FROM POPULISM TO ELITISM
Has the Eric Bennett article in Chronicle of Higher Education opened a debate about the nature of American literature? Don’t count on it. This is a debate which I’m sure even Bennett’s backers at n+1 would not want to have—because inevitably they’d be caught on the wrong side of it.
Here’s a post I made on another blog about the matter:
And another post I made here:
There are many connect-the-dots leads to be followed, for those with the time or interest. This includes others in George Plimpton’s generation like William Phillips and Robert Silvers. It includes other publications, and important literary conferences of the 1950’s and 60’s whose intent was to direct the course of American literature into acceptable channels.
Keep in mind that American populism is a style of literature, probably best embodied in the Frank Norris novel The Octopus. The style can be characterized by large themes, characters caught up in sweeping historical currents and changes, and polemical speeches. It represented a large land and broad voice. Also with a trace of old-fashioned American romanticism. The viewpoint is usually against monopoly and/or centralized control. Organic, from the people, not tops-down. It’s a style which once defined American literature and its difference from the European variety. Sadly, that difference now is gone.
In his Chronicle essay, Eric Bennett posits Jonathan Franzen as a novelist of ideas. Maybe—but his recent anti-freedom novel Freedom is more anti-populist than populist. It has more in common with By Love Possessed than The Octopus.