Historical Vision Of Literature - Early Reviews

by Ron Samul 

Books have lives of their own. Sounds strange to think about it but books rise and fall depending on the very nature of their theme and the popularity of the author. I've been fascinated in reading book reviews of novels as they first arrive - first impressions. Part of my inquiry is to see if beloved books now were beloved when they arrived on the scene or if they have lived a sorted life among the shelves of the world. 


Modern books (let's call that in the last 20 years) have a well documented life of commentary and feedback as reviewing and press release material has been the focus of selling and promoting books. But as we move further and further back into history, the firs reviews of books become a bit more allusive and sometimes surprising. For example, knowing the Victorian conservative values that of the 1890's -- I was surprised that many reviews of Dracula by Bram Stoker were well received. Most reviews make a point that it is very well written, but dreadfully horrible and scary (there is a very good site that houses some of those reviews here). This came as a surprise considering what I thought I knew about that time and the nature of those conservative values. However, after reading the reviews, it is clear that the Gothic influence is afoot here and that some of the visionary elements of Stokers book is tolerated because of his unique approach and style. 

What can be gleaned from looking back at original reviews? I felt like it was important in a few cases to understand the initial vision of the writer and how people reacted to the novel or poetry at the time. If we consider something like Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, we would see a vision that may not be the same academically shaped poetry epic that is taught in academics, studied by Whitman scholars, and based on criticism that has been shaped for 150 years. We also get a sense of how particular writers were received with the debut of their craft. 

It was no wonder that Moby-Dick was panned as a terrible novel, when the first printing proved to lack the all important "Epilouge" that helps the reader understand how it is possible that this story even happened. In Megan Garber's article  'It Repels the Reader': Tech Glitches Led Moby-Dick's First Critics to Pan It, there is a sense that this strange voyage was stifled from the beginning. But perhaps this article proves something important. We need literary journalist. The academic office are filled with gifted and thoughtful writers of some of the best criticism. But beyond the pages of journals, people who study literature should consider their place in journalistic literary review. The idea of "literary journalism" and "journalistic literary reivew" are worth distinguishing. Literary journalism is the immersive and often expanded form of storytelling through magazine, newspaper, or serial installment. In particular, books like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Jack London stories and even Stephen Crane fall under this moniker of reportage as art. Yet, journalist literary review is about establishing the conversation of books and their relationship to the world and other works of art. If we think of art critic, we think of the person who writes about books or the latest opera. But someone like Gay Talese is someone who is immersive in his writing and understand of his subject and the impact of that subject on the world. 

The dynamics of books reviewing can be a complex machine. In Book Reviews: A Tortured History by Sarah Fay, she discusses the tone and purpose of reviewing books. She says, "Too few newspapers and magazines employ regular book columnists and reviewers. This is done in the spirit of egalitarianism, but in the digital age, where anonymous, poorly written "customer reviews" sway readers, we need to establish relationships with our literary critics."  The reason we trust our favorite movie critics is because of the vast knowledge of information they possess about movies. Assuming they have watched hundreds (if not thousands) more movies than we have - they have positioned to make a significant recommendation concerning movie choice. While this is a bit off topic, it bears to keep in mind what book reviews do and why they are complex reporting devices. In some ways, book reviews are conversations about art that can't be made into a two minute video, but explained through artistic terms. Fay mentions Elizabeth Hardwick in the article where she explains, "book reviewing as 'a natural response to the existence in the world of works of art. It is an honorable an even exalted endeavor. Without it, works of art would appear in a vacuum, as if they had no relation to the minds experiencing them'" (Fay). What is not really discussed in this article is not how the book review confirms and elucidates complex narratives and works of art. How many times does an impenetrable work of art come along that needs reviews to support its complexity. By reading reviews and connections to the art, readers can refine their difficulty and reset their expectations of the book. Books can be very difficult to read, but well worth it. Connecting uncertainty and confusion in a text to that of a review can help readers navigate elements that are missing or confusing. This body of literary discussion through reviewing can help.  

It shouldn't surprise that books and the writers that create them have changing lives. In some, books come out to critical acclaim and then fall to the ways side. Others have a long and shifting life. On of the beautiful things about books is the way they enlighten readers long after the writer has past through life. The longer books have been around to share and consider, the longer the conversation has to shift and change. We need to continue that conversation. It may hold a commercial purpose, but it also holds and critical exploration of ideas. And those who invest in reading and thinking about books should have a seat at that table. Beyond that, I think there needs to be a database or a digital humanities project that catalogs book reviews of the classics and works toward housing review history of books. This would help scholars and writers uncover connective ideas to classics and continue a living history of the work as it moves through our past lives and into our modern days ahead. 





Works Cited
Fay, Sarah. "Book Reviews: A Tortured History." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.

Garber, Megan. "'It Repels the Reader': Tech Glitches Led Moby-Dick's First Critics to Pan It." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.