This book is about the relationship of the American writer to his land and language - to the 'scene' and the 'sign', to the natural landscape and the inscriptions imposed upon it by men. Among the questions considered in the first section of the book are how does American Romantic writing differ from European; what are the peculiar problems faced by the American artist, and what roles does he adopt to tackle them; what kind of writing results when authors as different as Henry Adams and Mark Twain lament the vanishing of an earlier America, or when Adams and Henry James review their complex relationship to their homeland, or when W. D. Howells and Stephen Crane seek to define their themes in a specifically American setting. The second section of the book examines similar concerns in a number of contemporary writers, notably Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, John DeLillo, and William Gass.
'What brings the book together, of course, is the extraordinarily inventive, creative and coherent consciousness of one of our most distinguished literary critics. Everything Tanner touches seems to me somehow newer and fresher. He reminds me of a kind of critical alchemist who is able to take the most used and jaded of literary materials and turn them into brilliant objects.' American Literary Realism 'Always, Mr Tanner is sensitive, subtle, surprising ... From Walt Whitman to William Gass, Mr Tanner beautifully illuminates, in Emily Dickinson's words, all these Continents of Light.' The New York Times Book Review