What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, by Gordon Hutner

June 1st, 2009

Cover of 'What America Read'“Why are so few novels remembered while so many thousands forgotten?” This is the question Gordon Hutner, professor of English at the University of Illinois, takes up in his new book, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, due out this month from the University of North Carolina Press. In it, Hutner surveys four decades of American fiction from the viewpoint of the reading public and the mainstream critics of the time, and reveals just how shifts in the currents of critical tastes can leave many good works stranded and quickly forgotten.

“There is no critical conspiracy to keep these books from being read,” Hutner writes. Instead, he shows how mainstream critics such as Bernard deVoto, Clifton Fadiman, and Henry Canby were eclipsed by a younger, more politically-oriented generation with the likes of Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Dwight MacDonald, who favored modernism over realism and the marginalized over the mainstream. With their rise, writers such as John Marquand, who had enjoyed both popular and critical success, came to be considered hacks and reactionaries.

Hutner does not claim that there are dozens of lost masterpieces to be found among the books he surveys. He merely argues that their neglected ultimately represents our own “impoverishment, since their fiction reveals the epic story of a nation’s self-invention as a modern society through the filter of middle-class experience.” Although he doesn’t single out any title for special attention, opting instead for a comprehensive survey, Hutner did mention a few noteworthies in a recent interview:

Really there are just too many! I gained a great appreciation for many women writers I had never heard of before, like Margaret Barnes, who won a Pulitzer for a novel about the rise of Chicago [Years of Grace, winner of the 1931 award--Ed.]. I also liked Josephine Lawrence, who wrote in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s! Her novels were smaller affairs, written to be read in an evening, dealing with problems like how to manage a budget or how to deal with the aged in a world before the Social Security Act. (Reviewers sometimes asked why she wasn’t more highly esteemed.) Margaret Culkin Banning wrote similar novels about women a rung or two higher on the social ladder. Caroline Slade wrote some interesting books about women in the Depression and the sex trade. Maritta Wolff wrote terrific novels in the 40s, including the very best one about women’s experience with returning GIs called About Lyddy Thomas; a posthumous novel of hers came out a few years ago [Scribner's has reissued three of Wolff's novels--Whistle Stop, Night Shift, and the posthumous Sudden Rain--Ed.]. I also liked Margaret Halsey’s comic writing: With Malice Toward Some is a delight. She wrote a novel and a nonfiction book about black GIs and race relations, drawn on her USO stint, but the nonfiction book is more trenchant.

There were good books by plenty of men too, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Michael Foster’s American Dream. With such a title, the book better be good, and it is. I really developed a taste for John Marquand too, especially Point of No Return. I also “discovered” wonderful novels by African American writers—Waters E. Turpin’s migration novels of the 30s [These Low Grounds (1937) and O Canaan! (1940)--Ed.] may be known to specialists but scarcely make their way onto many syllabi in twentieth-century African American fiction.

I plan to add Hutner’s book and a list of many of the titles he discusses, to the Sources section on this site later this month, but the above sample provides an excellent start. I highly recommend What America Read to any fan of 20th century realistic fiction.

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