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| The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin -- Book by Brian Attebery; Indiana University Press, 1980
Fantasy in America, the country where pragmatism became a philosophy and "normalcy" a point of faith? Surely there is nothing so eccentric and impractical to be found here. One might as well try to study American opera. The English write fantasy; Americans write Westerns, detective stories, and lurid novels about Hollywood.
When I began this study, I expected to unearth a few isolated writers working against the mainstream of American literature. There was at least L. Frank Baum's Oz-perhaps enough other oddities could be found to make some point about the American imagination, on the rare occasions when it was really let loose. What I found, instead, is a tradition, although it is a tradition that runs counter to the main force of American belief as evidenced by the bulk of our folklore and literature up to the turn of the last century. One might think of it as a resistance movement, working to undermine the national faith in things-as-they-are. It even went underground, hiding out in the nursery and periodically venturing out disguised as romance or satire or science fiction.
One mark of a true tradition is that its authors are aware of one another. I found this to be true to a surprising degree in American fantasy. My authors read each other, lunched together, even illustrated one another's work. But perhaps I should not have been surprised. If stories of the marvelous are few, it is all the more likely that those with a taste for them will seek out every available example.
Another sign of a tradition is that by becoming aware of it, one's response to any of its members is enriched. One can see, for instance, that American fantasists share certain inescapable problems: in particular, a fundamental bias against fantasy in the folklore of this country. This bias leaves the fantasist cut off from the stock of magical images and events that abound in European tales and legends, from which the British fantasists have drawn so much of the raw material for their stories. The American writer must find some way of reentering the ancient storytelling guild: he must validate his claim to the archetypes that are the tools of the trade. To do so, he must find an archetypal analog for his own land -- an American fairyland -- to which those old world magical motifs may be drawn.
The American tradition of fantasy can be considered a long-range attempt at that one task: creating an American fairyland. The process has been a slow, fitful one involving repeated borrowings from other literatures, reconstructions of any supernatural lore that has survived in fragmentary or rationalized form, and eventually the elevation of wordplay and symbolism into mythlike narratives.
My approach to the study of fantasy is not a rigorously formalistic one. I have tried not to put myself in the position of dictating to authors long dead and then blaming them for not following instructions. Each work responds to a different blend of approaches: structural analysis, comparison of motifs, reference to social or biographical context, myth reading. As a general guide I have kept in mind the following question: How did the author move his story out of the everyday world into the realm of the marvelous?
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| Some of the books I discuss are widely read today; some had their moment of popularity and have since retired to special collections and used bookstores. A few have never been anything but obscure. For every book in the last category that I managed to locate, there are probably half a dozen I did not. I can only hope that the reader whose childhood favorite was missed will try out my methods and conclusions himself to see if they apply.
There are categories omitted intentionally. For example, fantastic themes play an important part in American painting from Benjamin West to Frank Frazetta, but neither the problems nor the techniques involved correspond closely to those of narrative. The independence of the two modes can be shown by considering the animated cartoons of Walt Disney -- visually bold and evocative, but unoriginal and gimmicky in the stories they tell. For the same reason I have not attempted to deal with picture books for young children (though many of these, books by Wanda Gag, Theodore Seuss Geisel, or Maurice Sendak, are remarkable fusions of story and image) nor with live-action films like I Married a Witch or Death Takes a Holiday.
I do not talk about ghost stories, which are rather an important subgenre of supernatural narrative in America, because they never, so far as I can see, lead to any conception of an enchanted Other World. The typical ghost story becomes, instead, a study of guilt or repression on the part of the observer of the ghost: the apparitions themselves give no impression of having any independent existence. Neither do I attempt to explain those curious works which purport to give us a vision of the afterlife, the Atlantean past, or astral journeyings. These books rarely involve any interesting or comprehensible story line, and their claims to nonmetaphoric truth put them in the category of delusion or hoax, rather than fantasy. They could, however, provide a writer with the bare base for an interesting fantasy.
With these exceptions, I have tried at least to mention every American work or class of works to date that is devoted wholly or in major part to portraying the marvelous. This is a history of American Fantasy: it is arranged more or less chronologically, and the works are grouped to reveal what I believe are important trends. I have been greatly aided, in tracking down elusive works and in finding fruitful approaches to them, by Barton St. Armand and Robert Scholes. Bruce Rosenberg and my wife, Jennifer Eastman Attebery, helped keep my folklore scholarship honest. The staff at the John Hay Library of Brown University was helpful in locating volumes gathered by the late S. Foster Damon, many years curator of the Harris Collection of American Plays and Poetry. He once considered doing a study along these lines, and the collection of "American Tales of Imagination" that he bequeathed to the library has made my own project possible and suggested the title of this book.