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  • General Reference Works
  • David J. Nordloh

The Internet and electronic databases have dramatically reshaped the information landscape. The good news is the virtually instant accessibility of the minutest detail: I type a question even very awkwardly on my keyboard, or I speak it to the device at the corner of my desk, and more quickly than the reference librarian could even put down his or her pencil I am rewarded with the answer—J. D. Salinger's birthdate (1 January 1919), the name of the author who has used the pen name "Rosamund Smith" (Joyce Carol Oates). The bad news is that the detail is only a detail, devoid of context, disconnected from culture and history. This information environment should not be confused with the knowledge environment (as televised man-on-the-street interviews also attest). Knowledge, or at least the foundational material of knowledge, still requires coherent, organized resources. And the study of American literature, as diversified and rich with possibilities as it continues to be, especially needs such resources. Further, it needs resources supported by the permanence of print, assuring its availability in the same future American literature will continue to occupy, and accessible to all, not just the electronically fortunate. Not so curiously, fewer and fewer print reference works of the kind I imagine, idealist or Luddite that I am, are being produced. Their place is being taken in the publishers' lists by "handbooks" and "companions," title buzzwords suggesting an essential repository of information but actual contents typically gatherings of essays contributed around a topic area, the equivalent of a special issue of a journal. I admire the exceptionally high quality of much of [End Page 419] this work. But the sad irony of this information age is that unless these essays make it into the records of online bibliographical inventories, too few readers will even know they exist. (Even libraries whose cataloging records include full tables of contents seldom include that material in their search engines.) Although I am increasingly reluctant to call such volumes reference works, I nonetheless discuss them in this essay to draw attention to their frequently overlooked contribution to American literary scholarship.

But first, there are in fact several titles qualifying as authentic reference works this year. The most ambitious and most thorough of them is Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume Two: Dimensions of the Midwestern Literary Imagination, ed. Philip A. Greasley (Indiana). Expanding both intellectually and physically (almost 1,100 pages) on the biographies in The Authors (2001), the first volume in this planned three-volume series, also edited by Greasley, it features signed, alphabetically organized, thoughtfully illustrated, elaborately cross-referenced, and thoroughly indexed essays on historical and cultural contexts. Its materials include 35 entries on "crucial texts in the evolving Midwestern and American literary canon" (the first of these and first entry in the volume takes up Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March) as well as entries on individual states, major cities, regions, and geographically coherent literatures (Great Lakes Literature, River Literature, the Chicago Renaissance); on the literatures of population groups; on historical and cultural developments (like captivity narratives, immigrant and migrant literature, the small town, the suburb); on social movements and cultural change (e.g., Progressivism, slave narratives); and on literary genres, literary periodicals, and regional dimensions of related arts, art forms, and ancillary cultural disciplines. Greasley's introduction (pp. 1–7) emphasizes the comprehensive response of this dictionary to popular misconceptions about the Midwest: that it is "homogeneous, composed of uniformly white, middle-class people and communities," that it is a "cultural backwater devoid of literary and cultural merit," and that it is "static, a region caught in the past like a prehistoric insect in amber." Surely he exaggerates: it is difficult for me, birthplace Cincinnati, Ohio, to imagine civilized persons, even outside the Midwest, thinking such thoughts. But if such people do exist, dropping this solidly informational tome in their vicinity might help.

A comprehensive resource of a very different kind, though also impressively comprehensive, is Drewey Wayne Gunn's Gay American [End Page 420] Novels, 1870–1970: A Reader's Guide (McFarland). The heart of this compact volume of double-columned pages is a...


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