American literature, John Neal, Literary criticism
The John Neal novel that sits in my office is representatively disorienting. This edition of Rachel Dyer (1828), proclaimed a "literary classic" by its 1990s publishers, was nonetheless shelved as young adult fiction by the library that recently deacquisitioned it. Declared an antecedent to The Scarlet Letter (though largely superficially), the volume reveals the anxieties about its seriousness, originality, historical significance, and, most confusingly, genre that have long plagued Neal's critical legacy.
Edward Watts and David Carlson's collection, John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, does much to counter these concerns and reestablish Neal's role as a central literary figure from the middle fifty years of the nineteenth century. By treating Neal as a serious object of study worthy of an essay collection and approaching an array of Neal's work from a wide variety of historical, aesthetic, and political angles, Watts and Carlson bring necessary attention to a lamentably marginalized figure. The volume is dynamic, expansive, and heartening; it hopefully heralds the further reconsideration of a number of popular, noncanonical figures—not only the now recognizable Robert Montgomery Bird and George Lippard but also less studied writers such as Sally Wood, Isaac Mitchell, and Ned Buntline.
Until John Neal, scholarship on the author was sparse. Two biographies appeared in the 1970s, and 1980s scholarship treated Neal largely for his role in bridging early national and American Renaissance literature. Recently, scholars like Teresa Goddu, Dana Nelson, and Karen Weyler have moved Neal to a more central role in their considerations of the period. This laudable volume is the first sustained look at John Neal in this century.
The collection proceeds largely chronologically with groups of essays that illuminate various angles of Neal's aesthetics and politics. Matthew Pethers's opening essay tackles Neal's fraught relationship to an emergent literary nationalism and longstanding early republican concerns about literary origins and originality. Jeffrey Insko, Jörg Thomas Richter, and Francesca Orestano expand the discussion of Neal's aesthetics in his prose, poetry, and art criticism. Together these essays do much to engage [End Page 385] the generic and structural messiness of Neal's writing, productively recuperating it from disparaging critiques of Neal's aesthetics. Maya Merlob and Kerin Holt examine Neal in terms of broader shifts in the development of American genres; Merlob casts Neal's sprawling style as a commercialized, "Yankee" romanticism, while Holt limns Neal's turn toward a northern regionalism, picking up the nationalist questions raised by Pethers's essay.
Matthew Wynn Sivils and Edward Watts reconsider Neal's approach to the frontier and Native Americans, reviving Neal as a humane and progressive political voice for the antebellum era. Sivils does so by putting Neal into conversation with James Fenimore Cooper to expose the haunted landscapes of Jacksonian literature, while Watts shows Neal "refut[ing] popular literature's divisive and destructive insistence on the frontiersman and the Indian as implacable enemies" through his essay's excellent discussion of the trope of the Indian Hater (209). David Carlson turns these discussions of Neal's novel attack on settler-Indian tropes toward their legal instantiations, exploring Rachel Dyer as an "assault on the concept of precedent" (160). Karen Weyler and Fritz Fleishmann's essays productively shift the discussion of Neal's progressive politics toward gender, with Weyler advocating for Neal as a key early feminist writer and Fleishmann asking how Neal's "male feminism . . . might affect the daily practice of masculinity" (248). Finally, John Elmer and Kevin Hayes examine Neal's 1869 late-in-life autobiography; Elmer locates his discussion in artistic implications of Neal's 1820s relationship with possible con artist John Dunn Hunter while Hayes looks at the production of Neal's compositionally idiosyncratic autobiography. The essays effectively situate Neal as an active, relevant, and fascinating figure in early republican literature and culture.
The limitations of the volume are, in many ways, the limitations of early and antebellum literary study. The collection opens...