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Once hailed as a “landmark” achievement, alumnus and Penn English professor Robert Spiller’s Literary History of the United States now feels not just dated but fundamentally misguided. What happened?

BY DENNIS DRABELLE | Illustration by Sam Kalda | PDF download


It took a long time, but I finally came to understand what a paperback copy of the Dictionary of French Literature was doing in my local drugstore in 1964: making up for a shortage of bookstores. As noted in a much heftier reference book, the Literary History of the United States, as late as the 1940s “there were still only five hundred real bookstores in the country, and most of them were concentrated in the twelve largest cities. Some other machinery had to be found for mass distribution.”

Almost as odd as stocking such a specialized volume an aisle away from Bengay, Brylcreem, and Doan’s pills, you might think, is having the phenomenon of pharmaceutical book-selling explicated in the LHUS, a collaborative effort by dozens of learned experts under the guidance of a team led by Penn English professor Robert E. Spiller C’17 G’20 Gr’24 Hon’67. But the LHUS was capacious enough—running to 1,475 pages of text in its fourth and final edition—to have room for just about anything even marginally related to the field embraced by its broad title.

In addition to its grand scope, the LHUS had staying power: revised and reissued three times, it stood imposingly on library reference shelves for 40 years. Today, however, the LHUS has not only been superseded; it may be an enterprise the likes of which we’ll never see again.

Twenty-first-century students of American literature may not be aware of how recently their subject emerged from the shadow of its big brother. “It was during the period 1920-40,” Spiller recalled in the preface to his essay collection The Oblique Light (1967), “that my generation first challenged the assumption that American literature is one branch of English colonial literature and attempted to demonstrate that it is rather the expression, on a new continent and under new conditions of life, of the whole tradition of Western European culture.” Spiller himself was at the forefront of that challenge.

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Spiller wrote that “Every generation should produce at least one literary history of the United States.”

After getting his bachelor’s degree at Penn in 1917, Spiller took time out to serve in the University’s Medical Corps in World War I. Back at Penn, he earned his master’s in 1920 and cast about for a PhD dissertation topic. One of his advisers, Arthur Hobson Quinn, pointed out that American travel writing was an unplowed scholarly field. Spiller reduced that hint to a manageable topic, which he then transformed into his first book, The American in England During the First Half Century of Independence (1926). In the process, he discovered that James Fenimore Cooper had been not “merely [a] writer of romances of the wilderness” (i.e., the Leatherstocking Tales), but also the author of five volumes on his travels who merited recognition as “a social and political critic of comparative national cultures.” Spiller managed to get those travel books back into print and went on to write three books of his own about Cooper, including a biography.

Valuable as this work may have been, it left the ambitious young scholar unsatisfied. “The concentration on the work of one author seemed increasingly restrictive,” Spiller later recalled. “I found myself drawn more deeply into the philosophy of literary history in general and specifically into what seemed to me the as-yet unwritten literary history of the United States.” If modern readers had a flawed perception of a canonical figure like Cooper, imagine what needed to be fixed in the portraits of lesser-known authors, not to mention in the mural of American literature as a whole.

Meanwhile, Spiller was teaching at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia. During his almost 20 years there, he made what he called “several abortive moves toward other universities.” Nothing worked out, though, until he got a phone call from another Penn mentor, Albert C. Baugh, who invited him to return to his alma mater and help start an interdisciplinary program in American studies.

Back at Penn for good in 1945, he brought with him a project-in-progress: a new literary history of America, by Americans. (The reigning authority was The Cambridge History of American Literature, which dated back to 1917.) Wisely, he’d recognized that producing such a work was beyond the capabilities of any one person. He rounded up three co-editors—Willard Thorp, Thomas H. Johnson, and Henry Seidel Canby—and they designed a treatment that would supplement the standard focus on major writers and their masterworks in two ways. First, the LHUS would include “instrument chapters” illuminating such topics as when and how it first became possible for Americans to make a living by their pens, and how books have been marketed (which is where the material on drugstore paperbacks came in); second, there would be periodic looks at the reception of American literature abroad.

Spiller et al. obtained support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Philosophical Society, and lined up Macmillan as publisher. In seeking contributors, they approached not just literary scholars, but also journalists such as H.L. Mencken; creative writers such as Wallace Stegner; poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg; and eminent historians, including Allan Nevins, Henry Steele Commager, and Eric Goldman. This wide net allowed coverage of subjects that might not otherwise have found a place, such as the New Deal’s buoyant effect on the nation’s mood during the Depression and the profound disenchantment felt by American Marxists after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939.

Most LHUS contributors tackled only a chapter apiece, but a few stalwarts took on several, with Spiller setting an example by writing all or portions of eight. (Contributors’ names are not found with their chapters, but grouped in a Table of Authors at the back of the book.) A few contributors were important enough in their own right to double as actors in the unfolding history: Mencken, Sandburg, Canby, and critic R.P. Blackmur.

For the sake of a rough uniformity, they all had to submit to being edited for style. Emeritus English Professor Gerald Weales, who is one of the few surviving contributors, recalled in an email that he was given a free hand in writing his chapter on modern drama for the 1974 edition, “and there was no editing of my text.” On the other hand, it seems likely that Mencken’s chapter on “The American Language” (also the title of a 1919 book by him) was tinkered with—it lacks the high dudgeon to be found in his newspaper columns and books.

In any case, the LHUS showcases plenty of wit and bite. In discussing the novelist Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, George F. Whicher quips: “Born in 1802 into a family of Boston intellectuals … this lady when hardly out of her teens was producing successful historical fiction by the simple device of confronting herself with a quire of blank paper.” (Unless otherwise noted, all LHUS quotations in this article come from the 1974 edition.) Harold W. Thompson’s chapter on humor quotes from Artemus Ward’s interview with Brigham Young. When informed that Mormon polygamy gave Young access to 80 wives, Ward asked, “How do you like it, as far as you hev got?” And Malcolm Cowley comments slyly on the seesawing nature of American-Soviet literary influences: “O. Henry was another [Russian] favorite, not only with the masses but also with many of the Soviet writers, who studied him for his technique (so that stories with an O. Henry twist were being published in Russia at a time when American short-story writers were imitating Chekhov).”

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