Prodigious as it was, the LHUS did not fully satisfy Spiller’s urge to put his stamp on his chosen subject. In 1955, he published The Cycle of American Literature, a one-man “by-product,” as he called it, of the big book. In The Cycle, Spiller recapitulated a theme sounded in the LHUS: that American literature had peaked twice, first in 1835-1855, when Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman showed that American writers could hold their own with their English cousins; and again in 1915-1935, when Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and other Americans were in the vanguard of modernism. The book’s argument, however, may have mattered less than its brisk comprehensiveness. Taking up just over 200 pages in the paperback reprint, The Cycle was assigned at my high school as a savvy tour of American writing, from Jonathan Edwards’s sermons to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels.
The first edition of the LHUS had issued an invitation: “Every generation should produce at least one literary history of the United States, for each generation must define the past in its own terms.” But as subsequent editions of the book rolled out—in 1953, ’63, and ’74—the next generation seemed to be dormant. In the 1974 edition, Spiller and company took note of this sluggishness: “At the close of its first quarter-century, LHUS has belied its authors’ original pronouncement that ‘each generation must define the past in its own terms.’”
In 1988, the year of Spiller’s death at age 91, the baton finally passed, with the publication of the Columbia Literary History of the United States. The Columbia editors accounted for the long delay by contrasting the present-day climate with those in which the Cambridge History and the LHUS came out. “There is today no unifying vision of a national identity like that shared by many scholars at the closings of the two world wars,” they wrote. They refrained from imposing a house style on contributors and promised not to “exclude certain writers because of biases involving gender, race, or ethnic and cultural background.” Making good on that pledge, the book’s first chapter, “The Native Voice,” was a survey of Native American storytelling, both oral and written.
In 1992, a Harvard professor named David Perkins published a book called Is Literary History Possible? Spoiler alert: he thought not. And to buttress his case, he categorized the Columbia History as “a collection of separate essays [that] deliberately avoids consecutiveness and coherence.” Meanwhile, Cambridge was back in the game with an eight-volume History of American Literature (1986-2004), which arrived “dead in the water,” said Elaine Showalter, emeritus professor of English at Princeton, in an e-mail to this writer.
In 2009, Harvard University Press issued A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Marcus is best known as an erudite rock critic, and the New Literary History takes obvious delight in kicking down the barriers between highbrow and pop culture in such chapters as “Baby Face is censored” (about cuts made to a racy 1933 Barbara Stanwyck movie), “Bebop,” and “Hurricane Katrina.” The editors justify this eclecticism on the grounds that the New Literary History is “a reexamination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass”—in other words, it’s a literary-ish history.
If the index is to be trusted, The New Literary History’s sole reference to the LHUS comes in Carrie Tirado Bramen’s essay on the iconoclastic critic Leslie Fiedler. Bramen points out that in a 1949 review for American Quarterly, Fiedler dissented from the chorus of praise for the LHUS, attacking it for, in Bramen’s paraphrase, “imposing on American fiction the religion of liberalism with its happy-ending, rags-to-riches narrative, where American literature ‘is not only virile, democratic, and humanitarian,’ but even ‘on the whole optimistic.’”
Yes, Spiller and company can fairly be accused of optimism; and in his last book, Late Harvest (1981), Spiller confessed to having thoroughly enjoyed his work on the LHUS and The Cycle. “The decade following my return to [Penn] in the fall of 1945,” he wrote, “was the happiest and most productive of my life.”
I doubt that Spiller was much bothered by either the criticisms leveled against the LHUS or its long drift into obsolescence. As he well knew, differentiating itself from its forebears is what every generation is supposed to do. But the notion that literary history itself might not be viable anymore? That, I think, he would have found baffling.
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World. His most recent book is The Great American Railroad War.