In a famous passage in The Red and the Black, the French writer Stendhal described the novel as a mirror being carried along a roadway. In the twentieth century this was derided as a naïve notion of realism. Instead, modern writers experimented with creative forms of invention and dislocation. Deconstructive theorists went even further, questioning whether literature had any real reference to a world outside its own language, while traditional historians challenged whether novels gave a trustworthy representation of history and society.
In this book, Morris Dickstein reinterprets Stendhal's metaphor and tracks the different worlds of a wide array of twentieth-century writers, from realists like Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, through modernists like Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, to wildly inventive postwar writers like Saul Bellow, Günter Grass, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Philip Roth, and Gabriel García Márquez. Dickstein argues that fiction will always yield rich insight into its subject, and that literature can also be a form of historical understanding. Writers refract the world through their forms and sensibilities. He shows how the work of these writers recaptures--yet also transforms--the life around them, the world inside them, and the universe of language and feeling they share with their readers.
Through lively and incisive essays directed to general readers as well as students of literature, Dickstein redefines the literary landscape--a landscape in which reading has for decades been devalued by society and distorted by theory. Having begun with a reconsideration of realism, the book concludes with several essays probing the strengths and limitations of a historical approach to literature and criticism.
"Dickstein paints in broad strokes, providing brief biographical portraits of a diverse group of writers and their cultural moments. The essays on Bellow and Fitzgerald are especially fine. . . . The ability of the imagination to constitute an interpretable but nevertheless real world is, for Dickstein, the core of literary work."--The New Yorker
"Moving from Melville to Bellow, from Wharton to Roth, Dickstein follows the novel's progress and the trends of literary theory to show that every period produces a literature that reflects something essential about the age."--Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World
"A firm traditionalist, Dickstein takes issue with deconstructive theorists, who see literature as a separate, self-referential world of language, and with new historicists who deny fiction its integrity by grounding it too stubbornly in a social context that may not be relevant to the writer's purposes. . . .The best pieces engage in a quirky and personal way with their subjects."--Madeleine Minson, Times Higher Education Supplement
"Beginning with how American writers like Whitman, Melville, Wharton, Ellison and Bellow variously depicted life in New York City, literary critic Dickstein examines an array of authors in relation to their historical moments and explores the significance of how they represented their worlds. . . . [He] makes a case for the social awareness of F. Scott Fitzgerald's late, Depression-era writing, and reflects on the notion of alienation, and on the enigmatic sensibilities of Kafka and Beckett."--Publishers Weekly
"Blending cultural history and literary biography with the barest traces of memoir, Dickstein has produced in his newest essay collection that rarest of species of literary criticism: one as genial to the general reader as to the academic."--Library Journal
Table of Contents