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Monthly Carcanet Books

This review is taken from PN Review 17, Volume 7 Number 3, January - February 1981.

MISGUIDED 'GUIDE' The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, Edited by Daniel Hoffman $18.50

The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing is an incredible mess; it must be read to discover the number of ways in which a collaborative survey can go wrong. It is misconceived, incoherently divided, under-edited, dangerously exclusive, factually unreliable and egregiously dumb. Considering that America's most prestigious university press invested not only its good name but thousands of dollars producing this 618-page, 300,000-word book, one might define this Harvard Guide as a cultural disaster comparable to the pilfering of the National Gallery or the seccession of New York City.

HGCAW, as it shall be known, has twelve chapters divided among ten authors. Some of the chapter titles reflect the success of literary politicking: "Jewish Writers" and "Southern Fictions." Others reflect the patronizing isolation that indicates historic literary-political failure: "Women's Literature" and "Black Literature." Some chapter titles encompass a single genre: "Drama" and "Literary Criticism." Fiction that is not black, Jewish, female or southern falls into two more chapters: "Realists, Naturalists and Novelists of Manners" and "Experimental Fiction." Poetry, blessed poetry, is exiled into three concluding chapters, 159 pages in sum, all authored by the book's editor, Daniel Hoffman, poet in residence and Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. These eleven are prefaced by Alan Trach tenberg's "Intellectual Background" (50 pages), which is perhaps the only appropriately placed and accurately titled chapter in the entire book. Otherwise, in mixing ethnic and geographic categories with procedural ("experimental"), HGCAW resembles a carcass mangled by cross-purpose butchering. Norman Mailer, ...


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