Beneath the American Renaissance

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At the heart of this overly long, tendentious book there is a valuable revisionary perspective on one of the richest periods in the history of American literature. As Reynolds observes, generations of students have been taught to regard the great writers of the American Renaissance as lonely, embattled figures, “distant from a popular culture that was easily optimistic or moralistic.” To debunk this “myth,” as he terms it, Reynolds draws on an extraordinarily wide range of forgotten writings, from police gazettes and penny newspapers to the lurid pamphlet novels of the prolific George Thompson. In nineteenth century America, Reynolds shows, the puritanical strain was much less dominant than is commonly believed. Writers such as Thompson--whose novels included VENUS IN BOSTON and THE COUNTESS; OR, MEMOIRS OF WOMEN OF LEISURE--enjoyed great success with narratives that openly described sexual encounters of every imaginable variety and that reveled in sadomasochistic violence. The dark imaginings of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville had their debased counterpart in popular culture.

This useful social history, however, is only one aspect of Reynolds’ ambitious project. When it comes to applying his findings to the interpretation of significant literary works--in other words, what should be the payoff of his approach--Reynolds is generally unilluminating. With a few notable exceptions, the connections he draws between popular literature and works such as THE SCARLET LETTER and MOBY DICK are either banal or highly tenuous. In the case of a writer such as Dickinson, who is peripheral to his thesis to begin with, Reynolds’ interpretations are particularly strained. Like many products of the so-called new historicism, Reynolds’ book promises much more than it delivers.