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Sacvan Bercovitch, ed. The Cambridge History of American Literature

Virginia RICARD
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Sacvan BERCOVITCH, ed. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2005, 813 pp., €109.79, ISBN-13: 9780521301077, ISBN-10: 0521301076

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1Sacvan Bercovitch’s eight-volume Cambridge History of American Literature is now complete: this is volume three, but the last in print. Originally conceived in the early nineties, the project has been the work of “a new generation of Americanists who have redrawn the boundaries of the field.” The use of “Americanist” here signals the manner in which those boundaries have been “redrawn.” Clearly, the History is not meant to be the work of stuffy (old) professors of literature who focus narrowly on the works themselves. Rather, the four essays in this volume, some of them book-length, examine the contexts in which American prose writing was produced between 1860 and 1920. In fact, the student attempting to understand such mundane literary categories as “Naturalism” or even historical categories such as the “Gilded Age” will be hard put to find any in-depth discussion. (The “Gilded Age,” for example, although referred to repeatedly in the first of the four essays, does not appear in the index.)

2Plurality, flexibility and diversity are the watchwords of this volume as well as of the History as a whole — plurality both in approach and in the object of study itself: the History is “an expression of ongoing debates,” and its authority “resides in part in the energies of heterogeneity,” writes Sacvan Bercovitch in the general introduction; “‘America’ in these volumes,” he adds, “is a shifting, many-sided focal point.” This is demanding a lot from the reader: the terrain, he is told, will be scrutinized with the aid of all sorts of maps and surveying instruments; moreover, its boundaries are unstable. It also means that some repetition is inevitable. We are told, for example, on page 59 that “the prodigiously self-educated Charles Chesnutt won early advancement in the world of education, becoming head of […] the State Colored Normal School” and again on page 199 that “Chesnutt was only twenty-two when he became the principal of the Normal School for Colored Teachers in Fayetteville.” On the other hand, the variety offered guarantees that almost everyone will find something to his liking.

3Context — i.e. industrial development, demographical change, massive immigration, social transformation — is all-important in these essays and the authors constantly refer to economic and social transition. In “The American Literary Field, 1860-1890,” Richard H. Brodhead begins by presenting postbellum America (a notion he considers an “intellectual convenience”) as a period of “differently constituted literary cultures” (the plural is de rigueur), a period defined first and foremost by the ways in which it diverges from what came before. Writers at the end of the nineteenth century responded to market forces and the demands of a mass readership, which in turn “structured a certain role for the author and enforced a particular version of authorship on practitioners.” This was a time of cultural stratification, writes Brodhead, both in print culture and on the American stage, which “became progressively separated into a legitimate theatre and its […] popular opposite.” The period also saw the inauguration of a permanent literary culture, composed of both “the fine air of high literature” (as William Dean Howells put it) that gathered around journals like the Atlantic Monthly (founded in 1857) and subscription publishing, a more popular form. Horace Greeley’s American Conflict (which sold over 200,000 copies) and Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (1869) are two highly successful examples of the format. It is noteworthy that although Richard Brodhead remarks in passing that, in “literary terms,” Mark Twain was subscription publishing’s “significant figure,” he then only allows him two paragraphs. Thus Innocents Abroad is seen not as a “great book,” but as a subscription publication and, well yes, significant among these. This absence of hierarchy is one of the hallmarks of the volume as a whole.

4Richard Brodhead ends his essay with a description of the taste for “artistic localism” and in particular the regionalist novel, which, in this period of accelerated capitalist-industrialist development, often attempted to “fix the image of ‘ante-railroad times’.” This is yet another illustration of the need to create lieux de mémoire, which, as Pierre Nora has demonstrated, makes itself felt when the original milieu threatens to disappear — Sarah Orne Jewett’s Dunnet Landing in The Country of the Pointed Firs is a case in point. This was also the phenomenon that created a space for black writers like Chesnutt or Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.

5In a much longer essay called “Literary Forms and Mass Culture, 1870-1920,” Nancy Bentley charts the movement from Realism, with its claims of objectivity, to American Modernism, and its more subjective modes of seeing. In a chapter she calls “Museum Realism,” she shows how Realist writers often use the museum as a setting. The museum here becomes a trope for a new analytical way of seeing, indeed for a new aesthetic of social science. Bentley presents the response of a cultural elite to the emerging mass culture: writers like William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Jane Addams, as well as “outsiders” like Charles Chesnutt and W. E. B. Du Bois while embracing high art, explored and attempted to come to terms with modernization. Travel, speed, the new woman, and race are the objects of observation of turn-of-the-century American Realism. Some of the best pages here concern Edith Wharton’s analyses of changing forms of kinship, but even in these, Bentley pays limited attention to the texts themselves.

6In Promises of American Life, 1880-1920, Walter Benn Michaels provides suggestive readings of novels and short stories by Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Owen Wister, Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Edward Bellamy, Steven Crane, Kate Chopin, Abraham Cahan, Edith Wharton, Henry James and others. He shows how these works examine and reflect the anxieties produced by unresolved questions in this “pivotal” period: determinism and self-transformation, social mobility and class, individuality in a world of increasing standardization, upward mobility and success, the meanings of a career as opposed to a calling, the functions of marriage.

