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Now that European existentialism is defunct, the popularity among academics of deconstructionism and other semiotic approaches has given contemporary fictional antirealism—the works of Hawkes, Gass, Abish, Barthelme & Co.—a new lease on life. It was only a matter of time until the principal assumption of deconstruction—that language is rhetorical rather than representational—and its method, proving that all writing is merely about writing, were applied to the nineteenth-century romance form. Thus we now have a good many books, like Michael Davitt Bell's The Development of American Romance, arguing that if "a good deal of modern and 'postmodern' literature" turns in on itself "to explore such matters as the nature and validity of linguistic statement and fictional representation," the same might be said of the nineteenth-century romance, particularly of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, who are claimed to have initiated the question of language's capacity to represent any reality whatsoever. To the flood of such new treatments of romance we must now add those of Edgard A. Dryden and Emily Miller Budick.
Dryden's The Form of the American Romance begins with Derrida's "The Law of the Genre" by announcing the position that a particular example of a genre (like the romance) must immediately be recognized by "the principle of contamination." Even if "there is no genreless text," in Derrida's words, a text participates "without belonging, takes part in without being part of, without having membership in a set." This may sound like another way of putting Aristotle's point that an individual member of a genus, which is always marked by a set of common characteristics, may also exhibit differentiae peculiar to it alone. But for Dryden the problematizing of the genus as such, in this case the American romance, requires him "to question and unsettle traditional categories" by questioning "form," the "enabling principles" of a literary work. What Dryden gives us here is a series of close readings of the impact of Scott's Waverley on the genre, of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, Melville's Pierre, James's The Portrait of a Lady, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, and John Barth's LETTERS. Dryden's analysis of these works undertakes to show a chronological "line of development" in the romance form "that provides representative examples of what literary history calls romanticism, realism, modernism and postmodernism and hence suggest a certain story about the continuity of the American novel." What links each of these works for Dryden is that the problem of fictional form is in each case thematized with the effect that "the experience of reading" is, in fact, "the essential theme" of the romances. In some of these cases Dryden is fundamentally right, although in others this approach so dramatically ignores more important themes that the effect can only be reductive. Nevertheless, Dryden is a reader of shrewd insight, and our journey through these novels with him opens up these romances in surprising and unexpected ways. [End Page 743]
Emily Miller Budick's focus in Fiction and Historical Consciousness: The American Romance Tradition is the perhaps narrower—but not less interesting—subject of the historical romance. She finds in this form an "emphatic rejection of mimetic modes of representation" as well as an "equally strong insistence on specified settings in place and time (in what we generally call history)." Her argument is that the symbols and allegories of historical romance "enforce an awareness of the unknowability of material reality" but that, "however defamiliarized," the genre always presents a world "intensely recognizable." The substance of the book is a close reading, in the light of this premise, of Cooper's The...