Friday, March 25, 2011

Series on Critics doing Historicism without doing the work of Historians, No. 1, Richard H. Brodhead


When I saw the title of Richard Brodhead's The School of Hawthorne in 1986 I was feeding Melville documents to Jay Leyda for an enlargement of THE MELVILLE LOG and decided I did not need to look up the book, since I had a good idea of just how pervasive Hawthorne's influence was among American novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century. When I bought a copy in July 2007 (a presentation copy signed by the author “with great fondness” to “a friend indeed”), I found that Brodhead had set out to show just "how pervasive Hawthorne's influence was among American novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century"—without having any idea how pervasive that influence was!

Writing soon after Paul Lauter’s RECONSTRUCTING AMERICAN LITERATURE (1983—really, 1984), that nationwide attempt to open the canon to specific groups previously neglected in survey courses, Brodhead knew he was on politically dangerous ground, or, more likely, to judge from the Preface, learned AFTER he had finished his book that he was apt to be attacked for ignoring women, to begin with, and others being championed by Lauter’s group. This is my guess, based on a close reading of the Preface. I think that rather than reconceiving the book after receiving criticism for dealing only with dead white males, Brodhead decided to finesse the problem by justifying himself in the Preface. Otherwise the Preface is hard to account for.

The School of Hawthorne begins with Brodhead bobbing and weaving over the obvious Political Incorrectness of his book, justifying his limiting the principal students to famous male writers (one of whom, Melville, scarcely belongs in the book). This is Brodhead:

“The particular tradition I have chosen to study is, I know, a highly canonical one. Not only does it include the authors ranked greatest in modern estimates of American fiction: the relation of such writers to Hawthorne has itself become a virtually canonical topic, a constant subject of official study. In view of the weight that has been attached to it I hasten to add that my intention in returning to this group is not to try to reinstate the Hawthorne-Melville-James-Faulkner line as the Great Tradition in an exclusionary way. I do not believe that the American novel has (in Richard Chase's words) ‘its tradition.’ It has a wealth of competing and interpenetrating traditions; no one of these is more American than the others; and no author draws strength from one American vein alone.”

In the next paragraph, beginning with a wordy, weaving construction ("if I return to . . . it is out of") Brodhead tries hard to show that he is open to enlargements of the canon, even though he is excluding anyone but his great male writers:

“Nevertheless, if I return to the high canonical American novelists it is out of the conviction that they exhibit forms of literary engagement whose possibilities we would not know of from the work of other writers, so that we can only forget them (as we once forgot their fellows) at the cost of loss of knowledge. If I return to them, it is also in the belief that we are now in a position to see these familiar authors under new lights. Renewed interest in writers formerly marked fit for forgetting has helped remind us that canons are selective and changing cultural constructions, not neutral registers of literary worth. This insight should lead us to extend the range of our literary attentions out beyond canonical boundaries. But it can also enable us to put a new question to canonical literature itself: to ask how its cultural status has been created and maintained, and with what consequences (canonicity as a historical fact inevitably has consequences) it has enjoyed the status it has. Similarly, non-canonical writing has brought back with it a new knowledge of the social history of American authorship, an enriched sense of the social conditions that have both enabled and contained writers' assertions of themselves as writers.”

There many problems with Brodhead's tergiversative twisting and turning. First is his obvious intention to disarm critics who object to his focusing on "well-known authors" who happen to be (he does not dare say) all male. Second is his evading the basic question he ought to have been asking: "Who attended the School of Hawthorne?"

Brodhead wrote the book without asking that basic question, and the consequence is that his book is rather less than a halfway decent job that nevertheless will prevent anyone else's doing the job better. "Sorry," any press will say, "there's a book by Richard H. Brodhead on that very subject and it is published by Oxford University Press. The job has been done!"

The job has NOT been done. Whenever others had published articles on novelists influenced by Hawthorne, Brodhead paid some attention, but otherwise he was bumfuzzled, wanting to acknowledge highly admirable forces arguing for opening the canon but unable to see beyond the major figures who had been taught in his classes at Andover and Yale. Brodhead was unable to detach himself from the male elite even while trying to appease the lesser hoards by overlapping equivocation, and finally rushed to judgment on the basis of a limited knowledge of American literature.

