Skip to main content

Is There An American Literary Tradition?

ISSUE:  Spring 1991
Making American Tradition: Visions and Revisions from Ben Franklin to Alice Walker. By Gushing Strout. Rutgers. $38.00 cloth, $13.00 paper.

To write a book-length study exploring the ways in which American writers respond to one another is to ask for trouble, but that is precisely what Strout has done in Making American Tradition: Visions and Revisions from Ben Franklin to Alice Walker. He bandies about a triple-barreled term such as “American Literary Tradition” as if its words still had meaning, and, worse, in an age when fashionable critics insist that reality is better reflected by second- or third-rate thinkers, he draws his examples from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and James. Not that Strout is out to have his illustrations add up to a “canon” (yet another fighting word), but, rather, his is the more modest and historical way of defining the existence of a tradition by seeing “how writers themselves make it come alive whenever they respond to their work to previous writers.”

Moreover, Strout includes statemen, philosophers, and theologians (e.g., Jefferson, Lincoln, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) among his examples—not only because they are eloquent writers, but also because readers “may be surprised at the extent to which my nonfictional writers represent liberal values, particularly at a time when “conservative” is the honorific term in our politics and “radical” is the honorific one in the grove of academe.” Although Strout does not belabor the point—his “bow” to our fractious times is, at best, a fleeting one; the book itself prefers to make its case by pairing important American writers and by estimating the results—he is well aware that “the very idea of a national literature is now tainted by the political suspicion directed at the idea of the nation itself, as if national identity were the same thing as ideological nationalism. Radicals treat the concept of nation (except in the Third World) as a mere reflection of the hegemonic rule of opposing classes.” By contrast, Strout is committed to a fuller, more historically-based American literature, one that sees the dialogue of American writers with one another—either by way of agreement or dissent—as the very stuff of “tradition.”

Moreover, Strout knows full well how to distinguish the literary and historical sides of the street, but he also knows how to move easily from one to the other; indeed, his study is as informed by the courses he teaches in American intellectual history as it is by those in American literature. The result is a series of essays that are both wide-ranging and provocative. As Strout puts it:

I discovered telling relationships between texts, devoted to themes that had attracted me in the first place: The lure of upward mobility; religion and the lovers’ triangle; reforming the relation between the sexes; the conflict of manners among regions, classes, and countries; American pragmatism; fictionalizing history; and the American dilemmas of slavery and race. I have made bridges to connect my chapters, but there is no single theme to connect them. The only constant is my comparative method of relating visions and revisions in the making of tradition.

Given Strout’s methodology it is hardly surprising that some chapters prove more fruitful than others. For example, there are stretches in the discussion of Franklin’s Autobiography, James’ The American, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that will strike many readers as either plot-ridden or altogether commonplace:

In the first experience of his rejection of revenge Newman had driven out into the country and looked at the “first green leaves on Long Island,” feeling a “new man” inside his old skin and longing for a “new world.” Curiously enough, it is “the fresh green breast of the new world” that is also the subject of Nick Carroway’s meditation on Long Island at the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Other echoes of The American are much louder. Jay Gatsby, the self-made rich man of obscure origins, is obsessed, as Newman was, with marrying a woman who is symbolic of the mystery that privileged wealth “imprisons and preserves.” . . . The story also evokes Franklin’s memoir when Gatsby’s father proudly displays his son’s Hopalong Cassidy book with Gatsby’s inscribed schedule for self-improvement and its references to studying inventions and electricity. This evocation, of course, dramatizes the vast difference between the eighteenth-century model and the corrupted twentieth-century exemplar of the self-made man. But, as in James’s novel, the representatives of Eastern stability, propriety, status, and privilege are much more radically flawed: Tom Buchanan is attracted to pretentious racist ideologies and has sordid extramarital affairs, while Daisy is really as common as her name and is quite inadequate to Gatsby’s romantic dream of her.

I have quoted Strout at length to provide a fair sampling of the writing and level of argumentation in Making American Tradition. Given the leaden prose that sinks so many current studies of American literature, he can only be commended for paragraphs that eschew the jaw-breaker and the jargon-riddled. At the same time, however, his effort to mount up a texture of literary echoes is not so much strained as it is self-evident. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a teacher who has not dutifully pointed out the Americanness of Christopher Newman’s name or the parodic reference to Franklin on the flyleaf of Gatsby’s favorite childhood- book.

To be sure, Strout’s method—especially when it draws from intellectual history—can be instructive. For example, in discussing the “echoes” of Hawthorne and Howells to be found in James’ The Bostonians, Strout makes a convincing case that, whatever their relation to each other, Hawthorne (in The Blithedale Romance), Howells (in The Undiscovered Country), and James “responded as artists to the continuing American interest among reformers in mesmerism, clairvoyance, and spiritualism.” In fact,

no literary influence is needed to account for this shared subject matter. Hawthorne knew about this occult figure from his sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody, her friend Caroline Sturgis, and his father-in-law’s use of hypnotism in dentistry. Howells knew about it from being an editor and friend of the spiritualist reformer Robert Dale Owen; Howells’ title resonated with Owen’s The Debatable Land between This Work and the Next (1871). Henry James noted in his autobiography that his father had debated spiritualism with their good friend Caroline Sturgis and he himself attended in 1863 an exhibition by the medium Cora Hatch. Yet the idea of influence does come into play because of the way this shared historical material is treated. Howells, who had as a young writer reverently visited Hawthorne on a pilgrimage to New England from the Middle West, confessed that his favorite Hawthorne novel was The Blithedale Romance, and The Undiscovered Country explicitly describes its central situation of an innocent medium dominated by her father, in an atmosphere of fraud, as being “worthy of Hawthorne.” It portrays a Shaker community to match Hawthorne’s picture of Brook Farm; just as Hawthorne had actually participated in the Utopian experience so had Howells vacationed in a Shaker colony.

