Posted: May 22, 2013
he American novel means something different to literature professors and literary critics over age 60 than it does to younger scholars. The older ones committed their careers to literary studies when the novel bore Big Ideas and captured the Zeitgeist. Their intellectual maturation and professional advancement entailed embracing the novel as the primary vessel of modernity, proof of Hegel's assertion, "It is in works of art that nations have deposited the richest intuitions and ideas they possess." Stendhal and Victor Hugo, Jane Austen and George Eliot, William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison beckoned them into deep reflections on epistemology, democracy, faith, and freedom. The arc from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Vladimir Nabokov constituted a distinct heritage, central to the story of America and ready for daring interpreters.
Novelists had perspectives that counted. A guest spot on the Steve Allen Show from 1959 nicely illustrates their authority. Terming him "the embodiment of this new generation," Allen introduces Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957), who leans on Allen's piano, opens one of his books, and begins to read while Allen sits in the shadows tinkling jazzy lines on the keys. A similar segment today between Jay Leno and Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, or Ian McEwan is unimaginable.
At 63, Philip Gura, distinguished professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, is just old enough to retain those mid-century premises. He opens Truth's Ragged Edge, his copious literary history, claiming that the American novel from the early Republic to the 1870s "both reflected and helped make possible the movement toward free will, and then Emersonian self-consciousness and self-reliance," becoming in the process a vehicle for authors' "theological and philosophical positions." His title comes from one of the great ruminations upon justice and guilt in a fallen world, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, and the term offers wide scope for interpretation. We have reason to hope Gura will provide a successor to such landmark studies as Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950), Charles Feidelson's Symbolism and American Literature (1953), and Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), yielding profound meaning in brilliant literary form, along with venturesome readings of weighty works.
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That isn't what happens. The book charts "The Rise of the American Novel" through dozens of examples—not just such standards as The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, but: didactic and religious novels; sentimental tales of family and home; slave narratives; melodramas of women seduced and abandoned; and exposés of urban decadence, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and white male tyranny. James Fenimore Cooper appears, but less prominently than: John Neal, flamboyant author of novels of lust and cruelty in the 1820s; Lillie Devereux Umsted Blake, mid-century writer expounding women's sexuality in a patriarchal age; and Elizabeth Stoddard, whose The Morgesons (1862) Gura considers a psychological masterpiece, "stylistically distinctive" and as unusual as Moby-Dick. Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), a tale of female virtue amidst suffering and indignity, and The Garies and Their Friends (1857) by "free black" Frank Webb, a portrait of miscegenation and racial violence in antebellum Philadelphia, each receives more commentary than anything Hawthorne wrote.
The book's thesis statements and thematic summaries are neither refined nor incisive. Larger trends that might give shape and momentum to the whole are described with pat generalities. The rise of the American novel, for example, is variously cast as: "the war between intellect and emotion"; the recognition of the "taboo subjects" of race and sex; the attempt to manage confusions caused by American democracy and capitalism; increasingly humane characterizations of women and people of color (along with the advent of female and African American writers); and the move toward subjectivity (in a chapter on "Discovering Self-Consciousness"). These familiar theses pop up too hurriedly to develop into an organizing, illuminating idea. Instead, they stand as preexisting social conditions that the works merely illustrate. In other words, the theses derive not from the novels themselves, but from the direction American society took (or should have taken) during those years.
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Interpretations of individual novels are equally pedestrian. Gura says of Catharine Sedgwick's A New-England Tale (1822), "The novel's message is that no matter what one's station in life, moderation, honesty, and sympathy, not blind allegiance to heartless doctrine, are the foundation of a religious life." Other analyses rely on the same casual, sententious mode. Of a 1789 novel by William Hill Brown, Gura writes, "in The Power of Sympathy Brown was chiefly interested in the wages of excessive passion, both socially approved and illicit." Cooper's novels "demonstrate a belief that the ambition unleashed by liberalism and capitalism needed strong regulation, if not outright elimination." A strange novel called Sheppard Lee (1836) follows a ghost able to occupy a succession of corpses, leading Gura to state, "The novel asks whether the self is fixed or malleable."
None of these accounts are wrong, but reflect academic dogma rather than fresh analysis. They also are strangely inadequate to Gura's rendition of the stories, as well as to the burden of significance they bear. If these works do constitute the rise of the American novel, we expect their "points" and "messages" to exceed easy formulae such as "the determinative power of class." The critic, too, must explain why the most important American novels have so much sensationalistic content. Absent that rationale, we may rightly judge many stories to be crude, overdone, and artless.
Take, for instance, the six-page discussion of The Quaker City. The novel appeared in 1844, the creation of 22-year-old George Lippard, and sold 60,000 copies in the first year and another 10,000 per year for the ensuing decade. Born in poverty in Pennsylvania, Lippard grew up to study law, work for a penny newspaper, and cultivate anti-elite sympathies. His hatred of hypocritical preachers, corrupt politicians, and thieving bankers results in this "macabre satire of the city's upper classes." The story centers on Monk Hall, a club in Philadelphia catering to the wealthy and powerful. Inside, the vicious reality of human nature emerges. "The sinful actions of the large cast of Monk Hall regulars," Gura notes, "include seduction, rape, incest, cannibalism, murder, counterfeiting, robbery, drunkenness, opium use—all indulged in by Philadelphia's finest and described in graphic terms." In one scene, a man protects his sister from a cad by not only shooting him but drinking his blood and dancing upon the body. The sister can't help loving "Gus," for love in Lippard's world has no moral basis, only an "animal" one. That conception follows from Lippard's "larger purpose," which Gura explains: "He sought to make people aware of the complexity of their emotional lives, how far they are from the rational beings they presume themselves to be."
Nothing in this presentation, however, justifies Gura's conclusion concluding that The Quaker City has been undeservedly forgotten. He doesn't display its language as poetic or acute, nor identify any scene comparable to Ahab on the quarterdeck, nor cite any description of the lurid setting comparable to Mark Twain on the Mississippi at dawn. The novel belongs here only for two historical reasons: its popularity and its expression of populist anger at elites.
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We could say the same thing about most of the works discussed in Truth's Ragged Edge. Gura makes the case for the obscure works he champions on sociological rather than literary grounds, applauding "the rewriting of early American history over the past few decades to make it more inclusive and attentive to the powerless members of society." He hopes drawing "women and African American novelists into the discussion will result in the fullest understanding yet of the early American novel." We do end up with a more inclusive corpus, but the resulting syllabus disappoints. Gura's treatment of novels "forgotten or ignored" for reasons of race, gender, or politics uncovers few compelling characters, little provocative insight, and no beautiful writing. They may be significant as historical artifacts, but not as literary creations.
This is not to say that the author, an accomplished scholar, lacks taste and judgment, or is simply captive to political correctness. But when you limit the novel to its reflection of social reality, you end up with a flattened literary history, blunting much of what makes literary study interesting and revelatory. Only if you grant literature some degree of independence from social history can you distinguish the best from the rest, and then derive a penetrating theory, thesis, or principle from great literature. Required to examine second—or third—rate material, literary interpretation lacks electricity, depth, and intricacy: the very best novels, alone, can bear it. What a literary canon assembled by following affirmative action guidelines gains from being more representative does not compensate for the loss of quality and excitement.