Critical Reception and
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frank Norris,
and Edith Wharton
Broad Trends in American Literary
• Beginnings through the 1920s
– Textual criticism and book history approaches (still
important): editions and their quality, differences
among editions, reception history
– “Appreciation” (book reviews)
• Judging the plot and characters
• Promoted morality and maintained the bounds of good
• True to life?
Broad Trends, 1920s-1950s
• Techniques derived from (Russian) formalism:
elements of structure, symmetry, and the functions of
various elements in the text
• Enabled interpretation of fragmented modernist texts
• Techniques derived from (French) symbolistes and
representations of the unconscious
Freud and Jung (archetypes and archetypal symbolism)
Mythic patterns in literature
Classical and Christian symbolism
The “myth and symbol” school
• Rediscovery of Herman Melville at this time
Broad Trends, 1930s-1960s
• 1930s: Marxist and socially conscious criticism
judged literature based on its realism and its
representations of class struggle (Granville Hicks).
Work was judged on its political content.
• 1940s-1960s: New Criticism (Cleanth Brooks,
Wimsatt and Beardsley) was a type of formalism
that focused on the unity of individual work of art
without reference to external information. New
Criticism saw political content as antithetical to
Broad Trends, 1970s-1990s
• Influential French theories: Deconstruction,
Semiotics, Structuralism
• Reader-response theory
• Psychoanalytic theory
• Feminist theory—roles of women, women
authors, and gender politics within work
• Class, race, and gender—reversed the trend away
from ignoring the politics of a work; rediscovery
of minority and women authors ignored by
“classic” New Critics.
Broad Trends, 1990s - 2010
• Postcolonial theory: colonialism and
imperialism and their legacies of oppression
(Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak); voices silenced
(the subalterns) by dominant forces.
• Cultural studies (Stuart Hall, Antonio Gramsci):
study and critique of power relations within a
given culture.
• Gender criticism
How does this relate to the three
authors considered here?
• Nathaniel Hawthorne
• Frank Norris
• Edith Wharton
• Nina Baym, The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career
• Hawthorne considered a great writer of
“sketches” in his time.
• 1920s on: the “myth and symbol” aspect of his
work appealed to New Critics.
• 1970s on: strong female characters appealed
to feminist critics.
• 1990s on: interest in Hawthorne,
representations of race in his fiction, etc.
Frank Norris’s Reputation
• Through the 1920s: praised for his bold, raw
representation of America.
• Fell into a decline during modernism.
• Late 1950s and early 1960s: rediscovery of
Norris’s symbols and structures—a Norris
• 1970s-1990s: Interest in Norris continues for
his presentation of a literary West and his
problematic conceptions of race.
Edith Wharton’s Reputation
• Considered a great novelist during her lifetime,
although her critical reputation declined with the
rise of modernism and her post-1920 books.
• 1930s: Attacked by Marxist critics for writing
about the upper class.
• 1950s: Considered to be an imitator of Henry
James, who (being male) was a greater writer;
also, EW was attacked for being “cruel” to her
characters (Lionel Trilling)
Edith Wharton’s Reputation
• 1975: First modern biography of EW and a
subsequent rise in interest in her work.
• 1970s-1980s: Feminist critics start rereading
Wharton for her critique of woman’s place in a
restrictive culture.
• 1990s- on: Continuing interest from feminist
critics but also postcolonial criticism, race
criticism, etc.

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