The Early American Novel: Introductory Notes
Sources: Columbia History of the American Novel
Alexander Cowie, The Rise of the American Novel
Cathy Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America
See also Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel; Michael McKeon, The Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach,
and Margaret Doody, The True Story of the Novel
See also the secondary bibliography on sentimentalism, sensibility, and domestic fiction and the page on domestic fiction.
1. No authentic American language available for
2. Lack of cultural support for American creative efforts.
3. American culture tended to be parochial and generally distrustful of any written expression that was not didactic. For example, clergy such as Jonathan Edwards taught that reading novels was an indulgence leading to moral decline.
4. With an unstable society, there can be no stable "American" genre of the novel. Cathy Davidson and others have argued that some novels tried to assume an ideological position (Revolution and the Word, 1986)--a critique of the existing social order--and that the more popular the genre became, the more those vested with cultural authority worried over their loss of dominance. This was especially true because novels, unlike sermons, required no intermediaries for interpretation.
|.||Davidson: "The early American novel, as a genre,
tended to proclaim a socially egalitarian message. It spoke for . . . orphans,
beggar girls, factory girls, or other unfortunates, and it repeatedly advocated
the general need for 'female education'" (73).
4. Novel of nostalgia or reclamation that unifies the spirit of the nation
· James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy (1821)
Contemporary Works (England)
Sentimental novel or novel of sensibility: This form reflects the sentimentalism of the eighteenth century as reflected in sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy. Pamela was the beginning of the vogue, although Fielding's more realistic Tom Jones was written in protest. Examples of the eighteenth-century sentimental novel:
Sentimentalism: Two meanings.
· Began in the 16th century as a counterbalance to the chivalric romance
· Includes a gallery of human types drawn from all social classes.
· Features lower class protagonists who survive by guile and adaptability.
· Hero is both a trickster and a victim.
· Features a conflict between the hero's desire to survive and his natural impulses to side with truth and goodness.
· Uses supporting characters, like Sancho Panza, who assist the hero.
· Emphasizes freedom and escape from restrictions of conventional society.
· Contains different types of discourse: philosophical reflection, travel essay, political disquisition; also parodies other traditional literary forms, such as poetry and the romance
· The picaresque's weakness is its inconsistent point of view--not a problem in Huck Finn, though.
(click on the link for more discussion)
· Conventions: mad monks, castles, ruined abbeys--and also superstition and delusion, hidden corruption and human anxieties, mazelike (metaphoric) pathways, haunted minds masked by apparently normal outward lives.
· Gothic conventions became a form for expressing fears of the conflicting claims of authority and liberty in American society--"self-made, self-improved, self-confident men abusing power or undermining the social order."
· Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland (1798); Ormond (1799); Edgar Huntly (1799)
|1. James Fenimore Cooper
2. William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870)
· Martin Faber (1833)
· Guy Rivers (1834)
· The Yemassee (1835)
3. Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)
John Neal (1793-1876)
Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867)
Kirke Paulding (1778-1860)
Montgomery Bird (1806-1854)
Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870)
Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
The Leatherstocking Novels
Thanks to Hugh MacDougall of the James Fenimore Cooper Society for clarification on dates and for this comment from Cooper's 1851 preface to The Pathfinder: "This book should be the third in the Series of the Leather-Stocking Tales. In The Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo...is represented as a youth.... In The Last of the Mohicans he appears as Hawkeye, and is present at the death of young Uncas; while in this tale [The Pathfinder], he re-appears in the same war of '56....still in the vigor of manhood...."
Notes on The Pioneers
The issues of law, property and justice are especially important in The Pioneers. Judge Temple gets his land from a long-lost friend whose property he appropriates; thus he's an illegitimate holder of it. Cooper is much concerned with law, especially the distinctions between a natural law based on natural nobility and right (exemplified by Natty) and the man-made law that rests on judicial entanglements. A key scene in The Pioneers is Natty's trial and his response to the court. Here as elsewhere, he's a figure on the edge of the community and at odds with it, but here the community holds sway over him; he's diminished in stature through his contact with it.
|Commentary||A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate
passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should
be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it
destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason
and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention
unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes
amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and
disgust towards all the real businesses of life. This mass of trash,
however, is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives,
although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make
them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality. --Thomas
Comments about Novel Readers in
the Nineteenth Century
Ladies' Repository, January 1845: "It is romance reading, more than everything else put together, that has so universally corrupted the tasted of the present age. If a man writes a book-a work of profound study and solid merit, no body will read it."
Southern Literary Messenger, September 1849: Novel readers are "an enormous class, who have neither leisure, nor inclination, of graver and more solid studies."
Harper's, June 1853: "Hundreds of readers who would sleep over a sermon, or drone over an essay, or yield a cold and barren assent to the deductions of an ethical treatise, will be startled into reflection, or won to emulation, or roused into effort, by the delineations they meet with in a tale which they opened only for the amusement of an hour."
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