Cover image for The Cambridge history of American literature
The Cambridge history of American literature
Bercovitch, Sacvan.
Publication Information:
Cambridge : Cambridge University Press [1996]

Physical Description:
viii, 545 pages ; 24 cm
Vol. 8. Poetry and criticism, 1940-1995.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS92 .C34 1994 V.8 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The Cambridge History of American Literature addresses the broad spectrum of new and established directions in all branches of American writing, and includes the work of scholars and critics who have shaped, and who continue to shape, what has become a major area of literary scholarship. The authors span three decades of achievement in Americanist literary criticism, thereby speaking for the continuities as well as the disruptions sustained between generations of scholarship. Generously proportioned narratives permit a broader vision of American literary history than has previously been possible, allowing the implicit voice of traditional criticism to join forces with the diversity of interests that characterise contemporary literary studies. Volume VIII, concerned with works of poetry and criticism written between 1940 and the present, brings together two different sets of materials and narrative forms, the aesthetic and the institutional. Discarding the traditional synoptic overview of major figures, von Hallberg, Graff, and Carton settle in favour of a history from the inside - a history of interstices and relations, equal to the task of considering the contexts of art, power, and criticism in which it is set.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Like earlier volumes in the series (e.g., v.2: 1820-1865, CH, Sep'95; v.1: 1590-1820, CH, Sep'94), this work emphasizes dissensus (in contrast to the consensus view in Literary History of the United States, ed. by Robert Spiller et al., 1948). In the words of Evan Carton and Gerald Graff, authors of "Criticism Since 1940" in this volume, the intent of the Cambridge series is to show that "'American Literature' is not only a construction of critics and readers but a product of their conflicts and debates." Carton and Graff deftly summarize major movements in academic criticism (e.g., New Criticism, feminism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, reader-response theory, cultural and historical studies), noting finally that the focus on "partisans and opponents" of "various collective critical projects" led the authors to omit "particularistic critics" who have provided "brilliant and enabling readings of specific writers, texts and genres." Readers may feel that this loss is substantial. An appendix offers useful biographical summaries of influential, internationally recognized critics (e.g., Adorno, Barthes, Derrida). Robert von Hallberg's "Poetry, Politics and Intellectuals" similarly emphasizes conflict and debate and the public, political poet. He offers a "fresh selection of exemplary poems," noting that "none of my readers will be familiar with all the poems I discuss ...." The resulting analysis is problematic: for example, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Hollander are given short shrift (the last two for having "kept faith with styles they established for the tastes of the journals of the 1950's") and are not included in the appended "Biographies of Poets," although Susan Howe and Jay Wright are. Adrienne Rich, "the most popular political poet writing in America," receives extensive treatment, both as poet and poet-critic; Anne Sexton is not discussed. Von Hallberg's is an interesting, personal overview, but all-inclusive it is not. A substantial chronology relates literary texts to social and political events in America and abroad. Unaccountably, the index does not include all names mentioned in the text. Libraries will surely add this volume to its predecessors as representative of a contemporary, academic attitude toward American literary history. J. J. Benardete CUNY Hunter College