U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians and American Fiction

Moby_Dick_2In 1989, Richard Rorty lamented that Americans had only partially let go of Enlightenment universalism and absolutist thinking. To complete the relativist turn, Rorty argued, Americans needed to replace enthusiasm for inquiry with imagination, to view America as “an endless process– an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth.”1 Philosophy represented inquiry in pursuit of truth; fiction, philosophy’s opposite, stressed imagination over inquiry and freedom over truth. Fiction, Rorty insisted in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, could serve “as a tool” to help Americans protect pluralism, interrogate contradiction, and construct community without absolutes or homogeneity.2

As historians have argued about what, specifically, literature can reveal in the American past and how to make it divulge its secrets, they have consistently characterized American fiction in ways that support Rorty’s theory. It is remarkable how many times scholars from different schools in different decades studying different authors use the words “ambivalence,” “ambiguity,” “tension,” and “contradiction” to describe the unique qualities of American fiction. In struggling to bring together contradictory elements of a diverse nation, expressing anxiety at the impossibility of that endeavor, refusing to resolve tension, turning certainty into ambivalence, and playfully reveling in ambiguity, the value of American fiction lies. Against philosophers, politicians, and dogmatists, American poets refuse to simplify American experience. They discourage pursuit of absolute truth; their “constant theme,” as Perry Miller put it, “is the courage to be free.”3

Tension and contradiction in American fiction served as framing devices for the Myth and Symbol School. In Virgin Land (1950), Henry Nash Smith focused on the contradiction between individual and society, or freedom and law in showing the influence—and eventual collapse—of the myth of the garden in nineteenth-century American life. In The American Adam (1955), R.W.B Lewis used the tension between innocence and civilization to explore the nineteenth-century debate over the social and political possibilities of the New World. Perry Miller framed his 1956 collection of essays on the American Romantic tradition from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists around the tension between “errand,” symbolizing the human mind, and “wilderness,” signifying the environment in which the mind must operate. In The Machine and the Garden (1964), Leo Marx examined the contradiction between the pastoral ideal in America and the reality of technological power. Above all, writers of the Myth and Symbol School used the symbolic opposition between America and Europe to examine the development of American culture.

F.O. Matthiessen introduced the terms “myth” and “symbol,” which he took from Henry David Thoreau, in his seminal The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941). In The American Renaissance, Matthiessen claimed that between 1850 and 1855, the Romantic genius of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman created a rich American identity in opposition to Europe. For Matthiessen, as for Thoreau, the poet transformed facts into symbols and myths that informed this collective American identity. The same year as Matthiessen published The American Renaissance, literary critic John Crowe Ransom produced The New Criticism, advocating close reading, which emphasizes the syntax and individual words of a text over the work as a whole or its relation to other texts and cultural contexts. Myth and Symbol scholars reacted against New Criticism, arguing that texts were embedded in larger systems of meaning.4 Drawing upon the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who believed that symbols create public meaning, Myth and Symbol writers examined how American fiction both reflected and created common symbols—emotionally charged images—and myths—symbols writ large—that shaped collective consciousness, informed individual decisions, created a national culture, and influenced American politics. The primary object of study for the Myth and Symbol school, then, was not American fiction, but American culture; fiction just happened to be an exquisite repository and purveyor of culture.

Bruce Kuklick’s article, “Myth and Symbol in American Studies,” published in the American Quarterly in 1972, represents the most common and significant criticisms of the Myth and Symbol approach. Kuklick accused the Myth and Symbol scholars of Cartesian dualism—separating material and ideational worlds—of Platonism—treating ideas as if they exist independent of people who think them—and of presentism—finding just those themes in the past that concerned these writers in the present. In addition, Kuklick complained that the Myth and Symbol writers conflated the literate public with Americans as a whole, too easily attributing ideas expressed by one poet to all Americans.5 But Kuklick did not merely warn against hastily jumping to general conclusions about American culture. He argued that the poets of the American Renaissance represented an isolated segment of society, with no connection to American culture as a whole, and that their fiction is therefore of little value to historians, whose job it is, he implied with this critique, to recreate a general picture of the past, rather than to investigate different modes of experiencing that past. In other words, in this article Kuklick appears concerned with determining a representative historical truth, rather than examining multiple historical truths, experiences, or perspectives. That this approach to the past does not admit of studies of fiction supports Rorty’s theory.

Between 1975 and 1980, poststructuralist French theory took American literary studies by storm, and challenged the core methods and assumptions of the Myth and Symbol School. Jacques Derrida’s school of deconstruction denied the existence of large structures of meaning. Michel Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge condemned the American Renaissance cannon for excluding minority voices and reifying oppressive systems of power. In French Theory (2008), Francios Cusset asks why these continental theories found such success in the United States– a country supposedly hostile to philosophy and abstraction. Among the answers he posits, such as deconstruction’s “paradoxically easy method” and hunger for an alternative to the rigidity of analytical philosophy in the academy, Cusset suggests that “French theory and America resembled each other.6 Poststructuralist French theory, and deconstruction in particular, is based on tension and contradiction, on finding points of ambiguity and “impasses and gaps” in a text.7 It is possible that Americans embraced the methods of deconstruction because they were already used to reading fiction for its ambiguities and contradictions, or because, as writers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Walt Whitman have suggested, ours is a nation of ambiguities and contradictions.

