This is a book about literary tradition and about changes in the nature of tradition in England and America in the past four centuries. More precisely, it is about authors who faced, in the immediately preceding generation, writers too important for them to ignore. How the "heirs" responded to their literary inheritance, how they created and re-created what they inherited and thereby established the tradition for those who would follow, is the subject of this brilliant, suggestive study.
Sale begins with the seventeenth century because it was then that the relation of present to past became primarily a matter of one generation working with the preceding one. He examines the relation of Carew to Jonson and Donne, Johnston to Pope, and Wordsworth to Shelley, Keats, and Dickens. Having brought in a novel (Dickens's Great Expectations), he moves on to explore Henry James's anxious relation to George Eliot and then discusses the subsequent burgeoning of fiction in America in the last generation.
As opposed to those critics who have insisted that inheritance is always crippling, that later writers must be burdened by their predecessors, Sale contends that this has only occasionally been the case and that no single theory is adequate to explain literary history in recent centuries. The strength of his argument lies in the quality of his readings--lucid, perceptive commentaries that reanimate the texts they discuss.