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NARRATIVE IRONY AND NATIONAL CHARACTER IN ROYALL TYLER'S THE ALGERINE CAPTIVE John Engell* The years 1780-1800 were, in America, a time of political and social dissension, cultural and moral discovery. Citizens of the republic struggled to define the character of their new nation. This struggle had many manifestations : debates over the Constitution; the Whisky Rebellion and Shays' Rebellion; the Naturalization, Alien, and Sedition Acts; and party and regional strife. This struggle informed the writings of the finest political and social theorists: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, St. John de Crevecoeur. But novelists and romancers of this period have been little studied and even less understood within the context of their political and social world. Moreover, with the single exception of Charles Brockden Brown, and even he is not always excepted, these writers have been credited with little artistic subtlety. Some fiction writers of this period indulged, quite naturally, in a sentimental , jingoistic, and melioristic view of America and American character. But the best thinkers and artists among them—Brown, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and Royall Tyler, to name three—studied American character without the blinders of national pride, without self-congratulation or inflated rhetoric. In radically different ways, these writers suggested certain dangers inherent in the American character, in its political, social, and moral point of view. To do so, they were forced to use English and European forms of fiction for new purposes. Tyler's The Algerine Captive (1797) and Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry (1792-1815) are, by general acclaim, the best pieces of satiric fiction written by the first generation ofAmerican authors. Brackenridge narrates his own work; in spite of his frequent use of irony and his willingness to admit inconsistencies, he says where he stands in relation to many political, social, and moral questions. His view of the national character is clear, if far from flattering. Tyler employs a first-person narrator, the young New-Englander Updike Underhill. Indeed, in keeping with the tradition of fictional travel adventure, Updike's name, not Tyler's, appeared on the title page of the first American and English editions. Thus Tyler's ideas "John Engell is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His previous articles have appeared in Early American Literature and Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. He has also published several poems and short stories and is currently working on a study of early American fiction. 20John Engeil concerning American character are more difficult to glean than those of Brackenridge, though his work, like Modern Chivalry, explores and delineates national identity. Modern commentaries on The Algerine Captive share several conclusions .1 First, in the words of G. Thomas Tanselle, "the subjects of freedom and slavery—political, spiritual, and physical—do unify the material of the book."2 Second, Tyler often uses his narrator ironically to ridicule the romantic naivete of the young American. As Larry R. Dennis explains, "the persona is not ironic in his own voice, but he is used ironically."3 Both assertions are justified. But these same commentaries—even the most recent and best by Cathy N. Davidson in Revolution and the Word—imply that, on balance, Tyler is more sanguine than Brackenridge concerning American character. This reading is based on a belief that Updike changes because of his captivity in Algeria. Davidson states that "happily the Updike Underhill who returns home is not the same man who earlier sailed away. He is older, wiser, more able to accept pluralism in society and even in religion."4 After all, Tyler has Updike conclude the second and last volume of his adventures with this unequivocally patriotic statement: I now mean to unite myself to some amiable woman, to pursue my practice as a physician, which I hope will be attended with more success than when essayed with the inexperience and giddiness of youth; to contribute cheerfully to the support of our excellent government, which I have learnt to adore in schools of despotism; and thus secure to myself the enviable character of an useful physician, a good father, and worthy FEDERAL citizen (p. 2).5 In this passage, it would seem, the character and rhetoric of Updike merge...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 19-32
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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