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Jane Tompkins (1940–) from “ ‘But Is It Any Good?’: The Institutionalization of Literary Value,” Sensational Designs (1985)

  • Lee Morrissey

Abstract

The objection, as I have phrased it, is never put in exactly this way, but usually takes the form of a question like: but are these works really any good ? or, what about the literary value of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?, or, do you really want to defend Warner’s language? These questions imply that the standards of judgment to which they refer are not themselves challengeable, but are taken for granted among qualified readers. “You and I know what a good novel is,” the objection implies, “and we both know that these novels fall outside that category.” But the notion of good literature that the question invokes is precisely what we are arguing about. That tacit sense of what is “good” cannot be used to determine the value of these novels because literary value is the point at issue. At this juncture, people will frequently attempt to settle the question empirically by pointing to one or another indisputably “great” work, such as Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, and asking whether The Wide, Wide World is as good as that.

Keywords

Literary History American Literature American Writer Common Reader Literary Canon 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    Century Readings for a Course in American Literature, ed. Fred Lewis Pattee, 1st ed. (New York: The Century Co., 1919)Google Scholar
  2. Major Writers of America, ed. Perry Miller et al. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), I.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Major American Writers, ed. Howard Mumford Jones and Ernest Leisy (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1935), p. v.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Barbara Herrnstein Smith, “Contingencies of Value,” Critical Inquiry, 10, No. 1 (September 1983), pp. 1–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 9.
    In 1958, eleven months after the launching of Sputnik, the president appointed a special assistant for science and technology, and the government passed the National Defense Education Act, which increased grants given to students of mathematics, the natural and social sciences, and modern languages. See Daniel Snowman, America Since 1920 (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 128.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Paul A. Carter, Another Part of the Fifties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 169.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. vii.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Matthiessen, p. xi, actually claims that “successive generations of common readers who make the decisions have agreed that the authors of the pre-Civil War era who bulk the largest in stature are the five who are my subject.” But in the period Matthiessen delimits, 1850 to 1855, common readers were engrossed by the works of Susan Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Grace Greenwood, Caroline Lee Hentz, Mary Jane Holmes, Augusta Jane Evans, Maria Cummins, D. G. Mitchell, T. S. Arthur, and Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. See James D. Hart, The Popular Book: A History of Americas Literary Taste (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950).Google Scholar

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© Lee Morrissey 2005

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  • Lee Morrissey

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