Native Ground

edited by Emory Elliott.
Columbia University Press, $59.95.
THE QUESTION MUST be asked‚ What do we mean by a national literature? It is easily answered in respect of countries like, say, Albania, whose language is coextensive with history and territory; it is not so easily answered as regards Italy and Greece, where historical continuity is denied by the change from a classical language to a modern one and, in Italy certainly, by a large number of dialects that have full linguistic status— where, too, the very concept of nation is of fairly recent manufacture. With America, limits have to be artificially imposed. This colossal survey (1,384 pages) has found room for the Amerindian languages, and for Hispanic writers, Asiatic immigrants, and Jews, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, who have clung to Yiddish. But the major problem is finding a dividing line between the literature of a colonial people and that of an emancipated one, and dealing with that modern reversal whereby Henry James and T. S. Eliot ceased to be American and became British, while Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden—not notably dealt with in this book—abandoned England and became, respectively, a Californian and a New Yorker. It is probably not enough to limit the literature of the United States to what has been written in English on American soil below the Great Lakes and the forty-ninth parallel. It is better, and more in keeping with the patriotic tendency that wants to chart a national literature, to look for a definable American quality, though being prepared to see it shade off into recidivistic Britishrv or expand into internationalism. We have no trouble with Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, who areas American as that British invention the apple pie, but James is a great nuisance and so, notoriously, is Ezra Pound, whose Americanism is defined through treason.
Though Mistress Anne Bradstreet was born in Northampton, England, and was already eighteen when she sailed on the Arabella, on her way to settle in Massachusetts, her adult poetry is undeniably American, in that it was written within the sound of Indian war whoops and chuckling turkeys. It is also colonial, in that it is far from any heart of literary culture that could refine it. Addressing her own book of poems, she wrote:
In this array ‘mongst vulgars
may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou
dost not come‚
If for thy father asked, say thou
hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is
Which caused her thus to send
thee out of door.
This is provincial verse, or doggerel, but that does not matter so long as it is American. The homage due to Bradstreet, and duly paid by John Berryman, has little to do with literary merit.
America needed primitivism, the sense of a stumbling amateur striving toward a hard-won perfection and not quite reaching it. The achieved rejected society of Great Britain was not in accord with a beleaguered Puritan society trying to build a new nation from scratch. And yet when that new nation achieved independence, was not the voice of its prose style very much that of Augustan deist London? Has there ever been finer English prose than this, which is altogether American?
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The chauvinistic desire to believe in the existence of an American language, altogether sundered from the mother tongue, impelled the Teuton H. L. Mencken to proclaim a kind of linguistic independence, stressing divergence and wishing to deny uniformity. The truth is that British and American English are virtually the same, that the differences in syntax and usage are minimal, and that mutual understanding of literary texts is total. Speech is a different matter, and it was only when American literature shed its formality and admitted the colloquial that it was possible to speak of a new, homegrown tradition. It had to begin humorously, even facetiously, as in James Russell Lowell’s The Biglow Papers:
Our Hosea wuz down to Boston last week, and he sees a cruetin Sarjunt a struttin round as popler as a hen with 1 chicking, with 2 fellers a drummin and fifin arter him like all nater, the sarjunt he thout Hosea hedn’t gut his i teeth cut cos he looked a kindo’s though he’d jest com down, so he cal’lated to hook him in. . . .
With Mark Twain the humor was to be enclosed in a more complex view of the comic. It may be said that with the coming of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman it became impossible for an Englishman to write like an American, though an American had no reciprocal problem. A colonial literature encloses that of the mother country. With Whitman it was a matter of subject; with Twain it was a question of vision, scene, idiom, ethos—the literary totality.
So I, BRITISH-BORN, though in European exile and once an adoptive New Yorker, look at a literature that has modified my sensibility quite as much as that of my native country—in some ways more so, since I consider myself a kind of rebel against the British establishment. This literature is surveyed in the Columbia Literary History at such length, and with such skill, that it defeats the reviewer’s duty to seek faults and impels him to a praise only partially qualified. It is not often that a reviewer will admit the reader into his workshop, but I think it is necessary now. The surveying of the survey, which must be done well in advance of the readying of the book for publication, imposes the reading of eight hundred long galleys fixed together with stout hoops, as yet undisciplined with an index, unmapped with paginations in the contents section. The reading has been a muscular business, and it has strained the nerves, too. But the major problem remains one of generalization: How can I sum up the work?
It is a pentateuch. The Book of Genesis takes us from the beginning, through the colonial and transitional eras, to the emergence of the literature of the republic. The second main section covers the years from 1810 to 1865, beginning with Washington Irving and the Knickerbocker group and ending with Walt Whitman. The major voices of the period 1865 to 1910 are Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and Henry James, with other writers treated in the summary form that clarifies “movements”—regionalism, naturalism (imported from Europe), the march of the women. From 1910 to 1945 the claims of “ethnicity and gender” predominate, with Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner demanding the attention of shared chapters, except for Frost and Faulkner, who get chapters to themselves. The final section takes us from the end of the Second World War to the present day, when the abundance of American writing forbids capitular hegemony of names and imposes generalities like neo-realist fiction, self-reflexive fiction, literature as radical statement, the avant-garde, and experimental writing.
We seem to be past the age when it was possible for a single, or at most double, vision of a national literature to be written, comparable to the efforts of the Frenchmen Legouis and Cazamian, in charting British literature from Beowulf to Wells. The Columbia history presents no unified point of view: it is synoptic, the work having been parceled out among distinguished scholars, not all American. In this sense the survey is highly democratic: a survey of Soviet literature would impose a centralized vision, blinkered by a concern with ideological orthodoxy and dissatisfied with the criterion of purely aesthetic merit. The aesthetic comes first with these scholars. Ties with the mother country are frankly admitted, and it is accepted, for instance, that certain currents of libertarian thought owe as much to British Whiggery as to American radicalism. Philosophy, which may or may not be a branch of literature, has its place. Such best sellers as Herman Wouk and Sinclair Lewis (though some of us nonAmericans might argue that books like Youngblood Hawke and Babbitt tell us more about the United States than do The Golden Bowl and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley) are hardly considered. What clearly emerges over the course of the long chronicle is a growth of confidence: when the United States entered the twentieth century and felt the political and economic confidence of a world power, American culture, too, became self-assertive and began to influence the Old World, to which it had formerly seen itself as a kind of cultural annex. National power is bound to affect literature— which is, after all, the way certain clearsighted citizens of a nation express themselves—and the prestige of so much contemporary American writing reflects the prestige of the nation that begot it.
And yet American literature is essentially subversive. It does not boost America, except satirically. Thoreau denied the rights of the state, and Whitman proclaimed the need for much resistance and little obedience. When the political watchword was progress, Henry Adams prophesied entropy. No major American author has wagged the flag. Landscape may be lyrically exalted, the great cities feared and loved, but American literature rarely expresses devotion to the concept of the nation.
This is one of the generalizations that one can make about this vast subject. The other, which this mammoth chronicle perhaps fails sufficiently to bring out, has to do with what American writers have done with their raw material, which is not a subject matter but a language. Dickinson and Whitman, long before Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new,” were among the remakers of English. Stein and Hemingway, working in Paris, saw Joyce depending for novelty on the satirization of outmoded forms; they themselves found new forms. What has happened to English in the hands of Americans is the real story of American literature. □