Review: Kevin J. Hayes, A Journey Through American Literature, Kevin J. Hayes (Oxford: OUP, 2012)

Clare Hayes-Brady

University College Dublin

A blurb on the back cover of Kevin J. Hayes’s A Journey Through American Literature describes the book as “like chatting with a one-person book club”. Such a description could be read as either complimentary or dismissive, but it is certainly true that Hayes approaches his subject with a remarkably casual tone. The author’s acknowledgements indicate that the book had its genesis in two American literature seminars. This background is reflected in the writing, which is wide-ranging but perhaps skirts the shallow end of analysis.

The greatest flaw in A Journey Through American Literature is its title. Stretching to just over 170 pages, the book’s ambition might generously be termed overweening. However incisive the analysis, however inspired the choice of texts, 170 pages is insufficient space to journey through American literature. While the choice of texts includes some pleasant surprises, the thematic analysis trumpeted by the book’s blurb is patchy and often vague. For example, the author spends less than a page and a half in the opening section discussing the American Dream, certainly a thematic necessity in any discussion of American literature, and one to which he returns later as a familiar concept, without ever offering a coherent definition. While an argument could be made that the American dream is not a concept that needs extensive canvassing among scholars, the brevity of analysis begs the question of audience. The text is pervaded by a sense of uncertainty as to its intended readership. The book’s origin in seminar discussions accounts for the colloquial language, but slapdash exploration of thematic, textual and theoretical concepts means that A Journey Through American Literature necessarily fails as an introductory text. Unfortunately, the book is somewhat hamstrung by this ambiguity of readership, resulting in a text that feels unanchored and lacking in focus.

The book suffers from a tonal instability that compounds this sense of aimlessness. The conversational tone of the originating seminars does not serve well for the univocality required for a confident exploration of this complex theme. Hayes vacillates between stridently declarative and compulsively conditional. On the one hand, for example, Hayes baldly asserts that “American literature is about identity” (Hayes, 3); later, he insists that “Walden […] belongs on everyone’s list of books to read” (23), and dismisses Jonathan Franzen’s ambitions with a wave of the hand: “a truly great novel, American or not, requires more daring” (157). On the other hand, the prose is punctuated by constructions of ambivalence: “one could say that literature and advertising have been associated since the very beginning of American literature” (15); “[David Graham] Philips’s novel The Husband’s Story (1911) may mark the earliest appearance of this fabled phrase [“American Dream”] in American literature” (19); “[Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s] ‘The Horse Swap’ […] may be the most well-known story from Georgia Scenes” (78) and so on. These abrupt swings of confidence cause a sort of conceptual seasickness that left this reviewer confused and unsatisfied.

Notwithstanding its confusion of purpose, however, A Journey Through American Literature has much to recommend it, particularly in its range of texts. While the book falls down in the areas of tone and analytic depth, its author displays an impressive breadth of knowledge and, more importantly, a quixotic but effective approach to theme. The book is appealingly arranged along thematic lines, allowing Hayes the freedom – which he clearly relishes – to discuss Melville alongside the Coen Brothers and to trace a tantalising link between Henry James with Hunter S Thompson by way of Horatio Alger.

All in all, A Journey Through American Literature reflects the “discordant mix” Hayes attributes to postmodernism (89). In this, perhaps, its structure mimics the society whose literary history its author seeks to chart. Not quite univocal and not quite dialogical, the book is periodically redeemed by quirks of allusion and its author’s obvious expertise. Having said that, the book’s readability and flashes of insight are not enough to balance the vagueness and instability that are its primary features. It is difficult to escape the sense that Hayes would write an exceptionally engaging work on a smaller topic (the section on travel is especially piquant). Unfortunately, the scope of the book renders its subtleties so subtle as to approach the horizon.