No winners when all Yanks get prizes

A History of American Literature
September 3, 2004

This is a book aimed at undergraduate readers, and at 899 pages, it may well represent the gargantuan nature of the country whose literature they have chosen to study. While books such as these are intended as chronicles, few readers will want to wade from chapter one to the bitter end and, I suspect, will prefer to browse the authors they are studying. As a library reference work for quick-fire information from a reliable (non-internet source), this "Gray's Anatomy" of American authorship will prove a useful resource.

Gray has divided his book into five major sections taking us from the first Americans to colonial and revolutionary authors and thence to early republican and regional literature, the creation of a national identity from Reconstruction to 1900, the conflict that emerged between Victorian attitudes and modernism up to the Second World War and finishing with the multiplicity of styles and movement that brings the story up to date.

Each section is divided into sub-sections that detail the "development of many Americas", including those trends that have given voice to women blacks and the newer challenges of Chicano, Asian and contemporary American writing. The book also charts postmodernism, crime and science fiction, which widens its appeal to the current generation of readers. While there are no endnotes, there is a generous list of titles for further reading.

But Gray's new literary history is overwhelmed with the same need to please all the people that afflicts the most popular anthologies of American literature. In so doing, it runs the risk of pleasing none.

Although the author claims that his "story has had to be a selective one", he is determined to be "true... to the whole range of diversity and difference" to write the obligatory tale of America's "literary histories".

The tell-tale plural suggests that we are entering the land of the politically correct. Thus are trotted out the threadbare phrases that will "uninvent" historical readings of American literary tradition to celebrate "plurality".

Once everybody gets a prize simply for being an American author, then all that unites the Navaho poet, the black feminist or the white cosmopolitan is the geographical space they collectively occupy. Pluralism still implies a hierarchy of values, and, by implication, themes and counter themes - the US as a conceptual and imaginative space. But if everybody has an equal say, all that remains are parochial voices, and, as Gray acknowledges, a "variety of antagonisms" where pluralism has simply collapsed into a multitudinous relativism.

Including the widest variety of authors risks losing that clarity of purpose needed for intelligent discrimination. More worrying, the myths of the early native tribes are treated in the same way (as somehow literary rather than religious) as the writings of white and Anglo authors. Given his liberal position, Gray might have spent more time outlining the decisions for his inclusions, from the Zuni people to Mickey Spillane. The book remains, nevertheless, a useful starter text.

Clive Bloom is professor of English and American studies, Middlesex University.

A History of American Literature

Author - Richard Gray
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 899
Price - £65.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 631 22134 4 and 22135 2

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