The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin

The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin

The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin

The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin


Brian Attebery considers eccentricities and history in the writings of, Baum, Ruskin, MacDonald, Morris, Lewis and Tolkien in a concise survey of the different definitions and characteristics of the genre of fantasy, first exploring it as a whole, then defining its influence on American folklore.


Fantasy in America, the country where pragmatism became a philosophy and "normalcy" a point of faith? Surely there is nothing so eccentric and impractical to be found here. One might as well try to study American opera. The English write fantasy; Americans write Westerns, detective stories, and lurid novels about Hollywood.

When I began this study, I expected to unearth a few isolated writers working against the mainstream of American literature. There was at least L. Frank Baum's Oz-perhaps enough other oddities could be found to make some point about the American imagination, on the rare occasions when it was really let loose. What I found, instead, is a tradition, although it is a tradition that runs counter to the main force of American belief as evidenced by the bulk of our folklore and literature up to the turn of the last century. One might think of it as a resistance movement, working to undermine the national faith in things-as-they-are. It even went underground, hiding out in the nursery and periodically venturing out disguised as romance or satire or science fiction.

One mark of a true tradition is that its authors are aware of one another. I found this to be true to a surprising degree in American fantasy. My authors read each other, lunched together, even illustrated one another's work. But perhaps I should not have been surprised. If stories of the marvelous are few, it is all the more likely that those with a taste for them will seek out every available example.

Another sign of a tradition is that by becoming aware of it, one's response to any of its members is enriched. One can see, for instance, that American fantasists share certain inescapable problems: in particular, a fundamental bias against fantasy in the folklore of this country. This bias leaves the fantasist cut off from the stock of magical images and events that abound in European tales and legends, from which the British fantasists have drawn so much of the raw material for their stories. The American writer must find some way of reentering the ancient storytelling guild: he must validate his claim to the archetypes that are the tools of the trade. To do so, he must find an archetypal analog for his own land -- an American fairyland -- to which those old world magical motifs may be drawn.

The American tradition of fantasy can be considered a long-range attempt at that one task: creating an American fairyland. The process has been a slow, fitful one involving repeated borrowings from other literatures, reconstructions of any supernatural lore that has survived in fragmentary or rationalized form, and eventually the elevation of wordplay and symbolism into mythlike narratives.

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