Sunday, May 13, 2007

What Would Hawthorne Say about the War on Newspaper Book Reviews?

I think Hawthorne would find the current campaign to save book reviewing (and book review sections in U.S. newspapers) at once inspiring and ironic. In his day, after all, before a national literary canon was established or instituted in high schools and higher education (particularly at the start of his career in the 1820s), critics' and reviewers' role was chiefly to call for a national literature, make suggestions as to subject matter (such Puritans, Indians, the Revolutionary War) and mode (especially Scott-inspired historical romances), and judge the latest entries. Even by 1850, however, Herman Melville could hyperbolically claim, in "Hawthorne and His Mosses," that "There are hardly five critics in America, and several of them are asleep." So the fact that there are so many courses devoted to American literature, so many awards for American authors, so many American book reviewers in print and on-line, and so many American books published each year would be of great satisfaction to the author who three times interrupted his literary career for government posts to better support his family. As an editor, reviewer, and contributor to the "little magazines" of his day (and some of the bigger ones, too), Hawthorne would understand well how all the nodes in the literary publishing network need to be working together for authors' efforts to be properly distributed, appreciated, evaluated, and analyzed. So he no doubt would have signed any petition put in front of him. But he would have marvelled at how far American literature, criticism, and book reviewing have come since the mid-19th C.

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