Text: Charles N. Watson, Jr., “The American Romance and Its Critics,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:56-58


[page 56, column 2:]

The American Romance and Its Critics

Joel Porte. The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe Hawthorne, Melville, and James. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969. 235 pp. 58.00. 

During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, some of our ablest critics turned their attention to the problem of exploring and defining the central tradition of American fiction. Though they differed considerably in their interpretations of individual works, such books as Richard Chase’s The American Novel and Its Tradition, Harry Levin’s The Power of Blackness, Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, and Daniel Hoffman’s Form and Fable in American Fiction ( to name only a few of the best) did arrive at a consensus of sorts in the view that the great tradition of American fiction lay not in the realistic novel of man in society, but in the romance — a form of fiction which, for reasons grounded in American culture and experience, used the non-realistic methods and materials of folklore, fable, myth, and allegory to explore what Hawthorne called the “truth of the human heart.” The most recent addition to this series of synthetic studies is Joel Porte’s The Romance in America. [page 57:]

Unquestionably, Porte’s book is one of the best yet to appear on this ever-challenging subject. Though narrower in scope, it resembles Fiedler’s Love and Death in the lucidity, grace, and wit of its style, and in its provocative — and occasionally sensational — interpretations. But Porte is crucially at odds with Fiedler’s main thesis, that American fiction is characterized by its inability to deal with adult heterosexual love. In contrast, Porte’s view of his five writers is almost wholly appreciative, and he continually admires their willingness to confront, however obliquely or symbolically, the power and mystery of sex.

There are perhaps two things we ought to ask of a book like this: first, that it shed light on individual works of fiction; second, that it add to our understanding of the American romance as a genre. The first of these goals the book clearly attains; the readings are consistently fresh and provocative. There is much of interest in the chapter on Poe, which contains discussions of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” “Berenice,” Arthur Gordon Pym, and, incidentally, “The Raven.” Some of the readings are frankly Freudian, but Porte’s aim is never to psychoanalyze Poe, always to illuminate Poe’s art. Especially interesting is the interpretation of “Usher” as, “at its deepest level, a kind of fictional debate which argues for the seriousness of romance as a way of exploring the secret soul of man.” “Ligeia” is read as the narrator’s dark erotic fantasy, another play on the opposition between dark and fair ladies, in which the narrator “is a romancer who believes that the dusky world of his fantasies can be made real, if only he wills it into reality fervidly enough.” “In the obscure and private world of his imagination,” Porte concludes, “the narrator takes possession of his wish. Here the will to pleasure reigns supreme, and all fair ladies are dark.” And “Berenice” is a tale in which “reason, the life of the mind,” as embodied in the narrator, “has turned into its opposite — brutal and irrational sexuality.” A few such quotations, however, tend to over-sensationalize what is really a cogent and persuasive reading of the tales.

Fresh and illuminating readings are also to be found in the chapters on Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James. But to the larger question — whether the book contributes to our understanding of the American romance as a genre — the answer must be only a qualified yes, for the question rests on two assumptions each of which can profit by further scrutiny: first, that the romance is really a fictional genre distinct from the novel in form and theme; second, that the romance (if indeed a separate genre) is the more typically American form, while the novel is characteristically British. Porte begins his book by raising these questions and referring the reader to earlier studies:

Thanks to a series of major critical studies that have appeared in the past decade and a half, it no longer seems necessary to argue for the importance of romance as a nineteenth-century American genre. Students of American literature — notably Richard Chase — have provided a solid theoretical basis for establishing that the rise and growth of fiction in this country is dominated by our authors’ conscious adherence to a tradition of non-realistic romance sharply at variance with the broadly novelistic mainstream of English writing.

It is not really true, as this passage seems to imply, that [column 2:] Porte begs the questions of definition and nationality. On the contrary, the book is everywhere concerned with the nature of the genre and is full of suggestive definitions (for example, “The romancer’s precinct is thus frequently that of daydream and nightmare, fantasy and revery, where things only ‘look like truth’ — that is, are only partially connected to the world as we know it publicly — because they shadow forth that world as it would look if it were acting out its own inner meaning”). Furthermore, Porte’s two central theses are intended to show that his five romancers shared a common ground of uniquely American themes: first in their persistent association of the American wilderness with the frontiers of human consciousness, so that, for them, “the fictional quest for knowledge of the wilderness was synonymous . . . . with the desire and need to explore the self”; and second, in the degree to which the problem of romance art itself became the theme as well as the form of their major works.

As successful as he is, however, in revealing the prevalence of these motifs in his five writers, some of the larger questions remain unanswered. For example, Porte comes close to claiming that the realistic novel offers us mere surface verisimilitude, while the non-realistic romance has exclusive title to the deeper psychology, to the “truth of the human heart.” But just how problematical such a separation can be is illustrated by the case of Henry James. There are, Porte admits, two Jameses, or rather one James pulled two ways. There is James the romancer, the disciple of Hawthorne and author of The American and The Golden Bowl (both of which Porte discusses). There is also James the novelist, disciple of George Eliot and author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Princess Casamassima. But it would be hard to show convincingly that The Portrait is any less concerned with the truth of the heart than The American or The Golden Bowl — or, for that matter, that it is any less American. Is it not true, instead, that James, Hawthorne, and George Eliot all share a common ground of concern with moral truth and the deeper psychology, and that their concern transcends the barriers between genres or countries? Isn’t there good reason to compare, say, George Eliot’s Bulstrode, in that arch-novel Middlemarch, with Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale? It may even be worth noting that the only major study to reject the distinction between romance and novel, D. E. S. Maxwell’s American Fiction: The Intellectual Background, is written from a British point of view.

Indeed, it seems at times that we have come to think of English fiction as if it had all been written by Jane Austen or Trollope and did not include Wuthering Heights, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Jude the Obscure, or Victory, to name only a few leading examples of English novels with clear tendencies toward myth, symbolism, allegory, and the demonic forces in human psychology. Correspondingly, we see in Cooper (even in the Leatherstocking books) the same tension between the romance and the novel that we see in James. Melville’s Pierre, too, is a mixture of genres (Falsgrave, for example, whom Porte does not discuss, is an effectively portrayed and thoroughly novelistic character); and by way of explaining his omission of Moby-Dick Porte admits that by partaking of so many genres it virtually ends up in a genre of its own. As for national boundaries, the frequency [page 58:] with which Melville and Conrad have been compared surely argues that their affinities lie deeper than their common experience of the sea, and I suspect that a careful comparison of Pierre and Richard Feverel would reveal interesting similarities between Melville and Meredith, as well.

All of this is not to suggest that a decade and a half of impressive and valuable criticism is wrongheaded — far from it. Surely the distinctions between romance and novel have their validity, along with the sense that American and English writers have tended to follow somewhat different paths. But it is important to remember that these are tendencies only. Perhaps, therefore, it is in order to sound a note of caution before a suggestive theory hardens into an oversimple dogma. One can hope that so good a critic as Porte would agree that both English and American fiction are richer than that.

Charles N. Watson, Jr., Syracuse University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]