Comprehensiveness rating: 5 read less
Writing the Nation does an excellent job of presenting the ongoing development of American literature since the Civil War as a cogent narrative, moving through schools of writing such as Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, and so on. A fine example of this story-making is the inclusion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Yellow Wallpaper" right at the cusp between Realism and Naturalism.
Since it is subtitled "A Concise Introduction," the textbook's comprehensiveness is sufficient for an undergraduate readership. However, there are notable deficiencies that could be corrected—for example, diversity in readings—that I don't think would violate the book's vaunted conciseness. Please see my comments on cultural relevance below.
Accuracy rating: 4
Overall, the book is accurate and unbiased, but there are typos and mistakes I noted, although I did not do a comprehensive check for such.
For example, on page 60, in Twain's "Jumping Frog" story, the phrase “be cal’lated” should be “he cal'lated." This may be a typo that has come from other typesettings or perhaps from optical character recognition.
On page 726, in the title "A Streetcar Named Desire," the word "Streetcar" is mistyped as "Street Car."
On page 738, the title "A Supermarket in California" is missing the article "A."
On page 740, the book title "Diving into the Wreck" is not italicized.
In the Glossary, some authors have dates of birth (and death, as needed), while other don't. Some of the inclusive dates are in boldface, while others aren't.
I suspect if a copy editor combed through the book specifically for typos, other mistakes might be discovered.
With regard to accuracy problems larger than typos, on page 332, the chapter intro has factual errors about the placement of material in the chapter, such as mentioning that one piece comes last when in fact it comes second.
As far as content accuracy goes, I take issue with the definition of free verse as "poetry that lacks both rhyme and regular meter" (page 3). Free verse does entail rhyme, but not externally (that is, at the ends of lines). Internal rhyme is a device much used in free verse. Also, critics such as Annie Finch (in her book The Ghost of Meter) argue that regular meter does impact and influence free verse. The textbook's definition of free verse ultimately seems too simplistic.
On a related note, I did sense a bit of conservatism with regard to poetic devices. For example, on page 577, the textbook says, Marianne "Moore’s poetry fail[s] to rhyme." The word "fail" suggests a drawback when in fact Moore, who could certainly rhyme if she wanted to (and does in a poem like "The Fish") simply chooses not to. Also, the lack of mention of Moore's signature syllabics seems a noteworthy shortcoming.
I guess, overall, I would have preferred a bit more attention to poetic devices beyond rhyme and meter, such as assonance, consonance, alliteration, when these are germane to the larger project of poets under discussion.
Relevance/Longevity rating: 5
Writing the Nation is a relevant textbook and should stay up-to-date for the foreseeable future in American literary scholarship at the undergrad level. The book is set up so that any necessary changes in the future should be easy to make. Nevertheless, I do want to reiterate that there are noticeable absences with regard to diversity (see remarks on culture relevance below).
Clarity rating: 5
The authors of Writing the Nation have written clear and accessible introductions and headnotes that provide excellent context and background for and to complex issues of tradition and influence for the undergrad student of American literature.
Consistency rating: 5
Very consistent indeed. Well-done.
Modularity rating: 5
This textbook would very easily lend itself to varying pedagogical approaches and methods as well as different syllabi.
Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 5
As I mentioned above, the topics in the book are presented very well as a coherent story about how American literature has developed against the backdrop of American politics, technology (the Industrial Revolution, for example), history, and so on.
Interface rating: 4
There are numerous locations in the textbook where readings are not contained within the book but rather linked to where they exist online.
This causes navigation problems. A reader jumps out to the reading but then upon return cannot come back to the page from which one jumped.
This is easily fixed: the link to the reading should open a new page,
Grammatical Errors rating: 5
Grammar is excellent, flawless.
Cultural Relevance rating: 4
The textbook is not, by any means, culturally insensitive or offensive. It is abundantly clear that the authors have tried very hard to be culturally inclusive. However, the textbook could do better.
The representation of women writers is all right up through the Realism chapter but needs a female writer in the Naturalism chapter, which only has male readings. Perhaps "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton, an important writer who is notably absent. The pre-Modernism chapter is also exclusively male; perhaps one of the women writers that represent the Harlem Renaissance could be moved here.
Something that could also be represented in the Realism chapter is the best-selling sentimental novelists who were a mainstay of women's reading in the 1800s. Perhaps an excerpt from E.D.E.N. Southworth could be included, maybe The Hidden Hand as an example of Local Color writing.
With regard to the representation of race and ethnicity, the authors of Writing the Nation should be commended for an excellent representation of African American literature. However, there is only one Native American writer, and no Hispanic American or Asian American writers. One could easily argue that the strongest and most vibrant writing since World War II has been in the multicultural realm. This might be a way also to include more poets and playwrights in the text (there's definitely a noticeable preponderance of prose in the textbook).
I would also add that there could be improved attention to LGBTQ writers as well as disabled writers.
Finally, regarding genre writing, the textbook excerpts Zane Grey, a writer of westerns, but doesn't include other genre writing, such as science fiction, fantasy, horror. Where are L. Frank Baum, Ursula K. LeGuin, or Stephen King, just to name a handful.
Sometimes the texts linked to outside the textbook are not always scholarly vetted, stable online (re)sources. An exception is “A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg, which is linked to the Modern American Poetry site (MAPS) site at the University of Illinois—a solid, reliable source.
However, the link to Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire goes to a PDF hosted by Jay Scheib at MIT. Conceivably, this text could disappear; there's no certainty that Professor Scheib would keep this site up. Same with the source for Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," which is maintained by James Young at Weber State. If Professor Young were to move, for example, this site could become unavailable. These are only a couple of examples; there are others that are similarly problematic.
One especially troubling link is to William Carlos Williams's "The Dead Baby" at PoetryNook.com, a popular site where scholarly accuracy is not necessarily a priority.
The textbook should strive to always provide the best, most reliable texts available.