Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Americans before the great Revival

American Literature courses in the teens of the last century, if they had them at all, must have been virtually devoid of novels. Yes, there was Hawthorne, and Twain, too, though neither of them produced a single tome worthy of a second week in class. After them, the works grew either slimmer (Poe) or longer but less substantial (Cooper, Irving). Perhaps some book of Henry James could merit the second week and still be called American, despite James' great efforts to the contrary. Like Melville, Crane was forgotten.

Yet there were riveting recent works, notably Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, young glowing buds on the otherwise spare and mildewed American branch of the novelistic tradition, and there were wonderful essays and dramatic sermons. With a favorable post-war exchange rate and a chance to learn from the long-lived European cultures, by the end of the teens 27 Rue de Fleurus was suddenly attracting hyper-hormonal American literary geniuses to mingle with Stein's magnificent collection of modernist painters. The great flowering of the American novel was beginning, and it needed a tradition to call its own.

And so, the old books were dusted off. If there was no tradition to speak of, one would be made. While most of this blog will focus on reading Moby Dick itself, the Melville Revival has become such a central event in American literary history, every bit as mythic as Stein's parlor, that we really should take a quick look at it before getting started.

This post sets the stage; in my next, the 20s will begin and the actors will enter. Most of the first books on Melville and Moby Dick written by the key revival figures are still very much worth reading and discussing. Not to be lost, however, is the historical context of the revival: the American literati wanted some roots to feed young shoots growing in thin soil. This was a need and search that Hawthorne and Melville had felt as well, though their search was less fruitful.

The grand and mature English tradition often spoke to a world quite remote from America's open spaces and compact cities with winding cowpaths, each filling rapidly with immigrants. It's literature was a distant and faint lighthouse for American writers, who needed a closer beacon. One wonders who might have been found to play this part had Melville not been lurking there.

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