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Joseph Epstein on the American Novel

Joseph Epstein reviewing “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” in the Wall Street Journal:

Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer.

I’m not familiar with any of those names, which of course speaks more of me than Epstein. Perhaps I am a victim of the academic evisceration and pedagogical over-extension that Epstein describes.

With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today. The most lauded novelists in “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” tend to be those, in the words of another of its contributors, who are “staging a critique of ‘America’ and its imperial project.” Thus such secondary writers as Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow are in these pages vaunted well beyond their literary worth.

Bring on the barbarians, I say. Ginsberg and Vonnegut were among the authors that spoke to me in high school and made me interested in books. To somehow deride them because of their politics is to miss the point: art is a reflection of the people and times that create it. I am sure that My Antonia and The Great Gatsby spoke to Epstein because they addressed the world of his time. The lessons in its pages had already been lived, digested, absorbed, and processed by the society that I was born into, a society whose young people became interested in a different set of questions and ideas than the ones puzzled over by Epstein and my grandparents. The commodification of the American Dream is merely hinted at in Gatsby, but it is at the forefront of everything that has been written since Ginsberg, et. al.

Epstein’s assessment of the modern English department is correct, but the correlation between the practices he maligns and the declining enrollment rates in American English departments lends no proof to any chain of causation, one way or the other. Book lovers still find their way into English departments, and they also find there way into Econ departments as necessitated by the realities of our changing society. The collected popular memes of postmodernism do not lend themselves very well to the type of canonical English department that Epstein reminisces over, the type where art’s meaning is conceived only within the mind of the artist and the audience’s role is to find this “correct” meaning rather than bring their own experiences into the process.

“The Cambridge History of the American Novel” could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.

Sadly, this is the case. When did popular culture and consumer culture become synonymous? Epstein’s “40 years ago” sounds about right, but has consumerism so permeated our society that all cultural output is now corrupted by it, and made unworthy of comparison to what came before? Unable to be compared, perhaps, but certainly not unworthy.

I do sympathize with Epstein here, because culture has become commercialized and it is something that is discomforting. But the quality that Epstein pines for is a subjective value, and within the current paradigm of postmodern thought that dominates today’s youth culture, subjectivity is inauthentic, a type of “anti-quality”. Within the current commercial structure of the cultural world, today’s more enlightened and informed consumers have not felt intellectually hamstrung by their enjoyment and relation with commercial art. Instead they embrace the diversity of choice that commercial art engenders, while simultaneously being aware of the subversive influence that capitalism has upon it (an influence that permeates every facet of society, of which there is no escaping, and of which Epstein’s generation [and perhaps several after it] was not viscerally aware in the same way that today’s youth are).

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