Feb 25, 2015

What would Ishmael read?

Reading the scattered criticism of popular domestic novels led me to recognize -- though I am certainly not the first to have done so -- that the popularity of novels by women has been held against them almost as much as their preoccupation with with 'trivial' feminine concerns. And this led to the observation, again not original to me, that popular fiction in general, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, has been rigorously excluded from the ranks of 'serious' literary works. That exclusion seems to me especially noteworthy in American literature, since the rhetoric of American criticism habitually invokes democratic values as a hallmark of greatness in American authors. When Melville calls upon that 'great democratic God' and celebrates 'meanest mariners, renegades and castaways,' it is cause for critical acclaim, but when the common man steps out of Moby-Dick or Song of Myself and walks into a bookstore, his taste in literature, or, as is more likely, hers, is held up for scorn.
-- Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860.