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Reading Fiction in Antebellum America

Informed Response and Reception Histories, 1820–1865

James L. Machor

Publication Year: 2011

James L. Machor offers a sweeping exploration of how American fiction was received in both public and private spheres in the United States before the Civil War. Machor takes four antebellum authors—Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Catharine Sedgwick, and Caroline Chesebro'—and analyzes how their works were published, received, and interpreted. Drawing on discussions found in book reviews and in private letters and diaries, Machor examines how middle-class readers of the time engaged with contemporary fiction and how fiction reading evolved as an interpretative practice in nineteenth-century America. Through careful analysis, Machor illuminates how the reading practices of nineteenth-century Americans shaped not only the experiences of these writers at the time but also the way the writers were received in the twentieth century. What Machor reveals is that these authors were received in ways strikingly different from how they are currently read, thereby shedding significant light on their present status in the literary canon in comparison to their critical and popular positions in their own time. Machor deftly combines response and reception criticism and theory with work in the history of reading to engage with groundbreaking scholarship in historical hermeneutics. In so doing, Machor takes us ever closer to understanding the particular and varying reading strategies of historical audiences and how they impacted authors’ conceptions of their own readership.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix-xiv | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.442

In the first chapter of Shakespearean Negotiations, Stephen Greenblatt explains that his motivation for writing the book, as a new historicist, was his desire to speak to the dead. My reason for undertaking this book has been just the opposite. As a reception studies critic, I wanted the dead to speak to us....

Part One. Reading Reading Historically

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Chapter 1. Historical Hermeneutics, Reception Theory, and the Social Conditions of Reading in Antebellum America

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pp. 3-35 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.444

Reading is not only a private act but also an intersubjective, social practice, in part because we are socialized through reading. We are, moreover, socialized into reading, trained and positioned into and through social practices for making sense of discourses. By giving us a way to interpret the world of print and electronic media, reading in a double sense reads us into society and culture by offering us a set of ...

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Chapter 2. Interpretive Strategies and Informed Reading in the Antebellum Public Sphere

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pp. 36-84 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.445

Although acceptance of fiction as a popular form of reading and as an object for public discussion and interpretation in the periodical press rose in the forty years before the Civil War, neither developed without reservations. Reviewers, editors, and other magazine contributors remained somewhat chary about fiction reading as a danger to individual and...

PART TWO. Contextual Receptions, Reading Experiences, and Patterns of Response: Four Case Studies

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Chapter 3. “These Days of Double Dealing”: Informed Response, Reader Appropriation, and the Tales of Poe

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pp. 87-137 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.6239

Among nineteenth-century American writers, perhaps no one had a more acute sense of audience than Edgar Allan Poe. Conceiving the form, unity, and originality of literature as a function of its effect upon readers, Poe defined fiction and poetry as discourses intrinsically involved with reception. This recognition of the need to engage readers within the developing literary marketplace of the 1830s and 1840s...

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Chapter 4. Multiple Audiences and Melville’s Fiction: Receptions, Recoveries, and Regressions

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pp. 138-200 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.6240

If Edgar Allan Poe had one of the keenest senses of audience among antebellum fiction writers, Herman Melville was not far behind. Though never as obsessive as Poe in conceptualizing his readership, Melville came to fiction writing through experiences that helped make him aware of, and at times deeply sensitive to, audience responses to his tales.1 Those encounters were initially oral and face-to-face, first aboard ...

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Chapter 5. Response as (Re)construction: The Reception of Catharine Sedgwick’s Novels

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pp. 201-255 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.6241

Whatever happened to Catharine Sedgwick? The question is neither facile nor meant to be rhetorical, if considered through the lens of historical hermeneutics. Instead, the query can be—and needs to be—answered in several different ways, one of which is simply to say that she was forgotten as a fiction writer for most of the twentieth century, until a few scholars rediscovered her as part of the feminist project of ...

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Chapter 6. Mercurial Readings: The Making and Unmaking of Caroline Chesebro’

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pp. 256-298 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.6242

Although the question “Whatever happened to . . .?” could be as readily asked about Caroline Chesebro’ as it could about Catharine Sedgwick, a different preliminary query first needs to be raised. Who was Caroline Chesebro’?...

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Conclusion. American Literary History and the Historical Study of Interpretive Practices

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pp. 299-320 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/chapter.6243

By the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when Melville, Sedgwick, and Chesebro’ were all but forgotten, a new generation of fiction writers, readers, and magazine reviewers had come to the fore in the United States. My point in referencing that change is not to open the way for a detailed discussion of the shape of reading formations and the reception of fiction after the Civil War, which would require ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899331
E-ISBN-10: 0801899338
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898747
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898749

Page Count: 424
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700392
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading Fiction in Antebellum America

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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • Reader-response criticism -- United States.
  • Authors and readers -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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