Since the 1980s, studies of fiction in American history have benefited from combining the insights of the Myth and Symbol School, critiques of that school, French theory, and social history, which became increasingly popular in the 1970s. Cathy Davison’s influential Revolution and the Word: The Rise of Novel in America (1986) exemplifies such a productive combination. Davison argues that first novels of the Republic allowed marginalized members of society to access social and political ideas from which they were otherwise excluded. Novels therefore provided a form of education, democratization, and a space to air the unresolved issues of the early Republic. Most important, novels helped answer Crevecoeur’s question “what is an American?” by adumbrating definitions of America– definitions that were, Davison maintains, “tinged with ambivalence and duplicity.”8

Influenced by critiques of the cannon, in the introduction to Revolution and the Word Davison defends her use of fiction, explaining that one of her goals is to add new voices to the cannon of American literature.9 Moreover, she stresses that she focused on novels because, in the early Republic, they reached society’s marginalized non-elites. To the close reading of the deconstructionist school and the contextualization of the Myth and Symbol school, Davison adds reader-response theory. She employs the methods of social history, examining texts as “artifacts,” and she conducts meticulous research on marginalia, diary entries, and letters.

Similarly, in Passion is the Gale (2008), an examination of the role of emotion in shaping the American Revolution, Nicole Eustace conducts extensive research on marginalia, diary entries, letters, and publication history to trace the reception and influence of Alexander Pope’s poem Essay on Man in colonial Pennsylvania. Perhaps because she wrote in 2008, with more distance from French theory’s critique of the cannon, Eustace does not feel the need to defend her use of Pope. She does, however, like Davison, borrow from social history and reader-response theory to make a more concrete case for the influence of fiction than the Myth and Symbol scholars did with their abstract systems of meaning. Yet neither Davis nor Eustace strays far from the goals or conclusions of the Myth and Symbol School. Davis testifies that she aims to understand “community assumptions” through fiction, and, just like Henry Nash Smith in Virgin Land, Eustace concludes that American readers used fiction to work through the contradictions between the individual and society.10

Also combining diverse approaches to the study of American fiction, David S. Reynolds and Drew Gilpin Faust have produced the most enriching scholarship on the significance of fiction in the American past. In Beneath the American Renaissance (1988), Reynolds brings to life not only the words of poets past but the seedy bars, minstrel shows, phrenologist offices, and museums of the grotesque that provided rich material for the American Renaissance writers. “Far from being estranged from their context,” asserts Reynolds, “they were in large part created by it.”11 Like the Myth and Symbol scholars, Reynolds treats cultural context, symbols, and myths, but unlike those scholars, he reproduces diverse socioliterary contexts, and demonstrates how symbols from different segments of society, including slaves and immigrants, and myths from classic texts in western literature, such as Shakespeare and the Old Testament, converged in American Renaissance fiction.

While Reynolds uses an expanded notion of American thought and culture to understand American poets, Drew Gilpin Faust uses American poets to understand the impact of the Civil War on thought and culture in America.In This Republic of Suffering (2008), Faust argues that death in the Civil War touched every segment of society and had the ultimate effect of obliterating meaning after the war. She compares the writings of Melville, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson before and after the war, refusing to the treat their texts in isolation, but rather tracing how the war penetrated their lives, from Whitman’s work as a nurse to deaths in Dickinson’s Amherst community and her correspondence with Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. According to Faust, the death and suffering of war significantly altered these poets’ work, replacing certainty with doubt and meaning with silence.

The significance of these authors’ understanding of war’s destruction,” Faust clarified, “does not lie in their influence upon popular thought. Nor can they be seen as representative of widely held views.” “Their writings instead,” she continued, “provide access into one point on the spectrum of possible reactions to the crisis of belief that war presented to mid-nineteenth-century America.”12 With this comment, Faust protected herself from criticism like the charge Kuklick levied against Myth and Symbol of conflating a handful of poets with American society as whole. Yet she also affirmed that there is value in one individual’s experience, and in one individual’s effort to render her experience articulate, regardless of how many numbers of people shared her sentiments, and even if those sentiments reached or influenced no one.

It is possible, however, that Faust was too modest in her claims. Doing the careful work that Myth and Symbol scholars failed to do, Faust compares the poetry of Melville, Hawthorne, and Dickinson to hundreds of soldiers’ letters. “It is, in fact, striking,” she writes, “to see that [the poets’] sense of a failure of knowledge and understanding was widely articulated by ordinary Americans.”13

Both Reynolds and Faust thoroughly support Rorty’s theory about the use of fiction, drawing attention to the abounding contradictions, ambiguities, ambivalence, and tension in American novels and poems. According to Faust, during the Civil War fiction and poetry highlighted the “yawning discrepancy between the hopes that inaugurated the war and the experience of its horrors” and the “ironic disjunction between reality and appearance, expectation and experience.”14 Similarly, Reynolds proclaims that in American Renaissance fiction, ambiguities “erupt volcanically in often chaotic, fragmented fashion.” “The typical literary text of the American Renaissance,” explains Reynolds, “provides an especially democratic meeting place for numerous idioms and voices from other kinds of contemporary texts. These idioms and voices often conflict to create paradox and irony. But they also fuse consistently.”15 Indeed, the ability to avoid easy resolutions and absolute truths, in addition to the ability to construct community out of diversity is precisely what Rorty identified as the potential of fiction in American life.

