In the last twenty years criticism of nineteenth-century North American fiction has undergone a profound change. In 1968 the field was still dominated by what Bruce Kuklick (1972) termed ‘the myth and symbol’ school, the key works of which were Richard Chase’s The American Novel and its Tradition (1957), Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950), R.W.B.Lewis’s The American Adam (1955) and Joel Porte’s The Romance in America (1969). In 1990 the critical energy and interest lies firmly with the New Historicists who are reestablishing understanding of how literature relates to the conditions of its production and reception. The theoretical outlook that inspired the previous paradigm was most powerfully articulated by Northop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism (1953) and ‘New Directions from Old’ (1960) elaborated a largely ahistorical treatment of literature as deriving its forms and concerns from the realm of myth, an entity which was primary, non-derived, an absolute origin. Frye expressed a literary ideology more generally held: Richard Chase’s rather neglected Quest for Myth (1949) had with considerable scholarship laid similar foundations, as had the work of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. However it was Frye’s grandiloquent and gnomic style which was able to conceal the circular regresses of a criticism that reduced texts to manifestations of generic ahistorical categories and enabled critics to speak as if their own constructions were transcendental objects.

Myth and symbol criticism, though, was not incompatible with apparent
social concern; indeed, it rather served to articulate the ethical and cultural
functions of texts which New Criticism’s commitment to impartial and
objective description tended to leave unexplored. However, its fundamental
belief was that society needed to organize itself around myths so the criticism
it produced tended to describe the archetypes thought essential to human
cultures, or clarify their national cultural forms, rather than examine the groups that produced mythic representations in order to obtain and maintain social control. Leslie Fiedler (1960) was one of the more notoriously stimulating exponents, R.W.B.Lewis (1955) one of the more scholarly.

The period from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties was, as several recent critics have demonstrated, one in which materialist understanding was prevented by Cold War show trials and anti-communist propaganda, the military-industrial complex needing to justify fantastic expenditure by constructing fantastic enemies (see especially Donald Pease’s brilliant essay on cultural persuasion in Cold War readings of Moby Dick, 1985; Jane Tompkins, 1985; Russell Reising, 1986). The period’s version of American nineteenth-century writing therefore played down the political engagements of the authors and the acute social tensions with which their writing was engaged, even to the extent of presenting accounts in which the Civil War, racism, rapid industrialization and constant genocidal war hardly seemed to affect literary production (Arac, 1985). The canon was constructed by emphasizing the largely psychological dilemmas of (American) individualism, the peculiar features of the national identity, and abstract oppositions between good and evil, whether of white versus red, man versus nature, individual versus community, America versus Europe or democrat versus tyrant. These themes were always considered to be represented allegorically and at a remove from realism or everyday mimetic concern. The typical ‘American’ novel was seen to be concerned with a pure, innocent, Adamic self, divorced from society and confronting in nature the true promise of America. As Nina Baym (1981) has pointed out, the individual was seen as logically prior to the social, and the social (with woman as its representative) as artificial and destructive of both nature and individualism.

The period from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties was, as several recent
critics have demonstrated, one in which materialist understanding was
prevented by Cold War show trials and anti-communist propaganda, the
military-industrial complex needing to justify fantastic expenditure by
constructing fantastic enemies (see especially Donald Pease’s brilliant essay
on cultural persuasion in Cold War readings of Moby Dick, 1985; Jane
Tompkins, 1985; Russell Reising, 1986). The period’s version of American
nineteenth-century writing therefore played down the political engagements
of the authors and the acute social tensions with which their writing was
engaged, even to the extent of presenting accounts in which the Civil War,
racism, rapid industrialization and constant genocidal war hardly seemed to
affect literary production (Arac, 1985). The canon was constructed by
emphasizing the largely psychological dilemmas of (American) individualism,
the peculiar features of the national identity, and abstract oppositions between
good and evil, whether of white versus red, man versus nature, individual
versus community, America versus Europe or democrat versus tyrant. These
themes were always considered to be represented allegorically and at a remove
from realism or everyday mimetic concern. The typical ‘American’ novel was
seen to be concerned with a pure, innocent, Adamic self, divorced from society
and confronting in nature the true promise of America. As Nina Baym (1981)
has pointed out, the individual was seen as logically prior to the social, and
the social (with woman as its representative) as artificial and destructive of
both nature and individualism.
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