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A Library of the Real

ISSUE:  Summer 1984
The Oxford Companion to American Literature. By James D. Hart. Oxford. $4995.

At a time when the nature and value of literary studies are under challenge on a number of methodological fronts, it is especially satisfying to return, with James Hart, to a newly revised fifth edition of his classic Oxford Companion to American Literature, While theoretical interests have done much to invigorate critical practice, surely provoking as much sophistication as obscurantism, there is little doubt that attention to the wide world of literary facts has been sacrificed in the process. To read Hart’s Companion is to enter the great library of the real—the books, authors, plots, places, and dates without which criticism would indeed be a dead language.

An update of this volume is particularly welcome to the reader of American literature, whose most recent full-scale history, Spiller’s Literary History of the United States (1948), is sadly dated. New histories of American literature have been undertaken by Columbia University Press (in a single volume) and Cambridge University Press (in a more ambitious five-volume work), but the results of both projects lie in the future; and in any event the encyclopedic style and scope of the Oxford Companion give it greater utility as a source book and make it a goldmine for the browsing reader. The more readable, wide, double-column format of this new edition partially conceals the addition of 250 new authors (the fourth edition added 223), 115 new plot summaries, and the update or revision of 590 entries. It hardly conceals the spirit and wisdom, the extraordinary breadth and fine judgment, of the author. Remarkably, the book is still, as it was in 1941, 1948, 1956, and 1965, the work of one man.

The reader familiar with previous editions will discover few deleted or truncated entries of note. All the major authors and works one can think of are here, along with countless minor figures, joined now by names that had not become part of the literary household by 1965: for example, A.R. Ammons, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Peter Matthiessen, Czeslaw Milosz, Ishmael Reed, Sam Shepard, Robert Stone, Anne Tyler, and Alice Walker. Tom Wolfe now follows Thomas Wolfe; and in between Sewanee Review and Shadows on the Rock (Cather) there have appeared entries for Anne Sexton, Seymour: An Introduction (Salinger), and Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels, Pulitzer Prize, 1974). Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 now immediately precedes Cudjo’s Cave, ” antislavery novel by J.T. Trowbridge, published in 1864.” The entries under “Q” have expanded from 21 to 23 with the addition of QBVll (Leon Uris) and John Quinn (1870—1924), book and manuscript collector who became the subject of B.L. Reid’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Man From New York (1968). “X” still has but one item—Xingu, eight tales by Edith Wharton.(Where is Poe’s “X-ing a Paragrab” or Bayard Taylor’s Ximena?) Two additions to “Z,” one major (Louis Zukofsky) and one minor (Paul Zindel), balance the deletions of Zip Coon (minor: “see Turkey in the Straw”) and Florenz Ziegfeld (major). Still retaining its honorable place of last mention is Zury, the Meanest Man in Spring County. The reader may have his perspective adjusted by finding that Sylvia Plath’s 175-word entry is only slightly longer than the update for Anita Loos (best known for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes); or by coming across plot summaries of The Log of a Cowboy and Sophie’s Choice but looking unsuccessfully for ones of The Awakening or The Rise of David Levinsky.

Although there is a strengthened representation of black authors, comparison reveals that the coverage of black writers in Hart’s fourth edition was quite in advance of most literary histories and academic curricula. Chester Himes has now been added, as have Martin Delany, William Demby, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, and others more contemporary. While Hart’s preface reminds us that the length or brevity of an entry is not necessarily a judgment of relative importance, questions must be raised on occasion. W.E.B. DuBois gets more space this time around, for example, but not enough— less, for example, than Faulkner’s McCaslin family. One puzzling imbalance remains in the relatively brief treatment of Frederick Douglass, who still receives less attention than his contemporary, Stephen Douglas, a figure of rather dubious literary merit in comparison to the rich and varied career of the black man. An entry on “Blacks in U.S.” (like one on “Jews in America”) risks an exclusionary focus in order to highlight an important heritage and provide a handy grouping of old and new figures.

As in earlier editions, the most intriguing entries are often the unexpected ones—single oddities like the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, Lizzie Borden, Mrs. Wiggs of Cabbage Patch, Yone Noguchi (fin-de-siècle poet whose Seen and Unseen; or, Monologues of a Homeless Snail was satirized, we find, by Frank Norris in The Octopus), or Delia Bacon, author of Tales of the Puritans (1831) and propounder of the theory that Bacon, Raleigh, and Spenser wrote Shakespeare’s plays, encoding in them a great but secret philosophy (“She was violently insane during her last two years,” Hart glibly remarks). Of special usefulness are topical entries surveying the literature that has grown out of a locale or issue such as Wall Street, the Dismal Swamp, Bootlegging, Princeton University, or the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Even the simple act of alphabetical juxtaposition can be revealing and amusing, as in the sequence including Portnoy’s Complaint (“compulsive masturbation, carried on in all ways and all places”), The Portrait of a Lady (“Conscience and her duty to Pansy dominate her desires, however. . . .”), Emily Post (“widely accepted guide to good behavior and social proprieties”), and The Postman Always Rings Twice. ” The Celestial Railroad” now leads to Updike’s The Centaur, which leads in turn to the Center for Editions of American Authors, organized by the Modern Language Association in 1963 to produce definitive editions of classic American authors. Edmund Wilson’s opinion of the project is not mentioned, but the upshot of his tirade, the now thriving Library of America, makes it into the new Companion between The Liberty Bell and Library of Congress.

Every reader will have special quarrels (why does George Fitzhugh get less space than Norman Foerster, or Hart Crane’s The Bridge little more than Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey?) and even more special satisfactions (choose from the thousands of favorite, half-remembered, and never-known possibilities). Perhaps it will seem, for instance, that Hawthorne’s short stories are too thoroughly treated (18 individual plot entries) or that the choice of main characters for citation is somewhat hit-or-miss (is Major Cassius de Spain more important than Starbuck?). But it is precisely in being prompted to make such informal comparisons that one feels the vast intelligence and energy of the book. In this great democratic encyclopedia Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Track of the Cat (1949) sits side by side with Henry James’ The Tragic Muse (1890); and the updated list of Pulitzer Prize winners, along with the individual entries for each of them, reminds one that the Oxford Companion is as much for the general reader as for the scholar of books. Every page sparkles with unusual information and speaks eloquently of the many vigorous literary traditions in America. The histories and latest theories of American writing will come and go, but the authors and their works will remain, preserved for future evaluation by Hart’s monumental work. It is without question our most important book on our own literature.


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