Americans

Stephen Fender

  • The Life of John O’Hara by Frank MacShane
    Cape, 274 pp, £10.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 224 01885 X

The longest-lived and most persistent generalisation about American literature is that it could never produce a realistic novel set in contemporary society. De Tocqueville predicted that the theme of American fiction would be ‘man himself, taken aloof from his country and age, and standing in the presence of Nature and of God’. Even before that was written – indeed, before much American literature had been produced – Fenimore Cooper’s Notions of the Americans (1828) had posed a long list of institutions, prerogatives, titles and signs of rank missing from the American scene, without which the novel of manners could never emerge: ‘There is no costume for the peasant … no wig for the judge, no baton for the general, no diadem for the chief magistrate … ’

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