A new book by Franco Moretti always arouses for this reader the expectation of an uncommon experience of pleasure in the text. Sentences nudge and pull in all sorts of directions, extended details give way to emphatic epitome, brilliant connections adorn almost every page, and exposition is so economically staged that one is left wanting more, not less. High theory, for sure, but also ordinary language; plenty, more than plenty to go on for the professional academic reader, but nothing so professionally overloaded as to drive away the curious non-specialist. In his latest book, Far Country, based on a series of lectures on literary history given at Stanford, the writing is explicitly directed at preserving some of the attributes of the spoken word; hence, Moretti says, the ‘staccato paragraphs’ and ‘compressed’ style. But in many respects it is not too different from the author’s style elsewhere: both engaging and arresting.

Throughout his career, from the formalist-historicizing analyses of Signs Taken for Wonders (1983) to the exploration of symbolic forms in The Way of the World (1987) and Modern Epic (1996), to the neo-scientific and macro-sociological studies in Atlas of the European Novel (1998), Maps, Graphs, Trees (2005), Distant Reading (2013) and The Bourgeois (also 2013), Moretti has consistently cultivated new critical methods. Rather than advancing the frontiers of theoretical innovation, Far Country addresses the questions of how and why to teach literary history. Method is very much at stake here, though, in a book that includes hyper-close readings of Whitman, Baudelaire, Hemingway and Stein, as well as chapters on American cinema genres (the Western and film noir), theatre (Miller) and painting (Vermeer and Hopper, Warhol and Rembrandt).

Commenting on his commitment to ‘clarity’ as well as ‘complexity’, Moretti hopes for his readers to ‘work, and not just to follow’. Standard exhortations, perhaps, that do not do justice to the scope and flair of the Moretti sentence, of which one might say, as Coleridge said of Wordsworth, that if one picked up an unmarked page lying in the street, one would know him as its author. Not that clarity and complexity, and working instead of consuming, are trivial priorities: they are the yardstick of what Moretti understands by a commitment to the democratization of culture—and ‘clarity is the principle of equality in the world of ideas’. But it is not so much the democratic impulse, admirable enough to be sure, as his insistence on the importance of instilling in his students a sense of wonder—‘I wanted them to be as struck by Whitman’s meandering verses as their grandparents might have been’—that comes closer to capturing the character of this work. He puts things together in unpredicted and often breathtaking ways.

That said, after a few pages of Far Country I began to wonder (in a quite different sense) whether it might have been mistitled. I had pegged it as bidding to contribute to a long tradition of books by Europeans about America (that is, the United States of America): Dickens, Fanny Trollope, Marryat, Tocqueville, Lawrence, all the way to Baudrillard; estimations of what’s right and wrong, admirable and deplorable, inevitable and undetermined, with theories and reflections about whys and wherefores. Here would be a distinguished cosmopolitan intellectual looking back, now from afar, on the place where he spent a good part of his life. The book’s title suggests a certain nostalgia, whether for what has been or is still to be, for something that may eternally be out of, or hard to, reach: but it also riffs on Anthony Mann’s 1954 Western, The Far Country. Sure enough, the opening chapter is an account of the teaching Moretti used to do, in a place in which he no longer dwells. And here his thoughts are relatively familiar, even somewhat commonplace: form is the vehicle for antagonism and dissonance, which are the indices of historical crises that are, when embodied in literature, open to recapture and revivification. So far, so Adorno. Not a wholly promising start, one might surmise.

But one would be wrong. There is a deft early footnote that gives notice of what is to come, specifying democracy, violence and consumer capitalism as the threefold supports of American hegemony: the lineaments of a thesis, or a common grounding, and an echo of D. H. Lawrence’s and Leslie Fiedler’s still urgent diagnoses of the darker archive of American literature. And now the engines begin to hum and we move up through the gears. Walt Whitman’s serial catalogue of ‘types’—never persons, Moretti explains—reflects an atomistic isolation of each from all, the ploy that allows the poet to insinuate a condition of equality that is nothing more than the accumulation of this and that, and this and that. No mediation, no interaction, no conflict, each sufficient unto itself and requiring no response: American democracy, maintained only by an eerie silence about the genocide of native peoples, and a minimal and slippery notation (wholly inadequate to our eyes now) of the existence of chattel slavery.

Moretti’s turn in the same lecture from Whitman to Baudelaire stages a montage of new and old worlds, of the repeatable with the unrepeatable item, of simplicity with enigma, of an uncomplicated present-future with an unrecoverable and often lamented past. Baudelaire’s words require the meditative contemplation that Whitman’s words discourage, in their helter-skelter imperative to keep us moving along: old-world patience and complexity against the aesthetic of rapid consumption that indexes American life, of which Whitman is the poster-boy. On to Hemingway, in the next lecture, where simplicity takes form as redundancy and repetition, the same words and phrases used over and over again. Somewhat like Whitman, but not quite: here the dominant style is understood as the life of language after the experience of the trenches in World War One. Hemingway’s prose, Moretti proposes, is all about control, whether of the sentence itself or of the simple technologies of hunting and fishing whose details it communicates, thereby reinscribing a faith in the basic efficiency and independence of the male body that had been so traumatically destroyed by confrontation with modern mechanized warfare. Control and security: Hemingway’s style is about staying safe, or writing as if one could stay safe, with just enough danger of the primitive sort—wild animals, for instance—to keep us alert. But the men are still killers, however simple their protocols. Gertrude Stein uses some of the same techniques but differently, making her texts harder to read, not easier: too much time in Paris, perhaps.

Montage is a good word to sum up how Moretti works: here’s this, now that. And within that, there’s this. Form against form, as he terms it. The implicit slash of montage—A/B—does not create a third thing that subsumes both the others: this would be the Hegelian mode that Moretti declines in favour of preserving dissonance and contradiction. It is this and that, together in time and place but quite different in kind, and to be thought together not as aesthetic wholes but as fractious components of an ideology. Hence his pairing, in the third lecture, of the Western with the film noir being produced in Hollywood at more or less the same time: one genre all space and light, the other all tight angles and darkness; contemporary but antithetical, as Moretti puts it. The Western relies upon full-screen open space, tiny figures in the landscape, constant movement—the Pacific coast is never reached, the wagons never roll downhill for long—and life lived wholly in the public eye: few private interiors; stagecoaches yes, but not covered wagons. There is no idleness, unless around the campfire after a long day’s work—but the work does not produce anything except motion itself. The point of keeping going is to keep going: settlement would end the story. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) showed, long before the Western, that getting into the business of describing settlement soon reveals an ugly side to life.