Making Literary History, Part II

Writing in The Bookman, Professor William Lyon Phelps expressed his appreciation for Gene Stratton-Porter’s work, but he also made plain his sense of its limitations.

It’s not “idealism” that mars her novels, he writes, but “sentimentality,” which reigns over the average human breast even as it revolts the “elite” minority.

Phelps did not consider Stratton-Porter a “literary artist,” but he acknowledged her novels as part of what made her a “wonderful” woman.

Any attempt to meaningfully engage the 20th century by way of its significant published works must eventually run up against the question: When it comes to literature in history, what are we to do with the “wonderful” women and men of each era?

By “wonderful,” we mean those authors who wrote for some larger purpose than to tell a story and whose work showed noteworthy weaknesses in style and – to varying extents – substance even as readers have continuously proved willing to overlook these deficiencies.

These dual transgressions have nonetheless left authors vulnerable to criticism and condemnation by a literary establishment that has long based its own stature, in part, on declaring itself the legitimate guardian of posterity.

In an era when the masses have seized control of publishing, few contest the notion that the literary establishment will have to change with the times. Phelps would have been especially unlikely to do so.

His own decision to teach the first American university class on the modern novel in 1895 attracted such attention from the media of his day that he opted (under pressure) to teach it outside Yale’s official curriculum for several years – where it found a devoted following among students – and it may have delayed his receiving tenure.

Try and imagine a contemporary university curriculum in which the modern novel is not a fixture, and you’ve made it more than half way across the gap that separates readers of the 21st century from the sensibilities dominant about 100 years earlier. Reading some of the popular historical literature may take us the rest of the way.

Then and now, we read to transcend ourselves, but also to know ourselves and each other. There lies the beginnings of harmony between the more rarefied denizens of the literary world – W.E.B. Du Bois, Anton Chekhov, Henry James – and their more popular cousins – Booker T. Washington, Upton Sinclair, Gene Stratton-Porter.

The work of the latter group may tell us less about the real people of that era – or at the very least, they certainly tell us less eloquently – but they do speak to something in how those real people might have wanted to see themselves and to be seen. In asking ourselves, in turn, how our own self-image or aspirations have changed, we can also begin to see ourselves from a novel vantage point.

Books like A Girl of the Limberlost and Up from Slavery may ask less from readers but they yield up more to those of us willing to think about what we’ve read. And when it comes to literature, both great and “wonderful,” that will always be a choice and not an obligation.

Image: William Lyon Phelps at Yale.

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