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Once people of imagination began to write stories in that part of -xvi- North America that became the United States, they drew upon all of these heritages. African slaves told their ancestors' tales and heard those that descended through the families of Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and English settlers. French traders and Spanish explorers swapped stories with Native Americans who may have even memorized some from the Norse explorers centuries before.
By the time the first "American novel" was written, a long and complicated cultural history provided a rich resource for the imagination of the novelist.
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Thus, it was only a matter of a few decades before novels began pouring off the American presses, and American writers from Irving and Cooper to Stowe, Alcott, Child, Hawthorne, and Melville were achieving success and receiving acclaim. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Henry James could challenge Balzac for the honor of being major novelist in the Western hemisphere, while James's contemporaries and those soon following after, such as Twain, Howells, Wharton, Crane, Dreiser, Norris, Chopin, Chesnutt, and Cather, were producing works of international recognition.
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With the emergence of Anderson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein in the s, the world acknowledged that most of the consequential novelists and writers of the time were from the United States, even if many of them chose to live abroad. Others who wrote in that period would wait decades to attain proper recognition; among them were Hurston, Toomer, and Hughes. When the achievement of Faulkner came to be understood in the late s and s, the world again hailed the United States for having literary genius in its midst.
This list of American accomplishments in the novel does not begin to survey the remarkable artists of Canadian, Caribbean, and Latin American literature presented in the latter chapters of this history. The inevitable limitation of any literary history is that there is never enough space for the inclusion of everyone or for the fullest treatment of those who are included.
We regret that we could not provide chapters on every dimension of the novel or more analysis of -xvii- those we have included. We believe that what we do present will give our readers fresh, contemporary perspectives on the literary history of the "American Novel. I would like to thank the associate editors and the contributors for the fine work they did for this volume. All of us involved in this book appreciate the important contributions of the excellent people at Columbia University Press.
Moore, provided the leadership and wisdom that enabled us to see it to completion. The Editorial Director of the Reference Division of the Press, James Raimes, initiated the idea for this book and oversaw the day-to-day progress of the work, and we benefited greatly from his insights, experience, patience, and understanding. James's fine assistant Frances Kim cheerfully and intelligently handled the myriad of details that crossed her desk.
As always, William F. Bernhardt expertly edited the manuscripts with intelligence and tact. From the English Department of the University of California at Riverside, Stephanie Erickson and Deborah Hatheway composed the entries for the appendix of biographies of authors, and Deborah and Carlton Smith provided editorial assistance and suggestions for a number of the chapters. I am also grateful to the Faculty Senate of the University of California, Riverside, for general support and to my colleagues and the staff members of the English Department whose good will — and patience while waiting to use the copier — I genuinely appreciate.
As always, my wife and university colleague, Georgia, contributed sound suggestions and warm encouragement, and my daughters Constance and Laura were indulgent of my frequent preoccupation. Critics , preachers, and other self-appointed moralists hated it; young men and women loved it.
The novel was the subject of heated popular debate in the late eighteenth century and, in many ways, was to the early national period what television was to the s or MTV and video games to the s. It was condemned as escapist, anti-intellectual, violent, pornographic; since it was a "fiction" it was a lie and therefore evil. Since it often portrayed characters of low social station and even lower morals — foreigners, orphans, fallen women, beggar girls, women cross-dressing as soldiers, soldiers acting as seducers — it fomented social unrest by making the lower classes dissatisfied with their lot.
The novel ostensibly contributed to the demise of community values, the rise in licentiousness and illegitimacy, the failure of education, the disintegration of the family; in short, the ubiquity of the novel — augmented in the early nineteenth century by new printing, papermaking, and transportation technologies — most assuredly meant the decline of Western civilization as it had previously been known.
Predictably, running side by side with the sermons and newspaper editorials condemning the genre was a countering polemic in its favor. Other social commentators on the early novel claimed it was educational, nationalistic, populist, precisely what was required to bring together a nation recently fragmented by a Revolutionary War and further divided by the influx of immigrants in the postRevolutionary period, European immigrants who did not speak the same language, practice the same religion, or share the same values as those earlier arrived on these native shores. By its linguistic simplicity, the novel was uniquely accessible to working-class readers and would introduce them to middle-class and, presumably, WASP values and manners.
By its typical focus on women characters and its frequent addresses to women readers, it would help to erase the gender inequities built into the early American educational system. By its preoccupation with seduction as a theme, it would warn women that they had to be smart to survive. And even the early genre's suspect attachment to local scandal as a major source for its materials served a worthy end, for it warned men that their infamies could be broadcast to the community at large and that they could thus be held accountable for private sin in the court of public opinion.
What was the real function of the novel in early America? Again one might make the analogy to modern cultural forms such as television: the verdict is still out. But what is obvious is that, in a market sense, the new form triumphed decisively over its detractors. On the most basic, mercantile level, this is evident from late eighteenthcentury publishers' catalogs and book advertisements. Prior to around , books that we would now call novels for example, Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews were frequently hawked as "narratives," or "personal histories," or simply left unlabeled. After around , virtually any text that could conceivably be connected to the term "novel" as noun or adjective wore that designation, and autobiographical and biographical accounts, crime reports, conversion stories, captivity narratives, religious tracts, collections of sermons, even poetic sequences were all peddled as novels.
As an established and valued commodity, novels sold. The early contentious history of the novel in America anticipated in subtle and profound ways the debates, anxieties, and controversies about the genre during the nineteenth century, issues taken up in the chapters in the first section of this volume.
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Where, for example, is the boundary between the autobiography and the novel? The blurring of one into the other has a long history. That blurring also raises crucial theoretical and even political issues. As-told-to narratives, for example, contest the interrelated notions of "authenticity," "authority," and "authorship.
Which has more cultural power? Questions of genre — especially when we address slave or Native American narratives — turn as did discussions of the early novel on questions of social truth and social power. Authority and authorship also turn on questions of economic power. By the mid-nineteenth century, the "novel" did not exist as any single entity. Popularity produces diversity, and soon there were many kinds of novels designed for a vaguely differentiated and overlapping audience — sensation novels, pulp romances, adventure stories, newspaper serials, reform novels.
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Some writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, even wanted to distinguish their "romances" from the more prevalent but still partly suspect varieties of the novel. Hawthorne's trepidation lest he be called a "novelist" seems rooted in virtually all of the early American anxieties about the morality, factitiousness, accountability, moral purpose, and political function of the novel in society, anxieties arising like Hawthorne's own from a Puritan preoccupation with the practical social value of products of the imagination. Even Hawthorne's well-known uneasiness about fiction and gender, articulated throughout his life and his fiction in a variety of ways, seems to be a vestigial manifestation of the very first anxieties about the novel in America.
The first two American best-sellers, Charlotte Temple and The Coquette , were both penned, after all, by "scribbling women. Did the novel forever alter America? Can any cultural form effect social change? Or do cultural forms reflect those changes in progress? Agency, at one theoretical level or another, remains an issue in all discussions of the novel to date, just as it was in the first debates on the morality of fiction. So what else is new? Our fears and our hopes about the social potentialities of any new cultural phenomenon continue to inspire much the same debate with the attendant tropes of apocalypse or redemption that surrounded the emergence of the novel in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America.
The hallmark of the early American novel is its instability, an uncertainty and confusion in almost every area related to fiction making; in order to highlight the most significant result of this instability, I would like to pretend at the outset of this chapter that I am a critic wedded to contemporary critical fashion. With this guise in place, I begin by declaring that, in fact, there is no such thing as the "early American novel. First, take the word "early," which in this context is supposed to signify an event or events the production of novels occurring in the first part of some division of time, or of some series.
If we follow the editors of one older anthology of American writing , who declare that by American literature they mean "literature written in English by people who came to settle in the territory that eventually became the United States of America," then American writing begins in with William Bradford's history, Of Plimmouth Plantation ; Brown's book, still years away, is hardly an early American production.
Newer anthologies, if they begin with voyages of discovery, assign dates like to the first American writings; if they commence with Native American "myths," the dates are earlier still, though mostly unknown. Perhaps by "early" we intend something like the "beginning" of the American novel, but you do not have to read very far in Brown's book to realize that, as a "novelist," he is totally dependent on Samuel Richardson, and in particular Richardson's Pamela , where the story, as is Brown's, is told through a series of letters; moreover, Brown's plot centers on the theme of seduction, another Richardsonian gift to the world of fiction.
One might plausibly argue that the American novel truly begins with Richardson; without him there would be no Brown. Pamela , in fact, was the first English novel printed in America, in Finally, suppose that "early" means, from our perspective, belonging to a period far back in time. The word is absolutely meaningless as a descriptive term if all it indicates is that a book — Brown's, Rowson's, Cooper's, anyone's — was published in the United States.
In the days before international copyright, the works of many English writers were pirated, printed, and sold by American booksellers under their own imprints; they were, in effect, published in America, and most Americans first read the great eighteenth-century novelists in these editions.
Moreover, some nineteenth-century American writers — Washington Irving and Herman Melville are good examples — in order to secure both English and American copyrights, published several of their books in England before they appeared in America. Does the writer have to be born in America? Have written his or her novel in America? Susanna Rowson was born in England, and Charlotte Temple , her most interesting novel, was written while she was living in England.
Yet literary historians have always proclaimed it an "American" novel. Anthony Trollope's North America , and some of Frances Trollope's novels, were written wholly while mother and son independently were traveling in America. Are they American books?
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Must America then be the setting of the novel for it to be American? In Martin Chuzzlewit , Charles Dickens has his title character travel to America and spend about a fourth of the book there; is the novel then one-fourth American? Perhaps more to the point: only about one-seventh of Moby-Dick takes place on American soil; is Melville's masterpiece not an American novel? Scholars have spent an inordinate amount of time arguing that "American" really refers to "Americanness": national characteristics shape and mirror the form of a literary work. Some idea of America animates the narrative, controls and orders the very pattern of words upon the page.
A variant on this idea of "Americanness" would be that recognizable issues, concerns, preoccupations appear again and again in books that are supposedly representative of American experience. Thus, Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain are the most American of nineteenth-century novelists, and Whitman is our true American poet, since something like an American identity can be discerned from reading their works.
Ultimately, Spengemann has said, "America must make a difference in the way literature is written. I have in the past believed this to be so the force of Spengemann's arguments to the contrary notwithstanding , and to some extent still do, though I am deeply troubled by the implications of extracting some notion of identity, some sense of representativeness, from a canonized literature written almost exclusively by white men.
The newest anthologies of our national literature have attempted to correct for this imbalance, and we now have access to the voices and visions of so many previously excluded "others. To be sure, the America in the term "the American novel" is a place, with hard outlines and a traceable landscape, but it is also, as it has been from the outset, an idea — often an ideal — imagined first in the minds of enlightened European thinkers, reimagined, and then shaped and configured, in the consciousness of Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the Republic.