Title Reviewed:
American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells to Arthur Miller

Author Reviewed:
Michael Spindler

Henry Claridge


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 80, Issue 4, pp 401-402

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells to Arthur Miller. By Michael Spindler. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. Pp. viii, 236. Notes, selected bibliography, index. $18.50.)

Michael Spindler's book is offered as an interdisciplinary study, an exercise in what he calls "the sociology of American literature" (p. 7). His concern, broadly speaking, is with the interrelationships between American economic, social, and literary life in the period roughly from Reconstruction to the 1950s, and he has selected seven writers for detailed study: William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, and Arthur Miller. His method is to describe American social development (and thus, for him, literary development) in terms of the Marxist formulation of base and superstructure. This procedure conveniently yields two phases of American social and economic history, the first which Spindler calls "The Production-Oriented Phase" and the second which he labels "The Consumption-Oriented Phase." The former includes the works of Howells, Norris, and Dreiser, the latter those of Dreiser (again), Fitzgerald, Lewis, Dos Passos, and Miller.

Spindler is determined to show how the "ideological confusions and contradictions" (p. 47) endemic to American social history have molded its literature, and his account of the genesis of a literary work, therefore, is deterministic and reductive. For example, he says of Norris and Dreiser that they "played down the significance of form and fashioned a coarse-grained prose that corresponded well with the rough, coarse-grained texture of their subjects … the bitter strikes and harsh conditions did not require the delicate nuances of Jamesian prose but a new rhetoric suitable to the thrusting crudity and angularity of industrial society" (p. 47). Now, the cynical reader might see all this as special pleading on behalf of writers who are simply far less talented than Henry James. Where, indeed, given the fact that "played down" suggests conscious choice, is the evidence that Norris and Dreiser were capable of writing any other kind of prose? Of John Dos Passes, Spindler says: "he realised that the conventional realist novel was inadequate to the portrayal of the texture of modern social experience and to the rendering of a definite historical interpretation" (p. 200). But where, again, in the early part of his career, is there any evidence that Dos Passes could have written conventional realistic novels if he had wanted to? To say that Dos Passos fashioned a new form of discontinuous narrative in the face of the complexity of modern industrial experience might simply be to say that he had no gift for narrative. In fact, in the later stages of his literary career Dos Passos did evince a talent, albeit a very limited one, for the conventional novel, but these are works that Spindler probably finds "ideologically" offensive.

Spindler's is not a critical book, but it does not claim to be one. His readings, however, are not as innovative as he thinks them to be (see p. 6). Far too often the sociological and historical aspects of his book seem detachable components merely used to bolster conventional observations; nowhere is this more apparent than in the introductory chapters to his two "phases," entitled "Hardware" and "Software." He is not, moreover, the most accurate of historians, especially of intellectual matters. He says, for example, that, for the Puritans, "the decision Chosen or Damned was based on performance in the never-ending struggle between good and evil" (p. 31), thus imputing to them a doctrine of good works which is not evident in their writings.

Despite these weaknesses, Spindler's book is not wholly without merit. On the whole, it is clearly written, and the chapters on Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Miller's Death of a Salesman can be especially recommended. But it is not the ground-breaking contribution to the sociology of American literature that Spindler claims it to be, and, in fact, on the evidence of the methodology used here, one wonders if there ever will be one.

University of Kent, Canterbury, England Henry Claridge

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.