Liberation Lit Criticism: The Buried US History

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Key books by V. F. Calverton, Upton Sinclair and Bernard Smith explore the tendency (or tradition and lack thereof) of liberation literature far better – more thoroughly, incisively and in greater context despite flaws – than any other group of texts of their time period (add a number of essays from Kenneth Burke’s book below), and they remain unusually valuable, and buried.  

There is no sound intellectual reason for this neglect – quite the opposite. This shows the marginalization of the vital tendency of liberation criticism of the time period and to a serious extent today. Not just liberation criticism is marginalized but liberation lit generally, liberation novels and so on, though good strides have been made in some such areas, e.g., in multicultural realms. But consider in how many university and other school courses have students a chance to read and discuss an explicit investigative antiwar novel about the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, one of the greatest calamities of our time for which our country is responsible? The answer is none, apparently. And precious few if any such novels were written for the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II. Where is the criticism of that lack? This indicates a general great failing of the literary establishment as a whole (i.e., schools, publishers, authors, the media and so on).

Especially with a prestige fixation on “theory” rather than an intellectual and normative commitment to socio-literary analysis of literature, literary work largely removes itself from actual progressive popular struggles and needed thought today. Central works of the liberation lit tendency are not even included in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. And there never was a Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism – so we see the emphasis of the establishment, on “theory” – which is far more tolerable, far less threatening to the interests of the status quo than the more normative and directly engaged literary modes of liberation criticism and liberation literature.

(1903) The Responsibilities of the Novelist, by Frank Norris
A precursor by two decades to Upton Sinclair’s more accomplished book of literary criticism along the same lines, Mammonart.

(1924) Mammonart, by Upton Sinclair
Lays bare a great part of the ideological nature of literature over the centuries – its severe limits and often untapped potential. “The book purposes to investigate the whole process of art creation, and to place the art function in relation to the sanity, health and progress of mankind. It will attempt to set up new canons in the arts, overturning many of the standards now accepted.” 

(1932) The Liberation of American Literature, by V. F. Calverton
Overview and commentary on US literary history and the possibility of revolutionary literature. V. F. Calverton is no marginal literary historical figure; his best work is no peripheral achievement. That is, shouldn’t be. But who has even heard of Calverton himself, editor of the Modern Quarterly for 17 years, from 1923 until his death in 1940?  

(1939) Forces in American Criticism, by Bernard Smith
Exceptional study of the history of US literary criticism. Asserts that “scientific methods” of criticism opposed to T. S. Eliot’s school “tend to create a literature that will express the ideals and sympathies of those who look forward to the conquest of poverty, ignorance, and inequality – to the material and intellectual elevation of the mass of mankind…” 

(1941) The Philosophy of Literary Form, by Kenneth Burke
These essays from the 1930s seem to me in many ways to consummate the literary criticism of the first four decades (perhaps beyond) of the twentieth century, in the US at least – both the so-called sociological and formal veins. A well-known book, but overlooked are some of the “sociological” literary essays. 

(1958) American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, by Maxwell Geismar
On national TV William vanden Heuvel (father of Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel) and Irving Kristol (“father of American neoconservatism” and Fox News pundit William Kristol) attacked progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar over his book of criticism on Henry James, “a primary Cold War literary figure”. This establishment attack helped destroy Geismar’s career, ending his run on TV.

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