Any book that has the words 'Oxford Companion to' as part of the title is entitled to a certain respect, for the title speaks of a certain level of quality that is hard to match. While there are better and worse Oxford Companions, the series as a whole is of very high quality, and the 'Oxford Companion to American Literature' is no exception. This book has a significant history of its own - the principle compiler, James Hart, began work on the first edition of this text in 1936; the first Oxford Companion to American Literature was published in 1941. It went through several revisions in Hart's lifetime; after he died in 1990, Phillip Leininger took over completion of this sixth edition, revising and expanding some of the entries.
In all, there are over 5000 entries, with 1100 of them being significant summaries of major literary works, figures, or other significant literary topics. Of these, 104 were added by Leininger after Hart's death, which shows the great amount owed to Hart. This sixth edition includes information up to 1993/94. At the back of the book is a chronological index of American literary history and American social history laid out side by side, from 1577 to 1994. This shows the overall growth of America as a nation as well as a nation of literary artists.
American literature is broadly defined for this text, and includes not only the typical literary arts of novelists, poets, and playwrights, but also autobiographers and biographers, historians, newspaper and magazine writers. The colonies of America often being founded by religious persons looking for freedom of expression, a source of the American spirit that has never dissipated, there are entries for many religious leaders in American history. While previous editions have included an entry on each of the Presidents, this edition is more selective, including the Founding Fathers and only those later Presidents who had a significant role either in eras of change or notable literary output of their own (U.S. Grant and his autobiography, for example). Entries for universities have largely been eliminated here, but much of the deleted information is duplicated in other entries.
Entries on poems discuss publication history, poetic structure, influences on the composition, and, if appropriate, narrative of the meaning - for example, there is a brief synopsis of the 'plot' of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven'. Entries on novels are much more plot summaries, with little of this background information, save where the novel is truly unique in style. Literary schools and awards are also entered - awards often have listings, such as the listing of all Pulitzer Prize winners from 1917 of the various types of literature; American Nobel Prize winners are also listed.
This is not a companion to high-brow literature only - popular writers from Louis L'Amour to Anne Rice are included. One thing that is not included, perhaps because it stretches the idea of literary art a bit further than the Oxford Companion would have it, are comic strips, comic books and their characters. The book is not exclusively American in scope - some born Americans who left or moved citizenship (T.S. Eliot), and those born elsewhere who became American (Isaac Bashevis Singer) are included; movements and influences from abroad are included also. There are also entries for major Native American tribes and personalities of North America. This is very much a book of the United States - the term 'American' is used in this context, so Canadians are not a subject of this volume (not to worry - there is an Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature).
This is a very useful book, handy and accessible, easy to use, and thorough in scope.