To put it bluntly, Brodhead had elected to write a contribution to the history of the novel in the United States without reading very widely in the novels written in the United States. Seeing that Brodhead's book focused on "major authors," I looked for "lesser" ones, such as Harold Frederic, an obvious student of Hawthorne's, whose debt several critics had pointed out, and was pleased to see that Brodhead mentioned The Damnation of Theron Ware. But when I began looking for other novelists who followed Hawthorne I did not find them. The index cited a mention of Thomas Bailey Aldrich on p. 8. There I found this remarkably invidious comment: "Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a once-admired poet more forgotten now than even the word 'limbo' can suggest, found his poetical vocation while reading Longfellow." As someone who knows first hand just how much pain Brodhead's snide innuendo can inflict (for I remember my baffled agony at his declaring in the New York TIMES that I had made up Melville’s POEMS and probably had made up THE ISLE OF THE CROSS too), I wince at the contempt in this sentence as I retype it. Here elitist contempt masks Brodhead's own ignorance.

So Aldrich is farther out of reach even than "Limbo"? What about the nearby shelves of the Sterling Library? Brodhead should have harrowed Hell itself if necessary in reading through novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century looking for followers of Hawthorne. How, I ask, how can you write a book about The School of Hawthorne and mention Thomas Bailey Aldrich with such disdain and not discuss, not mention at all, his The Stillwater Tragedy, which opens with a passage written in loving homage to Hawthorne's set piece in The House of the Seven Gables on the passage of the night and the morning while a corpse awaits discovery?

How, I ask, backing away to an earlier decade, can Brodhead have mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe several times in the notes without knowing that Hawthorne's influence can be traced in her New England novels, very obviously, the title should tell you, in The Pearl of Orr's Island?

Brodhead wrote The School of Hawthorne without doing the basic research--without reading widely in American fiction of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. This is not a case where you need to start with working through boxes of holograph letters in archives: first you just need to read a lot of novels by a lot of people, not just writers designated now as the greatest.

I have a good idea of what the research should have involved. In 1961, after I had decided to work on Melville with Harrison Hayford at Northwestern, I arranged to take my only graduate independent reading course. I went through all the literary histories of American literature making lists of nineteenth-century American novels pointed out by one critic or another as interesting although neglected. I read as many on the list as I could find. I missed some, notably Rebecca Harding's story "Life in the Iron Mills," which, as I saw later, I could have read in the Atlantic Monthly. But I read or skimmed thoughtfully 200 or so other books and made little two or three page reports on them. Among the best surprises for me were Caroline Kirkland's Michigan books and Harriet Beecher Stowe's New England novels. Nobody did New England theology of the Young Republic more authoritatively than Stowe. I never got to teach the powerful Oldtown Folks, but as paperbacks became available I did get to teach a couple of her other extraordinary New England books. What I learned served me extremely well in classes later on, and came into play when as I looked at The School of Hawthorne.

I have made color Xeroxes of the flyleaves of LITERATURE OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE where I jotted down titles from different literary histories or other sources in 1961. I will post them in this blog as part of this series on Brodhead’s attempt to make a specific contribution to American literary history without doing basic historical and biographical research in the 19th and 20th century American novel (and story). These titles are not meant to be anything like complete; they are titles cited in major American literary histories which predate (twice which immediately predate) the ascendancy of the New Criticism.

Brodhead was a graceful enough critic when he decided to branch out into literary history but he had no training as a scholar. How could he? The New Criticism, embodied by Charles Feidelson of Yale, had scorned biographical-historical research for decades? A scholar would have worked his or her way through dozens of nineteenth-century American novels lying neglected in Sterling Memorial Library before thinking of writing a book called The School of Hawthorne, and then the scholar would not have needed to make repeated excuses for not opening the canon. And no scholar would not have displayed such cruel disdain for Thomas Bailey Aldrich. The point, of course, is that Brodhead singled out Aldrich because he had heard of Aldrich somehow. What of all the others he had not heard anything of? What about Harriet Beecher Stowe? Someone had told him about some stories of hers that were influenced by Hawthorne, so he got her in the notes. But no one had pointed him to her novels written in the classroom of Hawthorne. Well, as I indicated, I have a special admiration for Stowe’s New England novels, but they are only representative of the works of American writers who really were enrolled in the schoolroom of Hawthorne, paid their fees and attended regularly.

I will post other items in this blog about literary critics who set out to do the New Historicism without becoming competent as historical researchers—doing historicism without the muss and fuss of becoming historians, as Brodhead did in THE SCHOOL OF HAWTHORNE.

1 comment:

  1. I own (and cherish) the first presentation copy of RECONSTRUCTING AMERICAN LITERATURE. It is dated 29 December 1983 and was signed in the bowels of Manhattan, where copies of the book had just arrived from the Feminist Press. So it could have been used in classes as early as Spring 1984. I used it then or else before the year was over. Presumably Brodhead was far along with THE SCHOOL OF HAWTHORNE before he learned of the re-examination of the canon which Paul was leading--a re-examination I was much in sympathy with, despite or because of my role as an editor of THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.