Tony Tanner

The American Mystery

Tony Tanner, The American Mystery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xxiv, 242. £13.95. ISBN 0 521 78374 7.

Reviewed by David Seed, University of Liverpool, in Symbiosis 5.2 (October, 2001)


This volume collects twelve essays by Tony Tanner, most of which were written as introductions and one appearing in print for the first time. Since the collection appears posthumously it also pays a tribute to the career of one of Britain’s leading Americanists and includes a brief memoir by Edward Said. Throughout his writings Tanner clung to an unshakeable conviction that there was something special about American writing. In The Reign of Wonder (1965) he expressed this perception as a desire in American literature for a ‘new naivety of response’ which both privileges and draws on the vision of a child. In his later criticism Tanner shifted his emphasis more on to style and narrative structures, being particularly influenced by Richard Poirier’s A World Elsewhere (1966) which opens with the challenging assertion that ‘the most interesting American books are an image of the creation of America itself’. This means that America is written into being, or even performed; and it is no coincidence that one of the most important essays in Scenes of Nature, Signs of Men (1987) should be called ‘Games American Writers Play’.

The opening essay of The American Mystery addresses one of the most elusive of American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead of attempting the impossible, namely to paraphrase Emerson, Tanner homes in on a cluster of terms which centre on ‘power’, by which Emerson means an improvisatory openness which is demonstrated through a resistance to fixity. Thus Tanner advises us against trying to pin down a subject in Emerson. Instead, we should attend to the processes of the prose whose fluidity enacts the lack of fixity which Emerson cherishes in America. The other side to this utopian hope is a problem of locating the authentic which Tanner examines in The Blithedale Romance where writing is dangerously close to counterfeiting. Here Tanner considers the special significance of the veil, a half-disclosing garment which Hawthorne probably appropriated from Gothic fiction. Several of these essays contrast natural scenes with the cultural signs of human presence, in this case the wood-pile which teases the reader to speculate about its origins. However, the most important emphasis throughout this essay is on masquerade. The virtual impossibility of avoiding duplicity serves in itself to question the mixed motives within the utopian impulse.

The recurring difficulty which Tanner finds in American writers could be put like this. If they reject discredited European ways of positioning the self according to hierarchies of class or rank, how do they avoid the dangers of either a loss of identity or, as Tanner puts it in relation to Melville’s The Confidence-Man, a ‘self-sealing solitude’? Individuality becomes an elusive aim rather than a clearly achievable state for the self. Social identity becomes problematised in that masquerade extends through so many aspects of The Confidence-Man that, as in The Blithedale Romance, nothing can be authenticated. Once again, an avenue to independence—self-parenting—confuses identity with a whole series of guises. With every work which Tanner discusses he always has interesting insights to offer which avoid the obvious. Melville’s attack on the brutality of naval floggings in White-Jacket is questioned as a distraction from a form of brutality endemic to a social institution, namely slavery, which he shows to be a suppressed subject in this novel. Tanner rises with aplomb to the complexities of Melville’s narratives and he discusses the intricate symbolism of weaving in Moby-Dick once again as a metaphor of process: the forms woven by Nature contrasted with the words woven by mankind. Lying behind the inscriptions on surfaces Tanner finds a ‘sense of lost origin’ embedded in this novel.

The second cluster of essays in this volume discusses Henry James and W. D. Howells. Here the most relevant earlier work by Tanner is Adultery and the Novel (1979) where he discusses the transgression of the marriage contract, stressing that marriage is ‘the central subject for the bourgeois novel’. His discussion of James’s ‘The Story In It’ (published in Symbiosis 1.2 in 1997 under the title ‘Sex and Narrative’) shows that work to be a discussion of the subject of adultery which James felt to be so conspicuously lacking in Victorian fiction. Drawing comparisons with The Awkward Age, Tanner speculates on the degree of innocence of young female characters who blush, pointing out that the blush in itself demonstrates a kind of awareness, a kind of bodily ‘telling’. When he turns to Howells Tanner argues that the latter’s speciality was ‘studying and scrutinising American women in a non-romantic light’. If that was the case, it helps to explain the ironies of Howells’ Indian Summer which concerns the attempts by the middle-aged male protagonist to recapture his lost youth. In comparison with James, Howells was reticent to the point of prudishness about sexual matters, but Tanner uses this specific novel for a broader discussion of Howells’ attack on what he called ‘the ideal’ and the kind of quieter realism he tried to promote in its place.

