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The Early American Novel: Introductory Notes

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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.
Reasons for 
absence of 
cultural voices 
in early 
American novel 
1. No authentic American language available for literary purposes.

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). 
1. Sentimental
2. Picaresque
3. Gothic
4. Novel of nostalgia or reclamation that unifies the spirit of the nation
· James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy (1821)
  1. William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy (1789). Brown's novel was based on the story of Perez Morton's seduction of his wife's sister, Fanny Apthorp, an act at once both incestuous and adulterous according to eighteenth-century law. The novel insists on the importance of education for women to avoid such a fate.
  2. Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple (1794). A third-person narrative, not an epistolary novel, this book warns against listening to the "voice of love" and counsels resistance.

  4. Hannah Foster, The Coquette (1797). Once again based on an actual incident, this epistolary novel features a woman seduced and abandoned who gives birth to an illegitimate stillborn child at an inn.  The woman (Elizabeth Whitman/Eliza Wharton in the novel) was charged with arrogance because she had refused marriage until she could find someone who would be her intellectual companion. Foster tells the story from her point of view. 
The sentimental novel failed because it could not sustain a coherent critique of American society.

Contemporary Works (England)

  • 1740 Samuel Richardson, Pamela: the first English book that practically all readers are willing to call a fully realized novel.
  • 1747-1748 Clarissa
  • 1753 Sir Charles Grandison
  • All three are epistolary novels, novels told through letters written by one or more of the characters. This allows feelings and reactions to be presented without authorial intrusion, gives a sense of immediacy because the letters are written in the thick of the action, and allows the writer to present multiple points of view.

    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:

  • Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
  • Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771)
  • Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760-67).
  • Sensibility: A term for reliance on feelings as guides to truth and not on reason and law. This term is connected with primitivism, sentimentalism, the nature movement, and other aspects of romanticism. The high value that the 18th century put on sensibility was a reaction against the stoicism of the seventeenth century and the theories advanced by Hobbes and others that human beings were motivated primarily by self-interest. 

    For a good article on this term, see the excerpt from Jerome McGann's The Poetics of Sensibility and the Dictionary of Sensibility

    Sentimentalism: Two meanings. 
    1. Overindulgence in emotion especially for the pleasure that this feeling provides. 
    2. Optimistic overemphasis on the goodness of humanity (sensibility), representing in part a reaction against Calvinism, which regarded human nature as depraved.

    · 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.
  • Features panoramic scenes.

  • Purposes
    · Contains different types of discourse: philosophical reflection, travel essay, political disquisition; also parodies other traditional literary forms, such as poetry and the romance
  • Suitable for commentary on politics of republicanism

  • · The picaresque's weakness is its inconsistent point of view--not a problem in Huck Finn, though.


    • Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry (1792-1815)
    • · Tabitha Gilman Tenney, Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (1801)
    • · Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote (1752)
    • · Royall Tyler, The Algerine Captive (1797
    3. Gothic (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)
    · Hobomok (1824)
    · The Rebels (1825)

    4. John Neal (1793-1876)
    · Logan, A Family History (1822) (romance of Native American Chief Logan)
    · Rachel Dyer (1828) (Salem witchcraft trials)
    · The Down-Easters (1833) (realistic details about New England)

    5. Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) 
    · A New England Tale (1822)
    · Redwood (1824)
    · Hope Leslie (1827)
    · The Linwoods (1835)

    6. James Kirke Paulding (1778-1860)
    · The Lion of the West (1830) (drama; introduced the American frontiersman to the stage)
    · The Dutchman's Fireside (1831)
    · Westward Ho! (1832)

    7. Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854)
    · Calavar (1834)
    · Nick of the Woods  (1837)

    8. John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870)
    · The Swallow Barn (1832)

    James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

    The Leatherstocking Novels 
    The Pioneers 1823  Leather-Stocking Natty as an old man Order for reading the books
    The Last of the Mohicans 1826 Hawkeye Set in 1757; Natty as man in his prime 2
    The Prairie 1827 "The trapper"  Natty as an old man 5
    The Pathfinder 1840 Pathfinder Set in 1759; Natty as man in his prime 3
    The Deerslayer 1841 Deerslayer Natty as a young man 1

    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
     Themes and Issues
     A. Portrayals of conflicts:
      1. forces of stability, order, and tradition against the forces of dynamic change, disruption, and violence.
      2.  patrician ideals of aristocracy and privilege against the democratic ideals of equality and natural rights
      3.  destructive impulses and consuming materialism of mob vs. idealism and self-restraint of the enlightened individual. 
     B. Themes
      1. Historical myth and ideology. 
      2. Nature and civilization
      3. Law, power, and property
      4. Land and wilderness; use of the land
      5. Violence
      6. Race
      7. Gender and family; natural aristocracy

    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 Jefferson

    Comments about Novel Readers in the Nineteenth Century
    (from Nina Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers)

    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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    Campbell, Donna M. "The Early American Novel: Introductory Notes." Literary Movements. Date of publication or most recent update (listed below as the "last modified" date; you don't need to indicate the time). Date you accessed the page. <http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/earamnov.htm>.

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