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  • General Reference Works
  • David J. Nordloh

I have noised complaints for some time now about the decline in the number and quality of printed reference materials. But the number, the variety, and the quality of the items parading before me this year lessen my concern. Handbooks and companions continue to proliferate, but dictionaries and encyclopedias have certainly not been crowded off the reference shelf altogether. The current array of publications includes solid work with a historical orientation, interesting contributions to the literatures of groups and regions and places, volumes addressing the increasingly insistent topics of gay and lesbian literature and the literature of the environment, and—the greatest number—materials focused on specific genres in their American manifestations, ranging from the Gothic and science fiction through the slave narrative and autobiography to the novel, poetry, and drama. Fortunate is the reference librarian who has not been totally transformed into an Internet-bound information specialist.

i Matters of History

The modest length of Hans Bertens and Theo D’Haen’s American Literature: A History (Routledge), a revised and shortened translation of Amerikaanse literatuur: Een geschiedenis (2008) by these authors, members of the faculty of the University of Utrecht, comprehends its topic in six chapters, “From Beginnings to 1810” through “The End and Return of History: 1980–2010.” The material is compact but coherent, with no [End Page 495] inclination toward riffs or sidebars, and with an effective emphasis on the traditional stuff of literary-historical organization (Romanticism, Transcendentalism, realism, modernism) into which are also effectively integrated the materials of new interests and transformations (the Native American trickster tradition, for example, and hyphenated writers). The overall perspective is signaled in the titles of two major subdivisions of the book, “A Superpower in the Making: Beginnings to World War I,” written by Bertens, and “The American Century: World War I to the Present,” written by D’Haen. The emphasis on American preeminence is refreshing in our argumentative, pejorative age and made more so by its being offered by scholars looking from the cultural outside. Bertens and D’Haen skillfully blend their commentaries into a readable, accessible narrative that places the major individual details into their larger picture, useful for undergraduates in need of a look at the whole or for graduate students stepping back from the minutiae to remember where these little pieces belong.

By contrast to American Literature: A History, the size and density of An Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783–1812: A Political, Social, and Military History, ed. Spencer C. Tucker et al. (ABC-CLIO), are daunting: three volumes of material totaling 1000-plus pages—and covering roughly 30 years. Volumes 1 and 2 comprise 629 alphabetically organized, individually authored entries on “individuals, battles, military technology, politics, diplomacy, economics, literature, society, and the arts”; Volume 3 provides an equally substantial set of primary documents, plus a detailed chronology, a detailed bibliography, a glossary of military and naval terms, and even information on military awards and decorations and ranks. Hidden in this thicket of more than half a million words are Joel Barlow and a separate entry on his Columbiad, George Canning, James Fenimore Cooper, Philip Freneau, Washington Irving, and John Trumbull. Entries are pedestrian and rudimentary, directed at high-school and college students. Tucker, the principal editor, is on the staff of the publisher as “senior fellow in military history,” and books like this are his business: he has also produced, among other things, encyclopedias of the Mexican-American War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War.

Dealing with a period and a movement, but a social and political rather than a military one and in two volumes rather than three, is Encyclopedia of Populism in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Alexandra Kindell and Elizabeth S. Demers (ABC-CLIO). In their [End Page 496] preface (pp. xv–xvii) the editors propose that the volume “provides a broad spectrum of the ways in which both populism, as a generalization, and Populism as a specific political, agrarian movement, have shaped the modern United States.” The material, more than 330 individually authored essays arrayed alphabetically and generously cross-referenced to other entries but with minimal bibliographical support...


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