Three twentieth-century topics close The American Mystery on Fitzgerald, DeLillo, and Pynchon. In the first of these Tanner explores dimensions of theatricality in The Great Gatsby. For him Nick Carraway is a ‘spectator in search of a performer’. This yearning for spectacle explains why the novel contains so many magical moments where objects or characters seem transfigured and Tanner rightly notes how Nick’s narration is peppered with phrases (‘I suppose’, ‘I have an idea that’, etc.) which testify to his appropriation of material into his story. These are the stylistic signs of Nick’s search for wonder and Tanner once again brings out the typicality of his instances by proposing a whole tradition from the Puritans up to contemporary writers like Thomas Pynchon where writers are searching for some special dimension to America. This almost visionary impulse is ironically reified in the famous hoarding of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg whose commercial gaze confronts Nick in the Valley of Ashes. The materiality of modern American culture provides us with a strong link between The Great Gatsby and DeLillo’s Underworld. When he discusses the latter novel a certain tension emerges between Tanner’s obvious respect for DeLillo’s craftsmanship and reservations about aspects of his method. He is , for example, suspicious of DeLillo’s use of cataloguing and shows some ambivalence over one central aspect of Underworld: its close relation to the cinema. At one point in the novel we are told: ‘The world is lurking in the camera, already framed’; and there are many allusions to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Goddard, and other aspects of the movies. For Tanner this technique converts every image of human misfortune into spectacle, into what he calls ‘atrocity tourism’. He has fewer reservations about DeLillo’s evocation of paranoid voices and about the displacement of human protagonists by the rubbish of contemporary American life. Here again contrasts emerge and Tanner locates a greater sensitivity in Pynchon towards the lives lying behind this detritus. In his 1982 introduction to Pynchon Tanner paused over two related notions: ‘rubbish’ and ‘codes’. These two notions overlap in the communicability of the whole environment which induces a fascinated state of panic in Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49. In his 1987 study of DeLillo, In The Loop, Tom LeClair describes him as a ‘systems novelist’ and Tanner would be entirely sympathetic with that as a description of Pynchon also. In his final essay Tanner considers how Mason and Dixon fits into Pynchon’s and characteristically focuses in on how America is conceptualized. It is at once a ‘symbol for boundlessness; historically boundaried’. It is impossible to overestimate the importance in this novel of surveying. As Tanner points out, it is a far from innocent act but rather signals the appropriation of the terrain for commercial and imperial purposes. To use Tanner’s own phrases, surveying imposes the most dominant set of human signs on the scene of Nature. He reflects on the associated symbolism of lines and boundaries here, showing a continuity between Pynchon’s concerns and those of Fenimore Cooper, among other American predecessors. Boundaries imply oppositions between what lies on either side and also open up the possibility of transgression in its most literal meaning of going across. Tanner recognizes the special historical moment of Mason and Dixon, the moment just before the Declaration of Independence. Just as the term ‘preterite’ occupies a special position in Gravity’s Rainbow denoting the human casualties of power groups, so in Pynchon’s latest novel ‘subjunctive’ privileges the imagined or the speculative over empirical fact. Thus as America shades into material being away from dream and myth, it gradually ceases to be subjunctive.

The American Mystery demonstrates two aspects of Tanner’s style which have made him an unusually engaging critic to read. He assimilates historical and theoretical material without losing a concern for the pleasures of reading. And he mounts objective arguments without erasing his own personal presence in his text. For that we should be grateful.


© Symbiosis, 2001