7The final and also the longest essay in the volume is Susan L. Mizruchi’s Becoming Multicultural: Culture, Economy, and the Novel, 1860–1920. It covers the entire period and provides the most complete picture, discussing representations of the Civil War and Reconstruction, urbanization and immigration, “Indian removal” and genocide, the development of advertising and magazines, conditions of work, the rise of big business, and the utopian response to all of these transformations. Mizruchi alternates between very general characterizations of the period and micro-readings of particular works as well as mini-biographies of authors. She bases her generalizations on the “three main theses:” first that immigrant populations were both a source of labor and consumption and a locus of anxiety and fascination; second, that cultural diversity spurred resistance to welfare and contributed to “a powerful and persistent national ideology of individualism;” and finally that capitalist development was seen as “requiring essential cultural sacrifices,” the victims being Native Americans and African Americans.

8In the introduction to her contribution, Mizruchi writes that the task of the literary historian is “to reveal the histories that are deeply embedded in literary works.” This process, she adds, is “archeological rather than critical”. To be sure, this volume, at its best, is a fascinating archeological investigation of a particular period of American literature. Many of the specimens are intriguing, in particular those which have been brought to the light of day only recently (like Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, whose Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) and The Squatter and the Don (1885) were rediscovered in the early 1990s). However, although recovering “neglected and undervalued works” (of authors whose names sometimes sit oddly next to that of Henry James) and adding new authors to the canon is sometimes (but not always) a praiseworthy undertaking, and although most of the contributions make for stimulating reading, there remain a number of irksome questions.

9First of all, is the literary historian’s task really “to reveal the histories that are deeply embedded in literary works?” This would appear to mean that the literary historian attempts to understand history by reading literary works. And that is exactly what this volume does. The authors turn to the social sciences (Jacob Riis, Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss among others), philosophy (John Dewey and William James, for example), as well as to fiction, but also to memoir and autobiography (often without differentiating them from works of the imagination), leaving the reader with the impression that this is cultural history rather than a history of literature. Literature and its history is no longer an end in itself but rather a stepping-stone, a means by which to understand the period and its particular society and culture. One of the dangers of this method (one that is mainly avoided by the authors) is that works of literature become merely a means to back up a demonstration and are chosen in consequence. Individual works are no longer viewed as singular but rather as illustrations of phenomena that only appear clearly in retrospect anyway. Literature, in other words, loses its aura. Some of the authors, in particular Mizruchi, compensate by conveying their enthusiasm for particular works, thereby reintroducing a hierarchy.

10The method involves other dangers. The period itself (1860-1920) is repeatedly referred to as “pivotal” but we are never told why, except that it was a period of immense transformation. This is surely a tautology. Furthermore, in each of the four essays, the time span varies (for Brodhead and Mizruchi the period under study begins in 1860; for Bentley it begins in 1870; for Michaels it begins in 1880). This is clearly not because the authors have divided up the whole according to some form of logic (or even for the sake of “intellectual convenience”). It may, in fact, be for no reason at all. In any case, the reader is never informed, as if to begin in 1860, 1870, or 1880 were a matter of indifference. Moreover, Walter Benn Michaels, whose period is announced as 1880-1920, begins (and ends) his essay with a protracted (and interesting) comment on Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy.

11In spite of these equivocations, Volume Three of The Cambridge History of American Literature is a very good read, and Michaels and Mizruchi in particular shed interesting new light on their subjects, sending the readers back to (or simply to) the works they analyse (this may prove to be a problem for French readers: a quick search on ABES shows that many of the newly unearthed works can be found in only one — at the most two — French university libraries). Still, although the title frames the volume as history, it cannot, with the possible exception of the last essay, be dipped into the way reference books usually can. A student working on, say, James Weldon Johnson would have to consult a dozen different pages and even then would probably have to read two of the essays in their entirety, or large parts of them, to get anything worthwhile out of the volume. If this is so, then who exactly is The Cambridge History of American Literature for? The title will attract both students and teachers and the jargon-free prose makes it available to the general reader. Thanks are due to Cambridge for producing an index and a useful chronology and for the almost faultless editing (although it is now certain that no copy editors in the United States speak French!) The only quibble might be that it would have been helpful to have subheadings as well as chapter titles in contents for easy reference.

12The question remains, however, does the volume add up to more than the sum of its parts? Or, to put it differently, besides bringing together the work of four experts on this particular period, does the volume amount to a history? The answer is probably no. But together the four essays still (and perhaps that is sufficient justification for the title) provide the “richest, most detailed account of American literature and culture between 1860 and 1920.”

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Virginia RICARD, « Sacvan Bercovitch, ed. The Cambridge History of American Literature », E-rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, document 1, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 31 mars 2020. URL :

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Virginia RICARD

Université Bordeaux 3

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