- John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture by Edward WATTS, and David J. CARLSON
As indicated by his various contemporaries as well as by his editors, biographers, and bibliographers, John Neal (1793–1876) has been positioned in American literary history as something of an idiot savant—a “wild fellow” and “genius” from Portland, Maine, who never quite disciplines himself enough to achieve greatness. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, evaluates Neal’s corpus in this manner in his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales: “Some of the pieces of Mr. John Neal abound in vigor and originality; but in general, his compositions of this class are excessively diffuse, extravagant, and indicative of an imperfect sentiment of Art.” In his 1845 tale “P.’s Correspondence,” Hawthorne filters his depiction of Neal through P.’s “partially disordered reason,” while commenting on the state of American letters: “How slowly our literature grows up! Most of our writers of promise have come to untimely ends. There was that wild fellow, John Neal, who almost turned my boyish brain with his romances; he surely has long been dead, else he never could keep himself so quiet.” In The Southern Literary Messenger in 1849, Poe adds that he “should be inclined to rank John Neal first, or at all events second, among our men of indisputable genius. Is it, or is it not a fact, that the air of a Democracy agrees better with mere Talent than with Genius?”
Edward Watts and David J. Carlson open their essential collection of essays, John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, by pointing to Hawthorne’s inaccurate and provocative comment about Neal’s silence as illustrative of “a focus limited to those forms of aesthetic criticism and literary writing that Neal had largely abandoned” by the 1830s (xi). Watts and Carlson draw much-needed, twenty-first-century [End Page 138] attention to this American writer, critic, and editor by making sense of the erratic genius that Poe so appreciates. The editors make their case for Neal’s crucial position within American literary and cultural studies in their introduction, “Headlong Enterprise: John Neal and Nineteenth-Century America.” They subsequently present thirteen chapters about Neal’s novels, memoir, criticism, short stories, and other periodical writings from contributors David J. Carlson, Jonathan Elmer, Fritz Fleischmann, Kevin J. Hayes, Kerin Holt, Jeffrey Insko, Maya Merlob, Francesca Orestano, Matthew Pethers, Jörg Thomas Richter, Matthew Wynn Sivils, Edward Watts, and Karen A. Weyler. Taken as a whole, Watts and Carlson’s collection presents John Neal as a significant literary figure as well as an engaged witness to and participant in the major cultural debates of the nineteenth century. Neal’s writings provide “a perspective unusually unencumbered by the anxieties of conventional acceptance or fears of compromised professionalism or genteel acceptability” (xxiv). The chapters are positioned chronologically according to publication dates of discussed works, though “certain clusters emerge: early romantic fiction, then nationalist criticism, next gothic and frontier themes, regional journalism, and, for the final periods, public advocacy” (xxv).
For the uninitiated, the above list of topics is too tame a description of what John Neal offers his readers. Alternatively combative, comedic, fast-moving, and stultifyingly digressive, the writer consistently subverts generic conventions that allow readers to create meaning. Therefore, in his discussion of the romance Seventy-Six: “Our Country! Right or Wrong” (1823), Jeffrey Insko emphasizes “disorderliness” (61) and “what we might call Neal’s aesthetic of incoherence” (64): “Neal’s fictional narrative is radical—revolutionary—insofar as it attempts to undo, to circumvent, the inherent tendency of narrative to shape and bestow coherence upon experience” (60). Similarly, in his discussion of Neal’s Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life: An Autobiography (1869), Kevin J. Hayes notes that Neal’s thematic structure “does not let form intrude upon memory. Memory trumps form” (279)—and, though such a style produces digressive anecdotes and “redundancies,” the memoir also “demonstrates how different times...