- Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip Gura
In the last several years, Americanists have come to recognize that there is “no literary-critical field called the early American novel” (Leonard Tennenhouse, “Is there an Early American Novel?,” Novel 40.1–2 : 9). The British archive of Smollett, Richardson, Austen, Sterne, Mackenzie, and Defoe is long established and firmly entrenched, but the American novel before 1820 has all too often been dismissed on the grounds that it is a derivative imitation of its more “literary” British counterparts or a pallid precursor to the greater aesthetic successes of nineteenth-century authors. Material conditions in both the late eighteenth- and early twentyfirst-century book markets also conspire to marginalize the early American novel as a field of study. Much of the novelistic fiction read in the United States in the early Republic was reprinted or imported from Britain and Europe, or reprinted serially in periodicals (often without acknowledgment). American authors, moreover, found it challenging to find domestic publishers willing to print local novels when fiction from overseas was cheap to reproduce and appealed to a reading public already familiar with British culture. Today, digital archives have expanded, but reduced library and research budgets, the challenges of teaching novels in their original typeset versions, the limited availability of modern critical editions, and the devaluation of archival research have also hampered our efforts to produce a more comprehensive cultural history of the early American novel beyond a few “representative” texts.1 Those texts, moreover—sentimental novels like The Coquette (1797), The Power of Sympathy (1789), Charlotte Temple (1791), or the gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown—have tended to be valued for their adherence to the standards of literary nationalism that twentieth-century criticism retroactively imposed on the early Republic, yet few novels written or read in the United States before Cooper confine their plots to American geographies, claim to represent a unified American identity, or are even easily distinguished from British literary productions. As a result, twentieth-century historical accounts of nation making have tended to impose a break in the literary history of the American [End Page 825] novel that separates the more canonical writers of the nineteenth century from everything published before 1820.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the field of American literature lacks a comprehensive study of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel comparable in scope and ambition to, say, Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957). The publication of Philip Gura’s Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel (whose subtitle clearly invokes Watt’s book) is therefore a welcome effort to redress this critical gap (although the book’s avowed focus on fiction written after 1820 still leaves the often-neglected first decades of the nineteenth century open to further discussion). Gura updates New Critical literary histories like Alexander Cowie’s 1948 The Rise of the American Novel and Richard Chase’s 1957 The American Novel and Its Tradition (which he cites as “the most thorough and well-regarded studies” of their kind [xix]) by addressing a much-expanded archive of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists. Those authors—who include Tabitha Tenney, John Neal, Sarah Savage, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Robert Montgomery Bird, George Lippard, Sylvester Judd, Frank J. Webb, and Lillie Devereux Umsted Blake, to name just a few—are united by a shared “schizophrenic emphasis on the individual and his feelings as well as the commonwealth and one’s obligation to it” (280). For Gura, in other words, the story of the novel’s rise to cultural prestige in the United States is a nationalizing narrative about the tension between individual self-expression and the social, economic, and racial contingencies of an urbanizing America.
Truth’s Ragged Edge invites comparison to a work like Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (Norton, 2005), another title by a highly respected senior critic who has sought to make the scholarship of his generation accessible to a general audience. Indeed...