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Americans

Stephen Fender, 2 July 1981

The Life of John O’Hara 
by Frank MacShane.
Cape, 274 pp., £10, March 1981, 9780224018852
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... 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 … ’ This kind of negative catalogue became something of a fashion among American writers, usually when resident in or recently returned from Europe ...

Anglo-America

Stephen Fender, 3 April 1980

The London Yankees: Portraits of American Writers and Artists in England, 1894-1914 
by Stanley Weintraub.
W.H. Allen, 408 pp., £7.95, November 1979, 0 491 02209 3
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The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times 
by Alistair Cooke.
Bodley Head, 323 pp., £5.95, October 1979, 0 370 30163 3
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... the cultural horsepower of Europe, as compared to America, which has been fashionable ever since Stephen Spender’s Love-Hate Relations. Philip Toynbee, in the Observer, came right out with it: ‘by now it is hard to see any reason why an American writer or artist should wish to settle either in Paris or London.’ Then, of course, it was another ...

Big Ben

Stephen Fender, 18 September 1986

Franklin of Philadelphia 
by Esmond Wright.
Harvard, 404 pp., £21.25, May 1986, 0 674 31809 9
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... Professor Wright’s third book on Benjamin Franklin is advertised as the ‘first comprehensive biography’ of the American printer, scientist and statesman ‘in fifty years’. What makes it possible is not only the life’s work of a British scholar but also, says the blurb, ‘Yale’s massive edition-in-progress of Franklin’s papers ... and the many specialised studies inspired by the correspondence ...

Marginal Man

Stephen Fender, 7 December 1989

Paul Robeson 
by Martin Bauml Duberman.
Bodley Head, 804 pp., £20, April 1989, 0 370 30575 2
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... There are two stories to tell about Paul Robeson – one sad and the other tragic. Both could be constructed from the ample data in this heavy, ill-focused, yet informative concatenation of computerised database, research grant and exclusive access to the subject’s papers. In the first a young Negro of high intelligence, great physical strength and grace, musically talented and gifted with a resonant bass voice, is induced by a dominant white culture to fill various roles – social, professional and indeed dramatic – formulated for blacks to perform ...

Not Making it

Stephen Fender, 24 October 1991

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and how it changed America 
by Nicholas Lemann.
Macmillan, 410 pp., £20, August 1991, 0 333 56584 3
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... From 1940 the poor black sharecroppers of the Southern United States began to go north in large numbers. The movement seemed to resemble the great emigrations that had created America in the first place. Anxious to escape deteriorating conditions at home, the migrants were also attracted by opportunities far away. They wanted to better themselves, to extend their possibilities, and they were willing to uproot themselves in order to do so ...

Wounds

Stephen Fender, 23 June 1988

Hemingway 
by Kenneth Lynn.
Simon and Schuster, 702 pp., £16, September 1987, 0 671 65482 9
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The Faces of Hemingway: Intimate Portraits of Ernest Hemingway by those who knew him 
by Denis Brian.
Grafton, 356 pp., £14.95, May 1988, 0 246 13326 0
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... Even before he shot the top of his own head off, Americans had begun to wonder whether they had come to love Hemingway not wisely but too well. This suspicion had little to do with his stories and novels: it was the fiction that Hemingway and others had made of his life that held the attention – the text of the man, not of his art. As the writer and war correspondent William Walton said to Denis Brian, ‘a man who has spent all his life inventing fiction keeps on inventing it in his private life ...
Dust-bowl Migrants in the American Imagination 
by Charles Shindo.
Kansas, 252 pp., £22.50, January 1997, 0 7006 0810 9
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In the Country of Country 
by Nicholas Dawidoff.
Faber, 365 pp., £12.99, June 1997, 0 571 19174 6
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... When people remember the Great American Depression they think of the Oklahoma farmsteads, of topsoil loosened by drought and blown off the land in massive storms that darkened the skies for days at a time. The ‘Okies’ headed west in their overloaded jalopies along the 1400 miles of Route 66 to Central Valley, California, but only a minority found work, and even that was temporary, poorly paid and back-breaking ...

Tang and Tone

Stephen Fender: The Federal Writer’s Project’s American epic, 18 March 2004

Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project 
by Jerrold Hirsch.
North Carolina, 293 pp., £16.50, November 2003, 0 8078 5489 1
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... In the middle of the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) set out to increase American purchasing power by getting the unemployed back to work. For the most part they planted forests, graded roads and developed outdoorsy holiday resorts, but the WPA also recruited 40,000 writers, theatrical workers, musicians and artists, most of them on relief, to work on four Federal Arts Projects ...

