Heresy and Modern Culture

Heresy and Modern Culture

In recent years there has been a marked interest in what may be called “literary sociology,” and a good many books and articles on “the situation” of the American writer and of American literature have appeared. To judge by the perplexity and despair of their authors, they have been inspired by a sense that unprecedented dilemmas face the serious novelist, poet, and critic of our time.

Although Walt Whitman and Henry Adams were concerned with the relation of the writer to society and with the social value and function of his work, the genre of literary sociology in its modern form stems from Van Wyck Brooks’s Three Essays on America (the first essay, “America’s Coming-of-Age,” was written in 1915). This eloquent book was the first radical response to the problems created by the growing alienation of the writer and the degradation of culture that was both cause and effect of his alienation. These problems have been considered in various ways and at various times by such writers as H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Lewis Mumford, and Malcolm Cowley. There have been many differences of opinion among them, but from the beginning these critics have agreed that two main enemies of a free and serious literature were conformity to bourgeois values and the traditional cleavage in American life between intelligence and action, art and reality, theory and practice, highbrow and lowbrow.

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