The parlors of small-town America are full of novels that made their way onto the bestseller lists once upon a time. Some were dismissed as commercial trash by the critics of their day, but others were taken seriously and written about earnestly. Many were Books of the Month, and a few won Pulitzer Prizes. Now they gather dust in the unused front rooms of homes whose owners have moved the TV to a friendlier part of the house. Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Edna Ferber’s So Big, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit: These books, like their authors, dropped off the scope long ago. Hardly anyone reads them today, not even literary scholars.
Hardly anyone, that is, except for Gordon Hutner, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has made a career out of studying American fiction and its place in our culture. Now he’s written a history of the novels that your grandparents loved, and his book, very much to my surprise, turns out to be both respectful and — up to a point — admiring. While it isn’t exactly the book I wanted to read or would have written, Hutner covers a great deal of ground with a good deal of clarity, and his book deserves to be read with close attention by anyone interested in the reading habits of the American public.
The title, however, isn’t quite accurate, for What America Read is not a history of the American bestseller, and it passes over genre fiction: Dashiell Hammett, Zane Grey, and the decorously sexy bodice-rippers of an earlier era are nowhere to be found in its pages. Instead Hutner is interested in what used to be called “better fiction” and what he himself calls the “middle-class realistic novel.” That phrase may be clunky, but it gets to the point. A vast expanse of literary terrain separates Finnegans Wake from Love’s Savage Fury, and much of it is occupied by novels about more or less ordinary people whose daily lives, allowing for differences of time and place, are not unlike yours or mine. Rarely do they have occasion to inherit fortunes, commit mass murder, or employ private detectives. Instead these not-so-imaginary people get married, raise families, and go to work each morning, and sometimes they also go to war.
Theirs, in short, is the common fate of the American middle class, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that many middle-class readers enjoy reading novels about their own kind, not merely for entertainment but also as an act of self-discovery. To read a novel about a character whose experiences are similar to your own is to be reassured that your experiences are not abnormal — and, just as important, to learn how other people have coped with these experiences.
Such novels have more in common than their subject matter. They are almost always straightforwardly written — you will find no hint of stylistic caprice in their workmanlike prose — and meticulously plotted. One reads them first and foremost to find out what happens to the characters. Everything else is secondary, which is not to say unimportant: A realistic novel can be witty, thoughtful, politically committed, even rich in spiritual or philosophical implication, so long as its author takes care to embed all these things in an interesting plot. Conversely, a plotless novel cannot hope to engage the general public, no matter how well-written it may be. Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell’s episodic but imperishably funny satire of academic life, may well have been the best American novel of 1954, but it was Morton Thompson’s Not as a Stranger that topped the bestseller lists, with Irving Stone’s Love Is Eternal and Frances Parkinson Keyes’s The Royal Box coming up fast in the home stretch.
Such novels have something else in common: They get no respect from scholars. In most cases, of course, they don’t deserve it, but the author of What America Read argues that the academy’s refusal to take “better fiction” seriously is also owing in large part to anti-bourgeois bigotry: “Literary scholars will read virtually any other kind of fiction before they read works of middle-class realism. . . . Novels may be popular for all sorts of reasons, but it seems that they cannot be great unless they assail the middle class.” That’s one of the reasons — and very likely the most important one — you’ve heard of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt but not, say, James Gould Cozzens’s The Just and the Unjust (1942), a novel in which the life and work of a small-town lawyer are portrayed with a subtle amalgam of irony and sympathy. The Just and the Unjust is a better novel, but Cozzens, unlike Lewis, made the mistake of suggesting that his decent protagonist was something other than a pitiful buffoon. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
Gordon Hutner knows better. For openers, he knows that the American middle-class novel as a genre is full of doubt and uncertainty and that many of its characters are preoccupied with what he calls “the emptiness at the heart of modern life.” He also knows that the line separating these novels from their highbrow counterparts is not nearly as bright as it seems in retrospect. One of the most valuable things about What America Read is the way it supplies a contemporary context for such novels as The Great Gatsby, which is now generally (and rightly) acknowledged as great but was in 1925 one of hundreds of novels contending for the attention of American reviewers. Yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a deadly serious artist, but he was also a professional writer, and it is perfectly possible, as Hutner reminds us, to approach Gatsby as a popular novel written for the same audience that enjoyed Fitzgerald’s Saturday Evening Post stories.