Granted, our willingness to be persuaded by Strout’s tapestry of historical-artistic connections is not quite what Melville meant when he talked about “the shock of recognition,” but one feels something of the “historically dynamic and creature nation of the tradition” nonetheless. And in perhaps the study’s most impressive chapter, a discussion of the complementary novels of manners by James, Wharton, Howells, and Cahan, the result is a diptych in which the individuality of each is preserved without losing sight of the hinges that firmly connect them. Thus, the novels—James’ The Ambassadors, Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham, and Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky—”illustrate complementarities that constitute one illuminating aspect of literary tradition”:

They also expose the fallacy of contrasting allegedly asocial American writers in general with English novelists of manners, for these four novelists are all interested in linking their individual dramas to differences in manners in different regions, classes, ethnic groups, or countries. If they have an Emersonian interest in the aspiring dreams of the individual self [yet another of Strout’s important benchmarks for the American literary tradition], they also know as artists how deeply implicated the dreamers are in their social histories.

This much said, however, there are places in Making American Tradition where its “pairings” first surprise and then only partially convince (e.g., Strout’s contention that “if The Connecticut Yankee is not a close relative of Ragtime, it is surely at least a first cousin once removed.”) or when Strout argues that Lincoln is best understood when paired with Jefferson. Granted, Lincoln was generous in his praise of Jefferson (indeed, what 19-century American politician acted otherwise?), but it was Henry Clay, rather than Jefferson, who has the greater claim as Lincoln’s political model. And if it is true, as Strout points out, that Lincoln’s 1854 Peoria speech is filled with evocations of Jefferson, it is also true that Lincoln meant to counter Douglas’s use of Webster with citations to a Southerner.

Moreover, a larger truth remains—namely, that there is much more separating Lincoln from Jefferson than binding them together. Lincoln, after all, was a product of the democratic West, Jefferson of the aristocratic South; Jefferson was an intellectual; Lincoln was not. And perhaps most important of all, Jefferson was a genius whereas Lincoln was a shrewd and, finally, a great politician.

Citing Lord Charwood’s 1910 biography of Lincoln, Strout repeats the claim that “while his position was certainly a moderate one. . .it was a “deadly moderation,” knowing exactly and in detail where and why it stood where it did, and it would not compromise one iota on essential principles.” Contemporary historians would argue otherwise, pointing out that Lincoln regularly changed his position on the slavery issue during the decades between 1840 and 1860 and, moreover, that he gradually abandoned his idea of colonizing free blacks in Africa. The problem, of course, (one that Jefferson, Lincoln, and generations of small “r” republicans grappled with) was this: could slavery be compatible with the “Declaration of Independence” and with the progressivism all republicans recognized; and, if so, what form could it take? Lincoln remained uncertain about this in ways that “deadly moderation”—and Strout’s exegesis—completely ignore.

In short, here, as in few places in Making American Tradition, Strout’s reading of intellectual history raises far more questions than it provides answers. Given a Lincoln whose “reading” in Jefferson may well have stopped with the “Declaration,” influence of the sort Strout argues for becomes highly debatable. And yet, Strout is surely right when he argues that Jefferson and Lincoln were consummate writers, unparalleled in the American presidency either before or since; and for his purposes this may be sufficient.

Something of the same straining surrounds the odd placement of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and William James. Strout’s line of argument links James’ pragmatism first to Mussolini and then to Willie Stark. Granted, there is textual evidence to support the claim: “Warren’s reference to the “scholarly and benign figure of William James” points to the paradox of Mussolini’s claiming that James’ pragmatism was of “great use” to him in his political career”; but as Strout rattles on about Jack Burden’s double role as the novel’s detective protagonist and its reflexive narrator, one feels that Oedipus Rex is clearly Warren’s model for the former, just as Conrad’s Marlow provides him with the “saving lies” that come to dominate the latter. Moreover, that Warren worked so hard to disassociate his novel both from Louisiana politics in general and from Huey Long in particular says much about his sense of tragedy as a literary, rather than a philosophical, construct.

Making American Tradition ends with chapters that center on race, this time by pairing Huckleberry Finn with the Chick Mallison of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, Native Son with Invisible Man, Reinhold Niebhur with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Alice Walker with Zora Neale Hurston. In effect, the unit shows all the laudable intentions of opening up a “tradition” represented earlier in the book by such hearty perennials as Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and James; and, indeed, the account of Ellison’s changing relationship to Richard Wright shows just how troubled, how ambivalent literary relationships can be. But one is still left with many of the same questions I have raised before— namely, how instructive is an effort to juxtapose Huck Finn and Chick, or to belabor the point that King wrote graduate school papers on Niebhur? And finally, one wonders if the inclusion of Alice Walker were not simply a mistake, not only because the discussion focuses on Meridian rather than The Color Purple, but also because Walker seems more fashionably contemporary (an odd mixture of feminism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, and astrology) than she does a writer in the tradition of, say, Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes, Jean Toorner, or Zora Neale Hurston.

Taken as a whole, then, what does Making American Tradition add up to? Not a coherent account of our American literary tradition unfolded, nor an assessment of which works are “central” to its canon. Rather, it is an effort to make a modest, but I think important, point—namely, that Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” is not the only way to describe the reaction of one generation of writers to its predecessors. Rather, history provides both points of reference and places for departure, and in a similar way, our literary tradition affords as many moments of confirmation as it does of disagreement. On this score Howells may have said it best: “There is no creation; there is only re-creation.” Making American Tradition suggests the disparate forms that this “recreation” continues to take.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading