- John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture ed. by Edward Watts and David J. Carlson
Why do we recover a forgotten author? Much of the expansion of the nineteenth-century canon over the past half century has occurred in response to social and political transformations and through the desire to recover the silenced voices of the underrepresented and oppressed, whether due to gender, class, race, sexuality, region, or religion. But what of writers who don't represent a social position distinct from mainstream canonical literature? In other words, what of those other dead white men?
Edward Watts and David Carlson, coeditors of the important and largely impressive collection John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, begin to raise this issue in their introduction. It's a question that, in some ways, haunts the volume. At times, they and some of the contributors follow the political bent of other recovery efforts—Neal is important because of his progressive political commitments to women's rights and against American imperialism. However, at other times they emphasize, as did the few scholars who wrote on Neal in the past century, that Neal was an important influence on more canonical authors and a prominent voice in at least the early years of his career. Nathaniel Hawthorne's comment in the sketch "P's Correspondence" about "that wild fellow, John Neal, who almost turned my boyish brain with his romances" has long served as a keynote for those arguing for Neal's significance and potential influence. Yet the editors begin their introduction by noting that in 1845 Hawthorne suggested that Neal, who lived until 1876, must be dead because he hadn't heard of him in so long. And the concluding essay by Kevin Hayes on Neal's 1860 autobiography quotes a reviewer who noted [End Page 237] that "'a very considerable proportion of our readers do not know who John Neal is'" (qtd. on 275).
Because many of my readers may be in the same position, I'll provide a quick overview of his career. In 1793, Neal was born into a Quaker family of Falmouth (now Portland) in what was then the Maine district of Massachusetts. After a series of failed attempts at making a living, including becoming a lawyer, he published his first novel, Keep Cool, in 1817 while living in Baltimore. Over the next few years he produced a number of critical essays (especially on Byron, one of his most important influences) and a volume combining his poem The Battle of Niagara with his drama Goldau. Then, in just over four months in 1821 and 1822, he wrote four two-volume novels: Logan, Seventy-Six, Randolph, and Errata (published 1822-23). He spent the mid-1 820s in London, where he served as Jeremy Bentham's personal secretary. There he also produced a series of sketches on American writing and art for Blackwood's magazine (for which he is probably best known) and published his longest novel, Brother Jonathan (1825). Returning to the United States, he settled in Portland, writing Rachel Dyer (1828)—a historic romance of the Salem Witch Trials—the self-referential Authorship (1830), and The Down-Easters (1833). Over the next four decades, he would edit a series of journals; publish a number of orations, sketches, critical essays, and short stories; and create a minor stir through his lectures in favor of women's rights (relatedly publishing his novel True Womanhood ). In the 1860s, he published two dime novels with Beadle and Company before the release of his autobiography, Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life, in 1869.
Overall, the essays in this volume focus on the works of the 1820s, as has most previous criticism. This emphasis has led to Neal being best known for his advocacy of a distinctive American literature, and many of the essays in the volume return to the question of his literary nationalism. The more compelling essays, however, either complicate his relationship to American nationalism (through his aesthetic...