Puget Sound English Department

February 18, 2010

Tempest in an (Antique) Teapot

PBS is promoting a new edition of “American Masters” featuring The American Novel. Great, no? You’d think that your dedicated English Department members would be ecstatic.

And we are, sort of. Because if you poke around the site a bit, something quite strange begins to emerge. Take the Timeline feature. Nifty, no? Scroll to the left…all…the…way…back…to……1826.

Yes, folks; apparently the PBS “Experts” have decreed that 1826 is the year of origin for the American novel, during a period known as “Romanticism.” (Perhaps the fact that they are celebrating “200 years” with a timeline that includes only 186 years should have alerted me to potential problems). Presumably, the outpouring of novels that succeeded the Revolution is unworthy of critical–or popular–attention. Sorry, Charles Brockden Brown, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Foster, Royall Tyler. You don’t count. James Fenimore Cooper makes it into the series, but just barely, and in a clearly subordinate role as precursor to the good stuff.

Clearly the earlier works are far less well known, and yes, we English profs are always happy to see programs that encourage, feature, or acknowledge books.

But still, it concerns me that a series presumably interested in exploring the substance and breadth of a rich American literary tradition so closely resembles the reading list I had in my AP literature course, lo these many, many years ago.

To be fair, it is obvious from the website that the producers have made an important and necessary effort to acknowledge the tremendous influence writers of color have had on the American novel, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries; Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Gish Jen, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, and Ralph Ellison are there alongside predictable figures like Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand (!), Faulkner, Hemingway, Salinger, Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck. And, of course, no series can or should try to do all things; I appreciate both the limits of the genre and the need to create a coherent and engaging set of programs, rather than attempt an impossible comprehensiveness.

But in its conception, the series appears to hew pretty closely to the party line established by F.O. Mathiessen’s The American Renaissance (1941), which canonized the writings of a select group of male authors (Thoreau, Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman) at the expense of far more popular women writers of the era. His book articulated the values that dominated the study of American literature for decades: the notion of the great writer as a brooding, alienated, masculine genius, whose work dramatized the individual’s psychological turmoil set against a backdrop of nattering, unappreciative, stultifying (feminine) society.

For those of us who spend most of our time trying to draw attention to the rich, complex, multi-faceted novels that emerged in the eighteenth century, the PBS series looks like a disappointment in the making, reinforcing curricular biases that neglect an important part of the story of the American novel. I’m hoping, however, to be pleasantly surprised. You can check for local airings of the episodes here.

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