A truly strange book I kept seeing quoted in a recent literary criticism book I read. This book looks at the history of US letters from Leif Ericksen through the Civil War and attempts to write a kind of impressionistic history of that field. One of the weird things about American literature is how dominant fiction, poetry, and drama are in our thinking about it now, but basicall before Cooper and Irving, there was very little fiction happening, or rather, much of the fiction we did have has not been held onto as we moved forward. From Hawthorne through maybe 1990 or so, fiction has been the truly dominant force in American literature/letters. I think right now, we’re in a period of young adult literature and especially memoir, but that more a product of the industry of publishing as much as anything else.
So this book’s focus on unshaped personal writing like diaries and letters makes a lot of sense given where it begins and where it ends. Sometimes it feels like literary criticism, sometimes poetry, and other times like Williams is attempting to embody the literature he’s reading and trying to make sense of the American character through emulation. This is most apparent in one of the longer sections where he recreates dozens of entries of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World attempts to capture the voice. For a small 200 page book, it’s a book that seems to really prefigure several important postmodern American writers like Pynchon, Barth, and Vollmann as well.