The Past Is a Southern County

SOONER OR LATER, every great novelist, however ornery or eremitic, is portrayed as an observer of their times. “Flaubert’s Politics” must have sounded like a joke title, a parody of revisionism, when, in 1937, an essay with that name, arguing that the supposedly rarefied author had in fact engaged extensively with public affairs, appeared under Edmund Wilson’s byline in the pages of the Partisan Review. But the expansion of universities—and the explosion of academic publishing—has long since rendered the zany-looking intervention a commonplace occurrence. During the 1980s, for instance, a period notable for its engagé critical tendencies, a group of mainly American academics sought to defend Henry James against his newly unfashionable reputation for remoteness. In other words, if James was a “Flaubertian,” type, it was Wilson’s Flaubert that he resembled. And so the ivory-tower-dwelling Master—enshrined in the annals of collective memory through the efforts of James’s disciples and biographers and a crew of midcentury exegetes—was displaced by a man of strong convictions, canny and worldly and always historicizing, a spongelike wanderer down urban streets who tussled gamely with the challenge of modernity.

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