Title Reviewed:
American Issues
Gerald O. Haffner


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 53, Issue 2, pp 234-237

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Issues. Revised and enlarged edition. Edited by Willard Thorp, Merle Curti, and Carlos Baker. Vols. I, II. (Chicago: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1954–1955. The Social Record, Vol. I: pp. xlvii, 1118; The Literary Record, Vol. II: pp. xiv, 997. Notes, bibliography, appendix, and index. $13.00.)

In the revised and enlarged edition of American Issues the editors have attempted to strengthen some sections of their earlier anthology (1941 and 1944) and, by the addition of recent material which illustrates the turbulent days since the close of World War II, they have sought to give the present publication contemporary significance. Here is in part (and a very sizable part at that) a written record of American life—American thought and action as reflected in this collection of readings and documents. The coverage of these two volumes is intended to present a well-rounded picture of our political, social, and cultural development. Naturally, many authors, beginning with John Smith and Increase Mather and concluding with Karl Shapiro and Reinhold Niebuhr, are included. In short, here are northerners, southerners, easterners, and westerners responding to the issues confronting them.

The first volume, The Social Record, points out these issues which have permeated our society. The vast array of speeches, essays, letters, pamphlets, and excerpts from biographies and autobiographies are arranged chronologically under twenty-four special topics—for example, "The Struggle for Freedom," and "The Passing of the Frontier." The editors introduce each topic by interpretive comments which are lucid and discerning. The second volume, The Literary Record, includes "only such writing as can honestly be said to show the artist's hand at work, consciously shaping his material" (p. v). But much of our literature is an outgrowth, consciously or unconsciously, of the basic issues which have been covered in the first volume. Hence the editors believe that for an understanding of American literature a thorough knowledge of social history is necessary. In addition, the editors consider a chronological presentation of fewer authors to be more effective than a hodge-podge of everything, as is the case with many anthologies of literature. In both volumes short biographical accounts and provocative head-notes give background material for each writer included.

One question seems pertinent. Is the basic division of the material justified? Some readers may question the loose use of the term "social" and the rigid rule by which a particular literary writing was included or excluded. When is a piece of writing the conscious creation of the artist's imaginative mind? It is not the intention of the present reviewer to discuss what is or what is not a work of art but rather to point out that the editors by their predetermined classification have had to overcome an inherent weakness of the anthology by arbitrarily assigning certain writings to categories which may be debatable. Furthermore, by lifting a selection from an author and fitting it into an editorial pigeonhole, the reader may not arrive at a proper perspective of the author. Although it is customary to include in texts of American literature excerpts from the journal of Sarah Kemble Knight and portions of the diary of Samuel Sewall, now that the editors have compiled a social history some readers will ask whether the writings of Sewall and Knight are not more appropriate for the social than the literary record. It is the age-old problem of how to organize your material after you have diligently gathered it. For the most part, the editors have done well, but the very nature of their organization and the division of these two volumes will cause some disagreement.

Many anthologies raise the question of inclusion and exclusion; and in the case of the American Issues the question is not concerned with each separate volume but the volumes as a whole. One of the good qualities of this work is the variety of material presented, some of which is not easily accessible elsewhere. In fact, the Social Record contains many more writings than would ordinarily be expected. In regard to the Literary Record the editors may have achieved their stated objective (a sampling of fewer authors), but some critics will assert that this approach is not necessarily more "profitable." These critics will say that the Literary Record is but a pale reflection compared with the all-inclusive light emanating from the Social Record. Here again is the incessant problem of how many trees does one have to observe before he can see the forest. Does it require the writings of many authors or not so many?

Then there is the problem of which and how much of an author's prose or poetry should be included. The convenient and partial solution lies much within the purpose and whims of the editors. Thus the editorial answer to this problem becomes a matter of selectivity which in turn may cause disagreement among the readers. For example, there is in the opinion of this reviewer an adequate amount of Benjamin Franklin's writing but an inadequate proportion with respect to William Bradford's.

Of the two volumes, the Social Record shows superior editorial workmanship. The selections listed under each basic issue usually illustrate what the editors intended the writings to do. The Literary Record, with its chronological listing of the authors and their works, is just another survey of American literature which does not indicate clearly the relationship of the literary movements (romanticism, realism, etc.) to the dominant issues outlined in the social history. It is true that there are some allusions to the issues in the various biographical accounts of the authors, but it is questionable whether or not the reader will readily understand the interrelationship implied by the title. The title, American Issues, is appropriate for the Social Record, but it is not for the Literary Record. The latter volume also appears to have been hastily revised. Why was there very little revision of the biographical notes of several of the contemporary writers? For example, the introductory comments about Ernest Hemingway leave him in the 1940's. Did not Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea make quite a literary splash in 1952? This reviewer also questions the reprinting of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially since this novel is easily accessible elsewhere, including paperbound editions, and since the editors have apologized for the lack of space.

The volumes are splendidly bound, and the index is good. For an easy place reference on the page there are marginal notations indicating the number of lines. Another admirable feature of these volumes is the date (found at the end of the selection) when each selection was written. The technical and mechanical errors were held to a minimum. John Winthrop supervised the departure of many who sailed from England to Massachusetts Bay, but he did this in 1630 and not "in 1636" (Vol. I, p. 53).

Devotees of Indiana history will find Theodore Dreiser spending his youth at Terre Haute, Ezra Pound teaching for a brief period at Wabash College, and Ambrose Bierce enlisting in the Ninth Indiana regiment during the Civil War. You may walk the streets of Muncie with Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd. Albert J. Beveridge tells us in his defense of American imperialism that we are "God's chosen people" (Vol. I, p. 916). George Gary Eggleston, a native son of Vevay, Indiana, and a brother of Edward Eggleston, marches with the Confederate Army. We read about that droll Kentland boy, George Ade, rising above the status of a salesman peddling patent medicines.

These volumes are truly a treasury of American life and culture—a comprehensive survey which boldly asserts its claim to a place on any private or public library shelf. This reviewer suggests that the publisher consider a third volume, one dealing primarily with official state papers and political documents; then the set would attain unquestionable uniqueness and usefulness in the areas most frequently needed by serious students of American civilization.

Gerald O. Haffner Indiana University

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.