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FLIRTING WITH DESTINY: AMBIVALENCE AND FORM IN THE EARLY AMERICAN SENTIMENTAL NOVEL Cathy N. Davidson* Even though the late eighteenth-century American public was "reading novels with increasingly greater frequency than it read other kinds of books," the growing popularity of fiction did not assure its respectability.1 On the contrary, the rise of the novel in the United States elicited a general condemnation of the form.2 Such prominent Americans as Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and Noah Webster all denounced the new genre, a genre that necessarily offended, by its very nature, those whose literary standards had been shaped by either a residual Colonial Puritanism or an emerging Yankee pragmatism.3 Did novels promote the Kingdom of God? Could they further the wealth of man? On other grounds too fiction was deemed morally and socially suspect. As Carl Van Doren has aptly observed: The dullest critics contended that novels were lies; the pious, that they served no virtuous purpose; the strenuous, that they softened sturdy minds; the utilitarian, that they crowded out more useful books; the realistic, that they painted adventure too romantic and love too vehement; the patriotic, that, dealing with European manners , they tended to confuse and dissatisfy republican youth. In the face of such censure American novelists came forward late and apologetically , armed for the most part with the plea that they told the truth, pointed to heaven, or devoutly believed in the new republic.4 In the face of such censure American novelists also came late to sustained considerations of craft and technique. "There was little time for [and little concern with] conscious artistry in the early novel."5 Consequently , and as might be expected, America's pioneer novelists have been widely criticized for their aesthetic limitations. For example, Henri Petter begins his major work, The Early American Novel, by maintaining: "The three decades ending in 1820 are not considered a "Cathy N. Davidson, Associate Professor of English at Michigan State University, has edited three collections of scholarly essays and has some forty articles and reviews on American and Canadian literature published or forthcoming in scholarly journals. A recent recipient of an NEH award, she is currently finishing a study of the social, cultural, and literary origins of early American fiction. 18Cathy N. Davidson distinguished epoch either in the history of American writing or, more specifically, in the development of the American novel." Most of the early novels, Petter concludes in his first paragraph, exhibit a "widespread mediocrity" and justify the "complaints" that "turn up regularly " in the "book reviews" and "essays" of the time and even in the "prefaces" of the novels themselves.8 However, despite the utilitarian, moralistic, and patriotic biases that hindered their course, a few early novelists still found ways to experiment with the conventional forms in which they were compelled to work and thereby circumvented, sometimes with surprising subtlety, the various criteria whereby they were condemned. The form most commonly employed in late eighteenth-century America was the sentimental novel. These plots, centering on a possible seduction, were more acceptable than others borrowed from the burgeoning British novel for two reasons.7 The social critics were placated by Richardsonian fables that advocated middle-class ideals regarding the necessity of and the necessary connection between virtuous maidenhood and holy matrimony. Moral critics were appeased by the way in which these same novels ostensibly fostered morality through pointed examples of virtue rewarded and vice punished. Writer and reader alike could take comfort in the salutary propriety of tales designed to promote both sanctity and connubial bliss. But demonstrating that the road to heaven and the road to family happiness were one and the same, early sentimental novelists too much simplified their moral cosmology. They saw "virtue" as merely chastity and "vice" as nothing more than virginity's loss.8 Overtly, didactically, persistently, most of these writers proclaimed that female virginity had to be preserved at all cost and that its loss must necessarily lead to degradation and even death. They were, in short, morally simplistic, so much so that books that were sentimental to avoid being dismissed because they were "fictions" are now largely dismissed because they are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 17-39
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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