American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

PART II
MODERN AMERICAN CRITICISM, 1900-1945

In talking about books--their excellence or mediocrity--American cultural critics could assume an audience that read poetry and fiction avidly and that considered these pursuits significant as both instruction and entertainment. Magazines, literary clubs, poetry journals, and other formal institutions, including author societies and, later, book clubs, were extremely popular ways of participating in what may have been an unprecedentedly literate reading public. By the 1920s, book talk had become so customary that newspapers were developing Sunday review sections. The need for informed opinion about which new books were valuable and which were not had never been so pronounced.

As in the other arts, a class of connoisseurs emerged to meet this need, critics who might be said to replace genteel magazine editors and the clergy in prescribing reading tastes. This cadre of experts included professors as well as intellectuals--that recently designated group of thinkers who wrote on social, literary, political, and cultural matters for opinion and belles-lettres magazines. Both sorts of publications provided venues where critics could express their views about what kinds of writing should be regarded as important and what kinds faddish. Some of these magazines, like The Nation ( 1865) and the New Republic ( 1914), still perform this office of guiding citizens through the social and political ramifications of recent books. Others, once influential, like The Dial ( 1880- 1929) or The Seven Arts ( 1916- 1917), no longer exist, having served their mission of bringing together, for awhile, some like-minded critics who could make a more forceful collective statement about society, its ideas and their expression, than they could individually.

In introducing literary modernism, these critics followed the tradition of William Dean Howells insofar as they monitored avant-garde writing for the enlightened middle class. One may say that this is the very achievement of Edmund Wilson first book, Axel's Castle ( 1931), a series of essays that make accessible the complex techniques of some major examples of the new writing--Stein, Proust, Eliot, and Yeats. Wilson went on to write a number of important cultural analyses, blending his talents as a journalist with his capacities as a man of letters. While the memory of his particular accomplishments has faded, he is still recalled, both inside and outside academe, as one of America's enduring "public intellectuals," a critic whose cultural percipience wins a following among people who make their living beyond the university. Yet even while Wilson and such highbrow critics as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were delivering the news about European modernism, other critics, like Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks, were mediating the changes within U.S. culture, especially in their interpretations of American writers old and new.

For observers on all sides of the political spectrum, Theodore Dreiser proved to be a test case, perhaps even more so than the new evaluations of Henry James or the recent re

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