VERSIONS OF THE PAST: The Historical Imagination in American Fiction by

VERSIONS OF THE PAST: The Historical Imagination in American Fiction

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A view of the novel as a political act, or ""a pistol shot in a drawing room,"" as Stendhal put it. Henderson proposes to go beyond George Lukacs (outdated, in his opinion) to lay the groundwork for a universal definition of the form of the ""historical"" novel. His survey of American literature is rooted in the Romantic historians and Henry and Brooks Adams, and he analyzes in turn the major works of the 19th century and a motley assortment from the 20th. Henderson perceives two structures informing the images of the past, ""Each being the schematic blueprint for a complete representational theory of society"" -- (a) the ""progressive"" or (b) the ""holist"" frame. Progressivism looks forward to an eschatological Great Time of emancipation and liberty. Holism draws on Vico's theories, is time-bound, and emphasizes cultural boundaries. The apotheosis of historical fiction is achieved, according to Henderson, when a novel embodies to the fullest degree a tension between the possibilities. (The Scarlet Letter and Absalom, Absalom! get highest marks.) His models however do not apply so readily to the body of 20th century writing -- the old rules for time and causal relations just do not pertain. For the post-WW II novels, of Robert Penn Warren, Malamud, Styron, Barth, Pynchon, Ellison and Mailer, the author is obliged to develop two new categories, (a) the liberal conscience and (b) the apocalyptic parody. This, then, is catch-as-catch-can criticism -- ambitious, very conscientious and thought-provoking, but less than universal.

Pub Date: Oct. 10th, 1974
Publisher: Oxford