DEMOCRACY AND THE NOVEL: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers by Henry Nash Smith
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DEMOCRACY AND THE NOVEL: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers

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If anyone should be able to demonstrate--standing on the shoulders of Matthiessen, Perry Miller, and Santayana--that the classic American novelists were constrained by an unsympathetic public, it is Professor Smith (English, Emeritus, Berkeley), author of Virgin Land (1950) and exponent of Mark Twain; but his failure, throwing into doubt much received wisdom, is significant and fruitful. Yes, one accedes, those ""scribbling women"" who, Hawthorne believed, imperiled the sales of The Scarlet Letter, did set in motion a process--coincident with the emergence of a new reading public--which split American fiction into highbrow and middlebrow camps. True, each of Smith's Big Five--Hawthorne, Melville, Howells, Mark Twain, Henry James--collided in some way with popular culture, especially in writing for serial publication. Of course, comparing their sales with the best-sellers', they felt themselves ill-used (""you can't make a sow's ear of a silk purse,"" James had one of his fictional counterparts say). But what Smith does not succeed in showing is that any one of the five was prevented from developing ""his full potentialities"" as a result of public pressure rather than personal limitations. In the case of James, to whom he devotes the two concluding chapters, the counter-evidence is particularly telling: despite critical resistance at each stage of his career, despite his complaints at the difficulty of having his work published (resulting in his disastrous fling with the theater), he pursued his craft into the notoriously dense, early-modernist late novels--and (Smith does not say) received $5,000 from Harper's Magazine for serial rights to The Ambassadors, which he considered his best work. But what Smith does accomplish, by his careful examination of key passages and crucial themes, is to illuminate just what it was that the general public resisted (the disorderly ""truth of the heart"" in Hawthorne, the tragic grandeur of Ahab's madness); just what separated Howell's work from serious literary realism (A Modern Instance serves as the absorbing example); just how Mark Twain, after hedging, broke with the ""dominant secular faith"" in progress. And, antithetically, just what American popular culture represented. No mean achievement, if not precisely that intended.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1978
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press