Lost in the Customhouse

In this age of deconstructive and new historicist literary criticism—criticism which frequently devalues the literature and elevates the critical method—it is refreshing to find a critic who profoundly respects the literature of which he writes. Too often these days, literary criticism degenerates into arcane and contentious discussions of theory; the literature itself goes neglected, is shooed off into an obscure, shadowy corner. Not so with Jerome Loving’s LOST IN THE CUSTOMHOUSE. Loving is a reader’s critic, one who works to increase our appreciation for the fiction and the poetry that has become part of our national tradition.

Loving’s territory in this study is broad—the American nineteenth century—and the literary population he surveys is a fairly large one; he begins with Washington Irving, works through the half dozen writers usually associated with the American Renaissance (Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman), then extends his limits to include Twain, Dickinson, Henry James, Kate Chopin, and Theodore Dreiser. Suddenly, the American Renaissance edges into the twentieth century.

What Loving argues in this study is that the central experience in our literature of the nineteenth century is the puritanical wish for a New Eden, for a return to innocence, for fresh experience. The American literary vision, says Loving, is essentially analeptic and not proleptic; in other words, stories chart the return of characters to their lives and to their homes, and place them in the middle of their lived lives, rather than locating them at the ends of those psychic journeys. These writers (and their characters) constantly “awaken” to psychological realities born out of existence itself; those awakenings, in turn, provide the fabric for the stories that make up our literary canon.

Loving’s argument is persuasive, both in its reading of the American Renaissance and in its taking-on of the dominant critical methodologies. Indeed, while Loving is scholarly and intelligent throughout his discussion of the literature, he is refreshingly readable. He places us comfortably in the lives and minds of these writers, and shines a gentle light on the words that constitute their art.