- “Nothing but Fiction”Modern Chivalry, Fictionality, and the Political Public Sphere in the Early Republic
Over the past decade, fictionality has been at the center of new work in novel studies and novel theory. Exemplified by Catherine Gallagher’s “The Rise of Fictionality,” recent scholarship on the history of fictionality in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France and England has provided a means of reframing and rethinking the conventional narratives of the rise of the novel and the development of realist fiction.1 Yet the history of fictionality in early America has largely been ignored or casually dismissed. For example, Gallagher, noting the prevalence of “Founded in Fact” narratives in the early Republic, has declared that “[f]ictionality seems to have been but faintly understood in the infant United States” (345). Gallagher’s characterization of the early Republic, however, overlooks the significant body of early American fiction that emerged in dialectical relation to the early Republic’s famous antifictional discourse. Those American novelists who broke the taboo against fictionality did so with a sense that the mode provided distinct advantages for their novelistic projects. Responding to fiction’s critics in their texts and paratexts, these writers advanced sophisticated metafictional arguments for the value of fictionality within republican culture.
This essay takes up one such fiction, Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry (1792–1815), which posits fiction as an ideal mode for carrying on political debate. Many early Americans, dedicated to the ideals of classical republicanism, saw the popularity of fiction as a sign of modern degeneration: for these critics, the rise of fiction in the United States reflected the young Republic’s distance from the virtuous republics of antiquity and served as a harbinger of its failure.2 Brackenridge, however, saw in fiction not a sign of modern corruption, but a genre uniquely suited to address the challenges of modern republicanism.3 In Modern Chivalry, he [End Page 301] argues that the suppositional reference of fiction and especially the suppositional personhood of fictional characters—what Gallagher refers to as their “nobodiness”—allow fiction to achieve a greater impersonality than other forms of discourse, giving it the potential to serve as a uniquely virtuous mode within republican print culture.
Confronted with the rise of the partisan press and the intensifying of conflicts between competing regional and political groups, Modern Chivalry approaches the factious political discourse of the young Republic as a problem of genre. For Brackenridge, the genres most closely associated with classical republicanism were insufficient for the challenges of the modern republic. In his landmark reading of Modern Chivalry, Christopher Looby shows how Brackenridge lampoons the pretenses of the Ciceronian oratory that was closely identified with classical republicanism, presenting classical republicanism as an anachronistic and even quixotic political framework for the modern United States (Voicing, 203–65, esp. 236). Faced with the inadequacy of these older forms, Brackenridge posits fiction as an alternative to both antiquated modes of political oratory and the scurrilous, partisan attacks of contemporary periodical writing. Modern Chivalry presents the suppositional reference of fiction as a better way of creating truly impersonal discourse than the norms of anonymity that governed the political public sphere in early America, which Brackenridge regards as providing a screen for interested political action.
Modern Chivalry complicates our current narratives of fiction’s development. Tracing the emergence of novelistic fictionality across the long eighteenth century, Gallagher has linked fictionality’s “rise” to its depoliticization, showing how suppositional reference came to serve as a sign of privacy, politeness, and distance from political scandal (Nobody 88–115). Responsive to the exigencies of republican culture, Brackenridge sought to reverse this very depoliticization, arguing for fiction’s value within the very realm of public, political struggle to which it was generally regarded as opposed. Modern Chivalry reveals that by the end of the eighteenth century, fictionality’s “rise” extended far beyond the limited cultural arena in which the mode had first emerged. But more than just pointing to a neglected chapter in the history of fiction, Brackenridge’s metageneric argument exposes the limits of the theoretical framework through which scholars have approached the early American public sphere.
For the past twenty years, public sphere...