New literary history broadens definition of American novel
Talk about an old boys' club: 50 years ago, Floyd Stovall justified his choices for “Eight American Authors” — a study of Poe, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Twain and Henry James — by stating that “doubtless most readers will agree” that they're “the most important American writers.”
Times sure have changed, as is clear from Philip F. Gura's new literary history, “Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel.”
Spanning the period from 1789 to the 1870s, Gura demonstrates how far we've come in recent decades, when largely ignored genre fiction — including slave narratives, gothic thrillers and sentimental novels — began crashing the party.
Gura doesn't open his story with James Fenimore Cooper — or even with Charles Brockden Brown, who has increasingly been included in the traditional literary canon — but with novels like Susanna Rowson's “Charlotte Temple” (1791) and Hannah Webster Foster's “The Coquette” (1797), both revolving around seduced and abandoned women.
In addition to Brown, Gura makes room for George Lippard, whose “The Quaker City” (1844), a takedown of the rich and famous that features rape, incest, drugs, cannibalism and murder, was the most popular American novel before 1850.
Bypassing “The Last of the Mohicans,” Gura focuses instead on Catharine Maria Sedgwick's “Hope Leslie” (1827), which rewrites colonial history through more textured portraits of Puritan women and American Indians.
And Gura rightly devotes significant attention to Elizabeth Stoddard, who, despite being the best midcentury American novelist after Hawthorne and Melville, remains excluded from the Library of America, which has done much more for unsung 20th-century writers than equally deserving 19th-century equivalents.
What's most impressive about “Truth's Ragged Edge” is Gura's ability to corral all this material into a coherent literary history with an overarching theme: The ongoing tension in American fiction between the individualized pursuit of happiness and communal values grounded in old-time religion.
As Gura demonstrates, that tension takes on new meaning when the focus is sexual desire, women's liberation, workers' rights or racial equality — topics that recur continually in the novels covered here.
Gura tacitly assumes that novels addressing these topics are thereby intrinsically better; at one point, he even suggests that novelists' placement in the literary canon — as well as judgments regarding whether writers advanced the form of the novel itself — should hinge on how “attuned to their times” they are.
But such a reductive view equates literature with sociology, ignores aesthetics and provides no basis for judging how well an author writes, uses language or plays with form. Gura pays scant attention to these topics, opting instead for brief, flat biographies and frequently mind-numbing plot summaries. We get all of the facts, but little sense of how they are shaped.
Worse still, Gura's approach reproduces the false dichotomy between formally complex, introspective novels in the traditional canon and the excluded, often topical works Gura champions.
One sees this most clearly in Gura's disappointing chapter on Hawthorne and Melville, which serves up potted, old-fashioned readings on these authors' preoccupation with the thin line separating healthy egoism from destructive egotism.
This cramped approach doesn't do justice to Hawthorne's comprehensive historical revisionism or Melville's brilliant critiques of racism, slavery, capitalism and popular culture.
To downplay such topical features in our two greatest antebellum novelists is the mirror image of critics' longstanding failure to properly value the aesthetic achievement of writers like Stoddard, whose “The Morgesons” (1862) is formally and thematically daring.
In neglecting the novel's form while privileging content, Gura undersells some of the very writers he earnestly extols — while overselling others who, however historically interesting they might be, simply weren't very good.
We're doing ourselves no favors — and ultimately discrediting efforts to expand the canon — when we refuse to make honest value judgments about the quality of what we read. Trying to be democratically all-inclusive, Gura consistently ducks this hard-edged truth.
Mike Fischer is a staff writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.