The American Fantasy Tradition by Brian M. Thomsen (ed)
Tor Trade: ISBN 0765304562 PubDate: 09/01/03
Review by Edward Carmien
608 pgs. List price $ 17.95
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This massive tome clocks in at more than 600 pages. Thomsen has assembled an impressive collection of short stories ranging from Part I’s folk, tall, and weird tales (Irving, Hawthorne, Alcott, Lovecraft, Jackson, King, Le Guin) to Part II’s fantastic Americana (James, Twain, Kuttner, Card, Ellison) to Part III’s lands of enchantment and everyday life (Baum, Wharton, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Bear). The select list above is intended to highlight Thomsen’s main accomplishment, which is blending the work of otherwise “mainstream” writers like Henry James with the work of too-frequently marginalized (as “genre” writers) writers such as Harlan Ellison.
This is no easy trick. The title says it all—this is Thomsen’s way of establishing a uniquely American literary tradition. Much as Jazz is a product of the United States, so also, argues Thomsen with these selections and in his introduction, is there an American tradition of literature, one that takes second seat to no other literature in lineage, quality, depth, and/or human interest.
Hence we see works here by Washington Irving, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton side by side with (from this admittedly sf/f perspective) the expected writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and many others.
Thomsen does not overwhelm readers with detailed forward material for each item, and his introduction is a model of clarity and precision. Readers are given signposts (not detailed maps) that point toward the connections and themes he wishes to demonstrate in this anthology. This leaves much of the actual walking to the reader, but that’s not a bad thing, given the breadth and quality of the stories Thomsen has assembled.
That breadth is likely the only difficulty with this concept—while the world of publishing might not have found a different model to be commercially viable, breaking this monster into thematic thirds certainly would have made it more accessible, if only on a physical form-factor basis. It would also call for three different introductions, leading to a slightly higher ratio of introduction to introduced material than the current tome possesses.
Even at monster size, however, The American Fantasy Tradition is a must-read for those who engage fantasy as literature—writers, editors, serious readers, and students will all find this anthology to be valuable. Thomsen collects a wide variety of texts under one roof, and while some of them are commonly available, most are not, making this book uncommonly useful.