Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Doubleday, 1957.
Summary of Work
Richard Chase seeks to discuss the development of the American novel as it diverged from the English novel. He states that it is very important to make a distinction between the two traditions, as the English novel seeks to derive social order out of the disparate elements or plot points in the novel and is largely a novel of manners that adheres to social expectations and the unities, whereas the American novel is much more focused on exploring the possibilities and realities of specific, narrow situations and much less interested in wresting order out of the chaos of those events. The American novel, Chase says, has therefore regularly not been a novel as the term has been generally defined, but instead a romance. He states that the novel is a work which focuses mainly on character and the development of that character, whereas the romance focuses mainly on action or plot and has very little character development. The narrators of the novel are more often omniscient and able to display a proper scenery and social sphere that the character develops within, but the romance utilizes a very narrow section of society simply as a backdrop, and the personal motivations and thoughts of the characters take center stage as they go through the plot. This view of the novel is largely the viewpoint of Henry James, the American novelist whom Chase finds to be the greatest American novelist in the history of the American novel. He also gives a brief commentary on melodrama, which is the height of extremes and dualities, saying that the American novel often indulges in such language in order to further plot or explore extreme or peculiar situations.
Of Hawthorne and his work, particularly The Scarlet Letter, Chase says that it is firmly in the category of romance and not the novel, particularly because of the lack of scenery except as backdrop to the main characters in the novel; furthermore, he finds that there is no character development, but rather the characters serve largely as psychological forms and allegory, and they do not change their natures throughout the work. Like James, Chase finds these facts to be somewhat the faults of the novel, although the creation of a psychological novel is, Chase admits, an important and quality development for the American novel. He compares symbol and allegory at this point, stating that allegory functions in its purest form when the readers know what each particular part of the story represents so that they can always refer back to that representation, which is never changing: this is Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, symbols are a fusion of many meanings, and those meanings change throughout the course of the novel; therefore, the A on Hester Prynne’s chest could be seen as a symbol, but more importantly, the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick is a symbol.
Of Melville’s masterwork Moby Dick, Chase states that while it starts out with high promises of realism to be a novel, it falls into the category of romance, not a novel, and despite its certainly masterful pieces within the whole work, there are many parts that are poorly flung together to fit the emotional fits that befit Ahab and the romance tale of his obsession. Yet in Moby Dick lies a central tenet of American literature: a life of contradictions through experience and a life of ironic perception. These features appear throughout the development of the American novel, and Melville’s work is a perfect example of that. He also terms Moby Dick an epic romance, more akin to the poetry of Homer than the structure of the prose novel because of the melodrama and otherworldly elements it contains.
Chase attributes the development of regionalized language and straightforward diction to the novels of Mark Twain, particularly that of Huckleberry Finn. He states that the colloquial language of the novel forever changed the way American writers approached their characters, swaying from the formal English language and into the representation of the spoken language. Yet even here, Chase asserts that the novel is more of a tragi-comic romance than it is a novel, given the focus on the action and the interior narrative of Huck than on the social atmosphere around him and the unifying of social issues.
Next he discusses novels of manners, which deal with how to navigate social class and fix problematic characters or behaviors, or, if they cannot be fixed, to cast them out. He claims that Jane Austen, while not the most masterful writer, is the master of the purest form of the novel of manners. American novelists, by comparison, Chase finds sorely lacking in ability. He claims that F. Scott Fitzgerald is a second, possibly third rate author who nevertheless he will discuss because he is one of the only people who have successfully attempted a novel of manners in the US. He discusses The Great Gatsby in this sense, calling attention to the discussion of scene and character and the reverse development of Gatsby from an experienced rags to riches man back to a child with idyllic imaginations, while all around him he struggles to integrate into a rich society that has a set of rules he cannot meet or follow, which in combination with his imaginings, leads to his death. Despite the success as a novel of manners, Chase finds Fitzgerald’s style lacking, and he is stymied by the fact that Henry James thought that Fitzgerald did the most for the American novel since Mark Twain.
Finally, Chase discusses three novels by William Faulkner, who he considers to be the second or third best American novelist, second only to James and perhaps third depending on how one compares Mark Twain to Faulkner. The majority of this final chapter is dedicated to The Sound and the Fury, discussing how Faulkner managed to (mostly) successfully provide unique language styles to each of his characters as they tell their part of the story while at the same time offering solid character development over plot, where the plot happens because of character development. Chase finds no language more masterful than Faulkner’s when he knows what his character sounds like, and he also demonstrates the best of American prose with his crafting of Benjy’s narrative through the eyes of an idiot. It shows obsessions, character development, tragedy, and most importantly to befit James’s and Chase’s definition of the novel, provides a creation of order and unity through Dilsey, who is the only character capable of keeping the Compson family from falling apart at the end of its 200-year stint in the South. Furthermore, Chase claims that the only reason that this novel is the greatest novel written up to the point of his writing is because there have been novelists who came before to establish certain mechanical elements or traditions, and that finally there is enough American history available to create a proper background and scenery for character development to take center stage in the American novel. Chase finds the work a transcendence of romance to create an amalgamation of realism, romance, and the qualities of the novel that James laid down.
Discussion of Work
Chase’s book provides important information about how the American novel is viewed in comparison with the English novel; his introduction, which defines specific differences between English and American, novels is useful because it provides a framework from which to view American novels and their development over a century of writing. However, Chase falls prey to worshipping Henry James, finding no issues with him or his writing, seemingly unquestioning of the structure as pure and perfect in form for all to follow. In doing so, he excludes many masterworks from the title of “novel,” instead relegating them to what is implicitly considered and insinuated a lesser form.
His treatment of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and especially Fitzgerald are full of backhanded compliments or appraisals: it fits perfectly the, “well, they did this or that, but they still will never measure up to James” form that he establishes from the beginning of the novel. The blind spot essentially disables him from seeing, even as he describes the incredible feats of Faulkner, how Faulkner will come to transcend James in their importance of the development of the novel in the twentieth century. It also disables him from understanding how the language of Fitzgerald would come to be recognized as some of the most carefully and well-crafted language and writing of the Jazz Age.
Another failing of this work is that it completely ignores and excludes authors of color. He does mention that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exists in passing, but only to state that the tradition he is speaking of has influenced it. He doesn’t even mention anything about the work. Certainly, the development of the American novel was heavily influenced by the writing that came out of the traditions of African American communities, let alone other communities of color. Faulkner would be as much influenced by the stories and cultural traditions of communities of color as he was by Mark Twain, as is evident in his portrayal of the character Dilsey in his work and his intricate discussions of the race issues inherent in the Southern mind. Perhaps these things are overlooked because throughout his work, Chase is insistent that morals and moral teachings and lessons are not meant to be read in the American novel: the American novel is simply an exploration of history and moral lessons that the characters deal with in all their contradictory experiences.