- Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip F. Gura
As he expertly navigates the literary and the social landscapes of the newly founded nation, Philip Gura outlines the rise of the American novel beginning with William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789). His coherently organized study aims to revive “a dormant tradition” (xix) of earlier studies of the novel by Alexander Cowie (1948), Richard Chase (1957), and Henri Petter (1971). As Gura demonstrates, these texts overlook a number of important novelists without whom no study of the American novel is complete. Gura provides a more inclusive outline by including women and African American novelists who were crucial to the novel’s development and evolution. He thus responds to scholars like Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins, who have argued for the inclusion of female novelists within the tradition as crucial to the novel’s evolution.
Truth’s Ragged Edge begins when religion and a relationship to the Divine dominated American life, then moves through the shift to concerns with free will, and ends with novelists’ critiques of Emersonian self-consciousness. Each of Gura’s eight chapters focuses on a specific decade and several of its most prominent and often overlooked authors. Gura revises the literary legacy of James Fenimore Cooper, for instance, by pointing to writers such as John Neal and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, whose novels are engaged with contemporary social and economic issues. Importantly, Sedgwick emerges as the most influential of the three because her novels “established patterns that many authors, particularly women, reprised through the 1860s” (49).
Gura explores novels such as Susan Warner’s runaway bestseller The Wide, Wide World (1850), which sparked interest in fiction by women, and Caroline Chesebro’s representations of “the indignities suffered by women in heterosexual relationships” (132) as he demonstrates that even when women novelists wrote within the conservative sentimental genre, their popularity permitted other female authors to publish more experimental fiction. Moreover, Gura analyzes the work of William Wells Brown whose Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853) stands out as the first novel by an African American author and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), whose autobiographical novel “offered a serious challenge to both sentimental conventions and contemporary slave narratives” (160) alongside Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857) and Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859), both of which focus on racism and prejudice in the North rather than slavery in the South. The last part of Gura’s study comments on the literary developments of the 1860s and 1870s by discussing influential cultural journals such as Harper’s [End Page 234] and The Atlantic Monthly, which aided the publication of novels by women authors who “were responsible for the final important development in the early American novel” (219). Gura thus details female novelists’ place at the forefront of social and economic critiques of American individualism.
Truth’s Ragged Edge is an excellent interdisciplinary read as Gura weaves together literary and social landscapes, illustrating how the rise and development of the American novel responded to and represented the new nation’s religious and political landscapes alongside its most pressing economic and social issues.