The Editors of The Cambridge History of the American Novel decided to consider their subject—as history is considered increasingly in universities these days—from the bottom up. In 71 chapters, the book's contributors consider the traditional novel in its many sub-forms, among them: science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels, Jewish novels, Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children's novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability ("We cannot truly know a culture until we ask its disabled citizens to describe, analyze, and interpret it," write the authors of a chapter titled "Disability and the American Novel"). Other chapters are about subjects played out in novels—for instance, ethnic and immigrant themes—and still others about publishers, book clubs, discussion groups and a good deal else. "The Cambridge History of the Novel," in short, provides full-court-press coverage.
"In short," though, is perhaps the least apt phase for a tome that runs to 1,244 pages and requires a forklift to hoist onto one's lap. All that the book's editors left out is why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others. But, then, this is a work of literary history, not of literary criticism. Randall Jarrell's working definition of the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it" has, in this voluminous work, been ruled out of bounds.
Most readers are unlikely to have heard of the contributors to "The Cambridge History of the American Novel," the majority teachers in English departments in American universities. I myself, who taught in a such a department for three decades, recognized the names of only four among them. Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer. Literature, as taught in the current-day university, is strictly an intramural game.
This may come as news to the contributors to The Cambridge History of the American Novel, who pride themselves on possessing much wider, much more relevant, interests and a deeper engagement with the world than their predecessors among literary academics. Biographical notes on contributors speak of their concern with "forms of moral personhood in the US novels," "the poetics of foreign policy," and "ecocriticism and theories of modernization, postmodernization, and globalization."
Yet, through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to The Cambridge History of the American Novel have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite. A novelist, we are told, "tasks himself" with this or that; things tend to get "problematized"; the adjectives "global" and "post"-this-or-that receive a good workout; "alterity" and "intertexuality" pop up their homely heads; the "poetics of ineffability" come into play; and "agency" is used in ways one hadn't hitherto noticed, so that "readers in groups demonstrate agency." About the term "non-heteronormativity" let us not speak.
These dopey words and others like them are inserted into stiffly mechanical sentences of dubious meaning. "Attention to the performativity of straight sex characterizes . . . The Great Gatsby (1925), where Nick Carraway's homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby offers a more authentic passion precisely through flamboyant display." Betcha didn't know that Nick Carraway was hot for Jay Gatsby? We sleep tonight; contemporary literary scholarship stands guard.
The Cambridge History of the American Novel is perhaps best read as a sign of what has happened to English studies in recent decades. Along with American Studies programs, which are often their subsidiaries, English departments have tended to become intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die. If one is still looking for that living relic, the fully subscribed Marxist, one is today less likely to find him in an Economics or History Department than in an English Department, where he will still be taken seriously. He finds a home there because English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essays—after being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelers—might yield on the subjects of race, class and gender. "How would [this volume] be organized," one of its contributors asks, "if race, gender, disability, and sexuality were not available?" . . . .
A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism. The automatic leftism behind this picture is also part of the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.
As a former English major—"Indeed! What regiment?" asks a character in a Lionel Trilling story—I cannot help wondering what it must be like to be taught by the vast majority of the people who have contributed to "The Cambridge History of the American Novel." Two or three times a week one would sit in a room and be told that nothing that one has read is as it appears but is instead informed by authors hiding their true motives even from themselves or, in the best "context-centered" manner, that the books under study are the product of a country built on fundamental dishonesty about the sacred subjects of race, gender and class.
Some indication of what it must be like is indicated by the steep decline of American undergraduates who choose to concentrate in English. English majors once comprised 7.6% of undergraduates, but today the number has been nearly halved, down to 3.9%. . . .