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The Fabrication of American Literature

Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture

By Lara Langer Cohen

Publication Year: 2012

Literary histories typically celebrate the antebellum period as marking the triumphant emergence of American literature. But the period's readers and writers tell a different story: they derided literature as a fraud, an imposture, and a humbug, and they likened it to inflated currency, land bubbles, and quack medicine.

Excavating a rich archive of magazine fiction, verse satires, comic almanacs, false slave narratives, minstrel song sheets, and early literary criticism, and revisiting such familiar figures as Edgar Allan Poe, Davy Crockett, Fanny Fern, and Herman Melville, Lara Langer Cohen uncovers the controversies over literary fraudulence that plagued these years and uses them to offer an ambitious rethinking of the antebellum print explosion. She traces the checkered fortunes of American literature from the rise of literary nationalism, which was beset by accusations of puffery, to the conversion of fraudulence from a national dilemma into a sorting mechanism that produced new racial, regional, and gender identities. Yet she also shows that even as fraudulence became a sign of marginality, some authors managed to turn their dubious reputations to account, making a virtue of their counterfeit status. This forgotten history, Cohen argues, presents a dramatically altered picture of American literature's role in antebellum culture, one in which its authority is far from assured, and its failures matter as much as its achievements.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Material Texts

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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Introduction: American Literary Fraudulence

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pp. 1-22

The Fabrication of American Literature investigates a paradox at the heart of American literary history: at the very moment when a national literature began to take shape, many observers worried that it amounted to nothing more than what Edgar...

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Chapter 1: ‘‘One Vast Perambulating Humbug’’: Literary Nationalism and the Rise of the Puffing System

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pp. 23-64

In March 1837, the booksellers of New York City held a lavish dinner to celebrate the accomplishments of American literature. Seemingly every major literary figure attended the event, including authors William Cullen Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck...

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Chapter 2: Backwoods and Blackface: The Strange Careers of Davy Crockett and Jim Crow

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pp. 65-100

In the April 1836 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe launched into a furious indictment of ‘‘the present state of American criticism,’’ which should by now sound quite familiar. Incensed by the ‘‘indiscriminate puffing of good, bad, and indifferent...

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Chapter 3: ‘‘Slavery Never Can Be Represented’’: James Williams and the Racial Politics of Imposture

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pp. 101-132

If Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the source for the first epigraph, enjoys the distinction of being the most canonized American slave narrative, perhaps James Williams’s Narrative of James Williams (1838)...

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Chapter 4: Mediums of Exchange: Fanny Fern’s Unoriginality

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pp. 133-161

In 1849, the prolific anthologizer and industrious puffer Rufus Wilmot Griswold followed the success of his collections The Poets and Poetry of America (1842) and The Prose Writers of America...

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Conclusion: The Confidence Man on a Large Scale

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pp. 162-176

If there is any antebellum text that seems to exemplify the version of fraudulence I have been trying to challenge in this book, it is surely The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), Herman Melville’s obliquely satirical chronicle of the ruses practiced aboard a Mississippi...


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pp. 177-210

Works Cited

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pp. 211-230


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pp. 231-242


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pp. 243-245

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205190
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243697

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Material Texts