My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The American Novel and Its Tradition (1933) by Richard Volney Chase (American Author, 1914-1962) attempts to define the American novel, and comes extremely close. What is especially nice about this book is the author’s ability to take rather complex ideas and relate them through a smooth, effortless language that makes for an enjoyable read.
The other thing about this book that sets it apart from others of its type is the range of examples Chase decides to include in his analysis of the American novel. Of course, Chase (PhD and faculty from Columbia University until his death in 1962) provides the more common titles such as The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Portrait of a Lady, The Sound and the Fury, but he also includes titles that are not as well-known to most readers (i.e., the general public) such as Wieland by Brown, Satanstoe by Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie also by Cooper, Pudd’nhead Wilson by Twain, and McTeague by Frank Norris, just to name a few.
The sections that stand out most focused on Fenimore Cooper, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner, which is to be expected. The section on Norris was also well-written and informative. Much of the book focuses on romance, naturalism, and symbolism and how these relate to the American novel through culture and tradition, and the American author’s own personal growth as a novelist.
“In the face of [Van Wyck] Brooks’s desire to unite highbrow and the lowbrow on a middle ground,” writes Chase, “there remains the fact that our best novelists have been, not middlebrows, but either highbrows like [Henry] James, lowbrows like Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson, or a combination of highbrow-lowbrows like Melville, Faulkner, and Hemingway” (p 10). This is what, in part, leads the American novel away from its predecessors found in England and in Europe.
Another factor that heavily influenced the American novel and its writers is the fact that America was still in its infancy (i.e., 19th century) when the American novel emerged upon its land against the more popular novels from England and Europe that had been around for some time, and America at that time still grasped for a culture and myth, per se, to call its own.
The greatness of The Sound and the Fury is achieved, where others failed, is due in part by the modern mind writing a story that has been allowed to have some distance in its historical place.
“There had to intervene,” writes Chase, “between the older American traditions and Faulkner the naturalistic novel with its license as to subject matter and the promise it offers–so infrequently fulfilled–of reviving a genuine tragic art by evoking fate in terms of heredity and environment” (p 220). In essence, America, as land and culture, still need room to grow in order to give the American author some material to use in his novels.
The chapter titled “Brockden Brown’s Melodramas” is insightful and useful in determining one possible origin of the American novel. Chase explains:
“Melodrama has offered to the American novelists a simplified set of conventions, and all through our literary history there has been produced a vast body of inferior fiction by forgotten authors who made no use of this genre beyond evocation of sensation or sentiment… Roughly one may say that tragedy does not emerge out of melodrama until a notable and fully rounded character significantly resists the dire actions of the plot… Since the naturalistic novel is close to the spirit, though certainly not the letter, of deterministic science, what happened was that a new imagination emerged which seemed to be radically different from the older one but was in many ways similar to it–in the sense that both imaginations conceive of human beings not as heroes but as victims of dire, intractable, and contradictory forces” (p 40-41).
This view is also supported indirectly by Lord Raglan in his book The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama (1936) where he develops a linear stream of literature through history that correspond to myth, and this pattern that has been established throughout history becomes broken when the American novelist enters.
The hero does not live out his days as a god or king. According to Raglan, the hero’s story usually ends with him meeting “a mysterious death..often at the top of a hill..his body is not buried, but nevertheless… he has one or more holy sepulchres” and he is worshiped as god (Raglan, p 175).
In contrast, the American hero becomes a human being. A victim. One who suffers, not as a god on a hill but as a person in a home. And this gravitates away from the mythological idea of what a hero should be, and what the English and European novels, for a long time, also considered as being.
For example, as is evident among the novels of the early 20th century, the hero-as-victim can be found in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, or The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, or the heroine in Henry James‘s novel The Portrait of a Lady. In the former, the hero rises to the status of a god; in the latter, the hero falls to the status of a man.
The American Novel by Chase has a great chapter called “Three Novels of Manners” and includes analyses on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, George Washington Cable’s Grandissimes, and The Vacation of the Kelwyns by William Dean Howells.
The section directly following, “Norris and Naturalism,” is also an excellent read about books by a lesser-known writer, but who, Chase considers, as “the youthful father of fictional naturalism” who died at the age of 30, and who “wrote books that departed from realism by becoming in a unified act of the imagination at once romances and naturalistic novels” (p 187).
The last chapter, “Faulkner — The Great Years,” takes a close look at As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and The Sound and the Fury (all three novels should be read; my favorite of these being the last). To give a glimpse in Chase’s criticism: “The other ‘structural system’ is based on Freud. Benjy is the Id, Quentin the Ego, Jason the Super-Ego, Candace as sort of Libido, Dilsey the ‘warm, loving nature,’ perhaps the integrated personality” and, “The Sound and the Fury would seem to meet Philip Rahv’s requirement for the novel: that the novelist, if he is as good as ‘the great European authors,’ will use experience ‘as a concrete medium for the testing and creation of values’ ” (p 235).
For the variety found in The American Novel and Its Tradition and for the close and adept analysis by Richard Chase and for how the language flows off the page, this is a strong recommend for any reader/writer who desires to know more about American literature from its origins in the early 19th century to the mid-20th century. Enjoy.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers