It’s always good news when someone takes up unfamous novels from the past. So I was looking forward to What America Read (that’s past tense not a typo) by Gordon Hutner, a professor of English at the University of Illinois. I found the book informative and thought-provoking. Hutner has nothing specific to say about California, but he does provide a literary context in which to study (or just read) fiction from the mid-twentieth century. What follows are some preliminary notes on the book.
What America Read is both literary history and literary historiography. It focuses on realistic novels from the death of William Dean Howells in 1920 to the moribundity of the approach, which Hutner puts in 1960. He calls them middle-class novels, both in the sense that their readers were middle-class and in the sense that they spoke to middle-class concerns. (Hutner excludes genre fiction, which also had a mainly middle-class audience, because it had another purpose – escapist entertainment.) Realistic novels dealt with personal responses to modernization. In these books fledgling or established members of the middle class faced ethical conflicts and moral ambiguities in their efforts to deal with family, marriage, sex, work, politics, social mobility, assimilation and similar questions. Sometimes the books were set in the past to show contrasts and continuities with the periods in which they were written. Usually, however, the books aimed directly at contemporary issues by using current settings. Sometimes the books offered lessons that might be applied to their readers’ own problems. Sometimes they depicted what was happening, clarifying or ramifying issues and ultimately giving readers a deeper understanding of social change. For these reasons realistic novels maintained a persistent audience throughout the period.
By studying what Americans were actually reading, Hutner challenges today’s accepted literary history. In the standard narrative Howells’ death symbolized the end of realism as an imaginative force. In the 1920s it was usurped by modernism, as represented by Fitzgerald, Hemingway and especially Faulkner. As far as I understand it, these novels had little interest in social issues and offered readers primarily the pleasures of their form and style. In the 1930s modernist novels were challenged by proletarian fiction, which found middle-class problems irrelevant to the economic upheaval of the Great Depression. Modernism won out after World War II but was losing its creative energy. It then gave way to postmodernism, which was on the rise by 1960. For advocates of this historiographical position (which seems to include nearly all professors of American literature), novels that don’t fit in with this story aren’t worth thinking about. And so, with a few exceptions representing works by women or minorities, they’ve been ignored.
Hutner aims to shine some light on this lost American literary heritage. He’s not so much interested in best-sellers, though he discusses them, as on the totality of realistic novels and the messages they were sending to the middle class. He goes to the books themselves, to contemporary reviews and literary criticism, and to popular non-fiction that took up the same social issues. Hutner thus opens up a vast new territory for literary inquiry. It remains to be seen whether other scholars will follow him out of the quagmire of the canon.