The Authority of the Imagination in an Age of Wonder


Historians of the early American republic should pay attention to novels because the people we study paid attention to them. The sudden popularity of novels is a historical development that requires a historical explanation. Literary texts are historical documents that reveal not only the preoccupations of large numbers of people but a way of organizing experience that acquired widespread legitimacy between 1800 and 1850. We might benefit from reading novels less literally and more for what they reveal about the shifting structure of discourse and discourse communities. We need to consider them not as sources of information or cultural values but as a dynamic genre that underscores the persistence of eighteenth-century ideas about commerce and sympathy into the nineteenth century. They challenge our preoccupation with categories. Not everyone in the early nineteenth century fit within national borders or political models; most everyone in the early nineteenth century was a fluctuating compound of competing identities. Because novels were constructed around careless conversations and half-finished sentences, because they celebrated choice and change over time, they captured that dynamic process more effectively than any other genre. Novels also remind us that for many contemporaries the age of revolution was less about an embrace of liberty as the apotheosis of the autonomous individual free to act as he saw fit than the embrace of liberty as a voluntary location of one’s self within overlapping social networks, with seeking other perspectives on individual behavior, and with comprehending the often ironic extent to which the price of one person’s liberty is the slavery of another. The novels celebrate the interdependence of human beings.