- Early-19th-Century Literature
A substantial number of noteworthy period studies appear this year, with scholars focusing on such varied topics as “writerly eccentricity,” the public’s fascination with pornographic and scandalous works, the book as a means of fostering intimacy, and sensation writing. In addition, commentators examine the evolution of the American bestseller, race, the religious press, literary celebrity, sea fiction, and anti-capital punishment literature. Not surprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe receives extensive critical attention, including several useful articles, an edition of selected works, and a reprinting of Arthur Gordon Pym in tandem with Jules Verne’s imaginative continuation of that narrative. Individual studies discuss Poe’s influence on modern popular culture, his use of mourning and loss, his aesthetics, and his political thought. Reversing the trend evident in recent years, fewer works on James Fenimore Cooper appear, although one new edition of a Cooper novella and two thought-provoking articles stand as valuable contributions to Cooper studies. Scholars also provide intriguing readings of works by Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Neal. African American writers receive less attention, as do Native American writers. Prominent literary women, among them Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Sigourney, Winnie Woodfern, and Lydia Maria Child, figure as critical subjects. Two important books investigate antebellum Southern fiction, one focusing on how writers such as John P. Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, and John E. Cooke employed romance in their fiction, the other featuring a key chapter [End Page 219] discussing pre-Confederate Southern literary nationalism. Three articles focus on the American West, discussing the French influence on western settlement, American empire, and Johnny Appleseed, respectively.
i Period Studies
Sandra Tomc’s Industry and the Creative Mind: The Eccentric Writer in American Literature and Entertainment, 1790–1860 (Michigan) argues that “myths of writerly moodiness, alienation, and irresponsibility” constructed by such writers as Joseph Dennie, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Edgar Allan Poe, and Fanny Fern, though apparently mere imitations of the Byronic rebel and enacting rebellion against capitalism, actually served as objects of entertainment figuring prominently in the development of print-based mass entertainment. Writers created a “culture of dysfunction” as a means of self-publicity through which they could achieve popularity and financial success. According to Tomc, these writers operated in an apolitical fashion as they strove to create what would nonetheless become core ideas “internal to evolving provincial culture systems in the 1820s and 1830s.” In addition to providing valuable insights into the authors discussed in her fine book, Tomc presents a lively history of early-19th-century American print culture.
In Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere (New Hampshire) Michael Millner chronicles the period’s scandal sheets, pornographies, medical journals, religious novels, and popular newspapers and the roles they played in shaping the early American public sphere by encouraging debates over “good” and “bad” reading materials. Millner argues that “such bad forms of reading are critical, reflective, and essential to modern democracy and the public sphere.” Attempting to understand “the consumption of texts,” Fever Reading illustrates how emotion and the role it plays in reading badly allow readers to appreciate the importance of affective reading. Millner employs recent work in cognitive science on affect “to rethink the way literary and cultural historians think about reading that touches us emotionally.” Constantly reminded of the dangers inherent in reading, the 19th-century literary audience viewed the pornographic, sensationalistic, and religious genres in a fashion that led to questions of agency and choice, and that frequently resulted in their reading too emotionally, too physically, or too absorptively—in other words, reading in a fever. Critical reading, Millner asserts, remains closely connected to the [End Page 220] development of democratic discourse. His intriguing study concludes with speculation on how the subject of 19th-century notions of reading, emotion, and the public sphere might be of interest and importance today.
In Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn.) Gillian Silverman offers interesting perspectives on the ways 19th-century readers envisioned bodily intimacy between subjects. Silverman posits that books served as a technology of intimacy that permitted their audience to...