In addition, Hutner has taken a searching look at middle-class literary criticism. It’s salutary to be reminded that “the writer who arguably shaped more people’s reading taste than anyone else in American history” was not Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson but the all-but-forgotten Clifton Fadiman, who not only reviewed books for The New Yorker but hosted a popular radio quiz show called Information Please! and served as a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club: “Fadiman reached an audience that would make today’s critics searching for readers beyond academe shudder enviously. . . . Inconceivable as it is now, his 1941 anthology, Reading I’ve Liked, ranked seventh in sales among nonfiction books. Seventh!”
Fadiman’s career, like the books about which he wrote, is part of a much wider cultural phenomenon. Throughout the period covered in What America Read, America’s middlebrow culture was at its peak. It was a time when American audiences still believed passionately in the importance of high culture and American artists were prepared to meet them halfway, creating accessible art that was championed by the mass media. Just as Jerome Robbins was making jazz-flavored ballets like Fancy Free and Gian Carlo Menotti was writing operas for Broadway that put him on the cover of Time, so were middle-class novelists like Cozzens and John P. Marquand seeking to do serious work that would make sense to non-intellectual but nonetheless educated readers. What Diana Trilling wrote in 1946 about Marquand’s B.F.’s Daughter could easily stand as an epigraph for What America Read: “Without transcending the high-grade commodity level, he has done a great deal to raise our standards of what a literary commodity can be. Without urging us to regard his novels as ‘important,’ he has done more than any writer of our time to close the dangerous gap between important and popular fiction.”
But Trilling, though she was one of the shrewdest novel reviewers of the day, was too quick to dismiss Marquand and the best of his contemporaries as mere purveyors of literary commodities designed to divert the bourgeoisie. Most of their novels, to be sure, are of little or no interest today, but a not-inconsiderable number are eminently worthy of revival, and anyone who wrote a survey history of the American middle-class realistic novel that went out of its way to make a critical case for the strongest examples of the genre would do a real service to the republic of letters.
Therein, at least to my mind, lies the fundamental weakness of What America Read: Hutner is writing as a historian, not a critic. Moreover, he’s an academic historian, which makes him reluctant to render literary judgment, harsh or otherwise, on the books about which he writes. Under the aspect of academic postmodernity, all art is equal, and no sin is greater than to suggest otherwise (unless the artist happens to be a member of a minority group, in which case she is automatically deemed to be more equal than others).
If I had to guess, I’d say that Hutner really likes many of the books about which he writes, and on occasion he lets the mask slip and speaks well of a novel like The Just and the Unjust or William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows (1937). For the most part, though, he seems to be proceeding from the premise that middle-class novels deserve to be read less because they are good than because they are instructive: “They [are] often good without being great, interesting without being indispensable, accomplished without being profound. Yet why should they disappear when we read so many books from other periods no more fully realized or more vital to our understanding of the nation’s literary history and the drama of its cultural production?”
This is why Hutner chose to write “a history rather than a critical monograph that might have highlighted eight or ten exemplary writers. . . . Nor did I entertain any great desire to canonize these works by insisting on one and not another.” As a result, too much of What America Read amounts to little more than an endless stream of unfamiliar titles, none of which is singled out for extended comment, favorable or otherwise. I learned a lot from What America Read, but I didn’t come away inspired to read very many middle-class novels of whose existence I wasn’t already aware.
Would it have gotten Hutner into hot water with his watchful colleagues had he dared to recommend a dozen or so books that are worth revisiting, not merely for historical reasons, but also because they remain capable of giving pleasure for its own sake? If there’s a better reason to read a novel, be it middle-class, experimental, proletarian, or merely trashy, I haven’t heard of it.
– Mr. Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary, wrote the libretto for The Letter, an opera by Paul Moravec that will be premiered by the Santa Fe Opera on July 25. His next book, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, will be published in December by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.