THE AMERICAN 1890s by Larzer Ziff


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America's fin de siecle, otherwise known as the Gay Nineties, was a transitional period. Those New England worthies, Holmes, Lowell, and Whittier, were the literary mandarins, holding up a dying school of gentility, while truth-seeking radicals poked around in the sprawling, changing landscape. The pioneer values of the rural heritage grew rancid, and the makeshift turbulence of industry began to spawn. The cultural impact of these events is well-documented in Professor Ziff's painstaking chronicle. Unfortunately, a good deal of the supposed dramatic contrast between an upcoming generation of dissenters and the passing world of apple pie orthodoxies seems a little remote to a reader in the Sixties. The professor's style is hardly trenchant, and his commentary as a whole rarely blows life into the more or less minor writers or ideas discussed. True, the author dresses up his material with a large thesis, contending that the best (and neglected) artists of the Nineties are the forerunners of modern American literature, but this is a debatable assumption. Frank Norris, Harold Frederic, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, even Stephen Crane and Edwin Arlington Robinson, do not, with all their varying degrees of importance, conjure up the figures of Eliot or Pound, Hemingway or Faulkner. It is, in fact, a somewhat slim subject housed in a fat book. As a synoptic view, touching upon James and Dreiser as well as all the fashionable romances and journalistic junk of the period, the work, nevertheless, proves a finely detailed introduction.

Pub Date: Aug. 29th, 1966
Publisher: Viking