Can you discern a nation’s spirit, even its economic genius, from the literature it produces? That’s long been a pastime of literary critics, including those who frequently see the “original sins” of Puritanism and capitalism in the stony heart of Americans.
Writing in Commentary Magazine, Fred Siegel looks at just this problem in a new appreciation of cultural critic and iconoclast Bernard DeVoto’s three-decade campaign to rescue American letters from the perception that European aesthetics were superior to the homegrown variety.According to Siegel, DeVoto was the lone voice speaking out against the literary intelligentsia of the age. While it is true that DeVoto had his moments of clarity regarding literature, especially as it pertains to his insights that rescued Mark Twain’s work from a certain obscurity, Siegel nonetheless inflates DeVoto’s total contribution to cultural criticism.
Indeed, DeVoto was erudite and a prodigious writer. But, despite Siegel’s assertions, he wasn’t a particularly astute observer of the literary landscape. In fact, he was a bit of a cranky pants who wedged works he didn’t fully understand too quickly into an easy anti-American category. This strategy yielded diminishing returns for DeVoto’s reputation, which is probably the primary reason why his name is seldom if ever mentioned in the canon of literary criticism. Siegel’s rebranding attempt is not likely to help. DeVoto penned the monthly Easy Chair column for Harper’s from 1935 to 1955, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Across the Wide Missouri,” and wrote “Mark Twain’s America.” Siegel notes that DeVoto’s “most important book,” however, was the 1944 volume, “The Literary Fallacy.” In it, Siegel asserts, DeVoto “illuminated the inner life of modern liberalism as no one had before or since.” (more…)