In the spring of 1943, as the tide was beginning to turn against the Axis in the Second World War, Bernard DeVoto delivered a series of lectures at Indiana University on American literature in the ’twenties. A fierce conservationist and even more fiery liberal who later tangled with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, DeVoto was “rather tory than whig,” to use his own distinction, in his literary criticism. Defending his examination of two-decades-old writing before “young men and women who will presently be taking an active part in the war,” he explained that the country’s literature had repudiated American life during the ’twenties, “shut[ting] it away from the realities of that life, the evils as well as the good.”
And the distortions had had an effect. Not only upon DeVoto’s listeners (“Literature has given you some ideas which are erroneous and built into your thinking misrepresentations and fallacies which impair the instruments you must use”). But also upon America’s enemies. “Clearly the master race accepted in good faith the description of America which American writers had provided, and made their plans,” DeVoto said, “in accordance with it.”
At bottom was what he called, when he published the lectures in book form one year later, The Literary Fallacy. This is the mistake of believing that experience can be absorbed, both understood and expressed, wholly in literature; and in literature, moreover, which is reduced to belles-lettres (prose fiction, poetry, drama, and literary criticism). It is the undertaking “to judge our society by means of literature and nothing else” (p. 31). It entails an aggrandizement of literature’s importance in human affairs accompanied by its underside—playing down the significance of empirical facts. To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,
The novels of 9/11 and its aftermath, which I have listed elsewhere, are almost without exception victims’ or bystanders’ novels. They reduce an attack upon “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom,” as President Bush called it in a televised address that evening, to private emotions and limited perceptions.
What may have been the first allusion to the attacks in American fiction pointed a way that, despite its promise, few other writers took. In Roland Merullo’s In Revere, in Those Days—a novel in the form of a memoir about growing up in the early ’sixties—the narrator remembers a time when his parents left for a trip to New York. He drove with them to Logan Airport:
Those who followed, however, were not given to modest aims. Few committed the error of Hugh Nissenson, who pretended to enter the mind of a man who jumps from the North Tower:
His earliest memory returned to him. . . .
Don DeLillo evoked the same or a similar image in the title of his Falling Man (2007). In the novel, the Falling Man is a “performance artist” who shows up
But none of this is the case. DeLillo’s novel separates 9/11 from the misrepresentations and fallacies about American life that had assisted the terrorists in making their plans—including the romantic impression of terrorists published abroad by such writers as Don DeLillo—and it isolates the events of that day from any other aspect of the American character than shock and disorientation. That is how the novel ends:
Then he saw a shirt come down out of the sky. He walked and saw it fall, arms waving like nothing in this life. (p. 246)
 Bernard DeVoto, The Literary Fallacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1944), pp. 19–20. Subsequent references in parentheses.
 Roland Merullo, In Revere, in Those Days (New York: Shaye Areheart, 2002), p. 32.
 Hugh Nissenson, The Days of Awe (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005), p. 151.
 Don DeLillo, Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007), p. 33. Subsequent reference in parentheses.