material retain the keywords that mark that territory, but coverage and intent have changed. The Oxford Companion to American Literature, last issued in print form in 1995, was a virtually encyclopedic compendium of information on [End Page 481] authors and works marshaled in thousands of entries; now “companion” is a collection of commissioned essays around a topic, its contents capable only inadvertently of answering a pointed question. A few of the publications discussed in this essay remain identifiably old-style; the majority of them incline significantly toward the new.
Among the old-style group, and indisputably the best of this year’s contributions, is the second edition of Richard Gray’s A History of American Literature (Wiley-Blackwell). That one person rather than a committee should ever have considered a project of this comprehensive historical scope—think by comparison of the multiauthor Literary History of the United States (1948; 4th edition, 1975) or the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988)—is a wonder; that he should succeed so magnificently compounds the wonder. Perhaps only an Englishman has the nerve to try saying it all, and Gray, the first specialist in American literature to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy, says it very well, in brief but effectively epitomizing commentaries on individual writers in turn sensibly situated within movements and genres. An effective example is the concluding remark about Ken Kesey in the subsection “Resisting Orthodoxy: Dissent and Experiment in Fiction” in the chapter “Negotiating the American Century: Literature since 1945”: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains his most powerful mapping of transgression, his most memorable expression of the belief that lost freedom can and must be recovered. ‘I have been away a long time,’ are the last words of Bromden as he lights out for a past that is also his future. It stands, not only as a supremely, seriously comic book, but as a major document in the American literature of resistance and rebellion.” Gray’s entire coverage, from colonial beginnings to the post-postmodern and postracial present, is uniformly excellent and deserves reading by anyone who wants a masterful, coherent sense of the American project.
Gray’s History of American Literature is old-style reference material, and A Companion to the American Novel, ed. Alfred Bendixen (Wiley-Blackwell), is new-style. Bendixen has commissioned 38 essays, filling some 600 pages and organized into the sections “Historical Developments,” “Genres and Traditions,” and “Major Texts.” If the essays taken together do not begin to articulate the marvelous diversity of the overall topic, they at least suggest its riches. Especially noteworthy among the many fine contributions are Peter L. Hays’s “Modernism and the American Novel” (pp. 60–75) and Bendixen’s own “Beyond Modernism: The American Novel Between...