When Dad Came Out Here

Stephen Fender, 12 December 1996

Bad Land: An American Romance 
by Jonathan Raban.
Picador, 325 pp., £15.99, October 1996, 0 330 34621 0
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... I am not a travel writer,’ Jonathan Raban said in a recent interview. ‘For me, “travel writer” means someone who samples other people’s holidays – you talk about the food, the hotel, throw in a bit of local colour. If I thought that was the business I was in, I’d slit my throat.’ Bad Land, Raban’s new book about Montana, examines the present remains and historical origins of the last great wave of American western settlement, the migration of homesteaders to eastern Montana in the first decade of this century ...

Dislocations

Stephen Fender, 19 January 1989

Landscape and Written Expression in Revolutionary America: The world turned upside down 
by Robert Lawson-Peebles.
Cambridge, 384 pp., £35, March 1988, 0 521 34647 9
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Mark Twain’s Letters. Vol. I: 1853-1866 
edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael Frank and Kenneth Sanderson.
California, 616 pp., $35, May 1988, 0 520 03668 9
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A Writer’s America: Landscape in Literature 
by Alfred Kazin.
Thames and Hudson, 240 pp., £15.95, September 1988, 0 500 01424 8
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... lived in at least thirty parts of the United States, not to mention Cuba, Paris and the Riviera. Stephen Crane’s birthplace is now a children’s playground in New Jersey, William Faulkner’s a Presbyterian parsonage. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States, from which these titbits come, provides further unwitting refutations of its ...

Deconstructing America

Sheldon Rothblatt, 23 July 1992

Sea Changes: British Emigration and American Literature 
by Stephen Fender.
Cambridge, 400 pp., £40, April 1992, 0 521 41175 0
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... itself, since it depends upon or is receptive to overseas sources of labour, energy and loyalty. Stephen Fender is a San Franciscan by birth and is now Professor of American Studies at Sussex. Being mid-Atlantic, he is in a good position to analyse the question of American exceptionalism. He does so by concentrating on the experience of ...

Anxiety of Influx

Tony Tanner, 18 February 1982

Plotting the Golden West: American Literature and the Rhetoric of the California Trail 
by Stephen Fender.
Cambridge, 241 pp., £15, January 1982, 0 521 23924 9
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Witnesses to a Vanishing America: The 19th-Century Response 
by Lee Clark Mitchell.
Princeton, 320 pp., £10.70, July 1981, 9780691064611
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... dominant, or most recurrent, styles in American writing have been the rhapsodic and the paranoid. Stephen Fender’s excellent book points directly to what we might call the organising ambiguity of American literature by bringing together in his title ‘plotting’ and the ‘West’. A specific geographical West, to be sure – his (superbly ...

Fit and Few

Donald Davie, 3 May 1984

The Making of the Reader: Language and Subjectivity in Modern American, English and Irish Poetry 
by David Trotter.
Macmillan, 272 pp., £20, March 1984, 0 333 30632 5
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... Trotter’s examination of Pound’s Eleven New Cantos (1934-35), in civil dialogue with Stephen Fender, is judicious and breaks new ground without needing at any point to appeal to Pound’s alleged ‘fetishism’. The reader whom Pound appealed to is significantly different in Canto 41 from what he had been in Canto 31, and Trotter I think is ...

The big drops start

John Bayley, 7 December 1989

Coleridge: Early Visions 
by Richard Holmes.
Hodder, 409 pp., £16.95, October 1989, 0 340 28335 1
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Wordsworth: Romantic Poetry and Revolution Politics 
by John Williams.
Manchester, 203 pp., £29.95, November 1989, 0 7190 3168 0
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Sara Coleridge, A Victorian Daughter: Her Life and Essays 
by Bradford Keyes Mudge.
Yale, 287 pp., £18.95, September 1989, 0 300 04443 7
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... a scale more heroic even than Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sailor brother John. As Stephen Gill acutely points out in his recent Wordsworth biography, an excellent companion piece to Holmes on Coleridge, ‘Coleridge actually needed action, not the tranquillity of a domestic cot but excitement, whether it be from the ...

Karl Miller Remembered

Neal Ascherson, John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, 23 October 2014

... one time, passing Laurence Corner, the army surplus store, he nearly dragged his UCL colleague Stephen Fender in to buy one of those aviator’s pressure suits with tubes going down the back. But he liked to pretend to Scottish parsimony. Jonathan Miller remembers the first time he sat down to tea with him at Downing College. Karl offered him a ...

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