Scholars from Davison to Reynolds have improved upon the methods of the Myth and Symbol School, while maintaining some of its insights and assumptions. Historians in all fields, however, should take one more lesson from Myth and Symbol. According to the scholars of that school, fiction has the singular power to create images that can evoke emotion and efficiently convey complex meanings. Three historians have used fiction in their work to harness this power. In Jonathan Edwards (1949), Perry Miller quotes from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, and from Franz Kafka’s The Castle to provide a backdrop for Jonathan Edwards’s theology.16 Edwards, who kept a strict record of all books that passed under his nose, never read Pamela, and he died over a century before Kafka was born. Miller uses passages of fiction in his biography simply to evoke a mood, to encourage his reader to use imagination as well as reason in grasping Edwards’s difficult thought.

 While Miller may be dismissed as an eccentric with little regard for the conventions of historical scholarship, two more recent scholars have used fiction in just this way. In No Place of Grace (1994), T. J. Jackson Lears’s examination of how anti-modernist thought and culture ultimately became assimilated into modernism at the turn of the century, Lears reproduces an exchange from Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady to illustrate an attitude he identifies in his subjects.17 Although Henry James was a figure in the drama Lears discusses, Lears is not interested in the reception of The Portrait of a Lady, nor does he seek to examine the cultural forces that compelled James to write it. Instead, Lears uses James’ novel as a symbol to convey meaning and efficiently create understanding among his readers.

 Michael Kimmage more conventionally examines fiction in The Conservative Turn (2009). He demonstrates the impact of Les Miserables on a young Whitaker Chambers, and performs close readings of Lionel Trilling’s fiction to trace these thinkers’ evolution from different levels of communist sympathy to different forms of anti-communism. However, Kimmage also sprinkles his monograph with literary references, comparing Chambers and Trilling to characters from classical literature. Again, fiction functions in Kimmage’s book the way Myth and Symbol scholars indicated: it provides an emotionally-charged image to lend color and texture to the reader’s understanding of Chambers and Trilling.

 Historians should experiment with this power of fiction in their work, to ensure that scholarship engages imagination in addition to directing inquiry, and admits of ambivalence and contradictory perspectives, even in pursuit of historical truth.


1 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), xvi.

2 Ibid.

3 Perry Miller, “The Foundations of American Democracy,” Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1954, 26.

4 Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Myth and Symbol (the President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1950).

5 Bruce Kuklick, “Myth and Symbol in American Studies,” American Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 4 (Oct., 1972), pp. 435-450.

6 Cusset, 219, 274.

7Cusset, 219.

8 Cathy Davison, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Oxford University Press, 1986, 2004), introduction.

9 Ibid.

10 Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 17; Smith, 60.

11 David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1988), 3.

12 Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 208.

13 Faust, 209.

14 Faust, 197, 203.

15Reynolds, 9.

16Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (the University of Nebraska Press, 1949), 132, 100.

17T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace (The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 36.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent piece, Rivka. The opening salvo per Richard Rorty and relativism almost put me off to what I think is your sharpest observation:

    It is possible, however, that [Drew Gilpin] Faust was too modest in her claims. Doing the careful work that Myth and Symbol scholars failed to do, Faust compares the poetry of Melville, Hawthorne, and Dickinson to hundreds of soldiers’ letters. “It is, in fact, striking,” she writes, “to see that [the poets’] sense of a failure of knowledge and understanding was widely articulated by ordinary Americans.”

    Crushing. What have we done, they asked without asking, for to them it wasn’t even a question. Look what we’ve done.

    To the comfort of our 21st century American armchairs, the question must be posed: Was the Civil War “worth it”? But as you know, any meaningful reply to that question is personally hazardous. Yes, all that blood? No, to tolerate the intolerable?

    Sometimes poetry is all we have. Or myth, religion. Whathaveyou.

    If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

    Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

    Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

  2. Thanks for this essay, Rivka–a really great meditation on what the M&S writers can offer us.

    One thing that I notice you have kind of tacitly borrowed from the M&S school is a blurriness between fiction and poetry–in a number of ways (and in this, they shared far more with the New Critics than they might have wanted to acknowledge), they are able to draw impressive insights from fiction because they labor over it as if it were poetry, arrogating to novelists the kind of minute control and oracular consciousness, the intensity of ambivalence, that are perhaps more commonly the properties of poetry. I personally find the slipperiness of the fiction/poetry balance in Marx or Matthiessen enormously productive, but I wonder if you could speak some more to what you’re saying fiction itself might give to historians.

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