- Prologues to the Past:On Introductions and Appreciations
An introduction—by which I mean neither a preface nor an opening chapter to a monograph but a full-length study offering an overview of a writer, major work, or literary era—is an art form unto itself. Usually more of a synthesis than a groundbreaker, this type of work can frustrate a writer by reining in the impulse to originality and obligating him or her to what can feel like an ungodly amount of summarizing. For scholars and critics eager to experiment with innovative organization and individuality of expression, the requisites of [End Page 278] series formats, house styles, and even non-negotiable word lengths can also seem limiting if not absolute personality killers. And while one might assume that the market for critical guides to F. Scott Fitzgerald or The Great Gatsby hit saturation levels long before independent academic publishers such as G. K. Hall became shadowy imprints of their former selves as international corporations and private equity consortiums gobbled them up, the reality is that these types of reference works are the lifeblood of the academic book market. Long-running series such as The Cambridge Companion to …, The Cambridge Introduction to …, Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives, the University of South Carolina’s Understanding …, Camden House’s Literary Criticism in Perspective, to name just a few, offer libraries consistency and continuity as they cater to the only audience broad enough to come close to earning a profit: undergraduates. The downside is that while each of these publishers is eager for a Fitzgerald entry, the likelihood of Facts on File commissioning Gertrude Stein A to Z, Oxford University Press approving a prospectus for A Historical Guide to Nella Larsen, or Chelsea House cranking out a How to Write About Anita Loos is next to nil. Such books would not sell enough for a simple reason: these writers are not taught as extensively as Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Poe, Hemingway, Twain, Emily Dickinson, or Tennessee Williams. In this way, series devoted to introducing writers or literary eras to students can seem to enforce the canon instead of opening it up to neglected authors and periods.
Rowman and Littlefield’s entry into the crowded market for introductions is its relatively new Contemporary American Literature series. Gatsby: The Cultural History of the Great American Novel is the kickoff volume, published first in hardback in 2013 and in paperback in 2015; Beyond Gatsby: How Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Writers of the 1920s Shaped American Culture is the fifth addition to the lineup, following a curiously eclectic sequence of intervening volumes—on Michael Chabon; on the representation of masculinity in Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin; and on Stephen King. If it seems too soon for the series to return to Gatsby, it should be noted that the initial book focuses exclusively on Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic, while this latest one is more of an introduction to modernism and the 1920s in general.
Bob Batchelor, the series editor and author of The Cultural History, is prolific enough to remind one of the late Matthew J. Bruccoli: since 2002, his name has appeared on the covers of more than twenty-seven books, most of those since 2008. Even more impressive is his range. Among his authored works are titles on Bob Dylan and John Updike, not to mention the popular culture of various twentieth-century decades. Like Bruccoli, Batchelor is also a tireless editor, [End Page 279] commissioning volumes not only for this series but Rowman and Littlefield’s Great Books/Great Writers and Sports Icons and Issues in Popular Culture ones. Robert McParland, the author of Beyond Gatsby, may not be a one-man industry as Batchelor is, but he, too, is a seasoned...