What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960

What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960

What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960

What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960

Synopsis

Despite the vigorous study of modern American fiction, today's readers are only familiar with a partial shelf of a vast library. Gordon Hutner describes the distorted, canonized history of the twentieth-century American novel as a record of modern classics insufficiently appreciated in their day but recuperated by scholars in order to shape the grand tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. In presenting literary history this way, Hutner argues, scholars have forgotten a rich treasury of realist novels that recount the story of America's confrontation with modernity.

Hutner explains that realist novels were frequently lauded when they first appeared. They are almost completely unread now, he contends, largely because they record the middle-class encounter with modern life. This middle-class realism, Hutner shows, reveals a surprising engagement with the social issues that most fully challenged readers in the United States, including race relations, politics, immigration, and sexuality. Reading these novels now offers an extraordinary opportunity to witness debates about what kind of nation America would become and what place its newly dominant middle class would have- and, Hutner suggests, should also lead us to wonder how our own contemporary novels will be remembered.

Excerpt

Why are so few novels remembered while so many thousands are forgotten? Is our literary history incomplete without accounting for these books? These questions, and others like them, have stimulated this study of “better fiction” —novels that were better than formula fiction but not as good as high art. In their time, these novels were within educated readers’ reference and memory, but over the years they have passed out of sight. Although these novels frequently won prizes and were often greeted respectfully, even eagerly, in the review columns of important magazines and newspaper supplements, they go unrecollected and unread not because their authors suffered from gender, racial, or political prejudice. On the contrary: because they occupied the very center of the literary landscape, these middle-class realistic novels—and not genre writing like Westerns, romances, or mysteries— constituted the merely ordinary, that is, the fiction against which academic tastemakers later needed to contradistinguish the best. While the unfamiliarity or remoteness of more complex literature or more explicitly ideological fiction frequently necessitates sustained acts of critical preservation so they might be appreciated, the novels I am writing about issue no such challenge. Instead, they comprise the widely read, easily comprehensible fiction that Americans chose for their edification and literary entertainment. These novels mean to please and instruct middle-class America in all its diversity of social marking, economic position, political standing. Strongly pedagogical, these novels often meant to shape public awareness of cultural values as well as individual pursuits, and how they came together.

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