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POWER, AUTHORITY, AND REVOLUTIONARY IMPULSE IN JOHN NEAL'S RACHEL DYER William J. Scheick* Although John Neal (1793-1875) has not been entirely disregarded by literary critics and is in fact the subject of a recent book-length study, he still remains a relatively obscure figure in discussions of nineteenthcentury American fiction. In part this neglect derives from the unavailability of his novels today, but principally it emanates from a critical consensus of the sort reflected in Alexander Cowie's conclusion that though"flashes of somethingvery like genius gleamed from his most gaudy pages," Neal "reaped the harvest of haste: poor proportion, loose ends, slip-shod diction, and general incoherence."1 Similarly, Harold Martin observes Neal's "mind is second rate and his energy, no matter the good purposes to which it was put, was never sufficiently concentrated to have more than local and temporary effect";2 and Fred Lewis Pattee laments "could the cataract have been early directed, the headlong powers trained and subdued, [Neal] might have been America's literary master" during his time.3 Within the context of this overall assessment of Neal's literary career, Rachel Dyer J|1828) has surfaced as the novel in which he most successfully restrained his deficiencies. Cowie considers it Neal's best work, an opinion shared by John Seelye and intimated by Benjamin Lease, who speaks of it as "a significant development in Neal's career as a novelist."4 To a certain extent Neal anticipated this latter-day response to Rachel Dyer, for in his introductory remarks to the novel he balances his complaint of insufficient leisure to create quite the book he had in mind with the claim that it nonetheless is "much better, because more evidently prepared for a healthy good purpose, than any other I have written" and should "be regarded by the wise and virtuous of our country as some sort of atonement for the folly and extravagance of my earlier writing."5 These comments, perhaps accentuated by the author's 'Professor Scheick teaches at the University of Texas where he serves as Director of Graduate Studies in English and edits Texas Studiesin Literature and Language. His books include The Will and the Word: The Poetry of Edward Taylor and The Writings of Jonathan Edwards: Theme, Motif, and Style. 144William J. Scheick "farewell, and in all probability, forever," to his readers, suggest that Rachel Dyer was, in Neal's opinion, his most accomplished work. Moreover, the likelihood that Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was strongly attracted to Neal's works, may have discovered several features in Rachel Dyer seminal to The Scarlet Letter6 alerts the critic to take Neal's novel seriously. A careful reading of Rachel Dyer will, in fact, elevate an appreciation and estimation of Neal's management of theme and symbolic detail, for the belletristic achievement of the novel is far more accomplished than previous critical attention has indicated. Neal's introductory assertion of greater mastery in this novel is underscored by his intentional distortion of factual details.7 Neal knew many of the historical particulars concerning the Salem witch trials of 1692, apparently chiefly as presented in the 1823 edition of Robert Calef's More Wonders of the Invisible World, but he deliberately departed from them. His twelve-page addendum, entitled "Historical Facts," suggests the degree of artistic liberty he took in shaping factual matters to suit the contours of the aesthetic design of his book. Besides embellishing particulars pertaining to the historically incomplete background and portrait of George Burroughs, Neal made numerous alterations ranging from the significant creation of the Quaker Dyer sisters (in actuality Mary Dyer gave birth to no daughters, and no Quakers were placed on trail during the Salem disturbance),8 to the symbolically significant and plot-facilitating omission of the wives of the real Burroughs and Reverend Parris (which change makes them widowers), to the unimportant modification of the historical Reverend Parris' name. In the addendum Neal remarks that "the truéname of Mr. Paris was Samuel, instead of Matthew, and he spelt it [his patronymic] with two r's" (p. 265). Neal then abandons this matter as abruptly as he had introduced it, never intimating why he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 143-155
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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