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  • Novels before Nations: How Early US Novels Imagined Community
  • Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse

In this essay, we propose an alternative to the mainstream of novel criticism, which links the novel to the modern nation—whether as a symptom of the nation’s emergence, as the means of producing subjects to inhabit it, or as a representation of the nation that makes that nation seem necessary to the existence of its population. To accomplish this objective, we identify the narrative moves by which novels of the early US republic, roughly the period from 1780 to 1830, brought intelligibility to what in European terms was most certainly a mess—namely, the colonies of North America. Working together, these operations constitute a model of biopolitics before biopolitics, as we have come to understand the term in the last two or three decades through Michel Foucault: a set of policies for managing groups of human beings, aligned with and complementary to the disciplinary institutions that manage the body by producing individualizing effects. If we can assume that the novel is one of those disciplinary institutions that produce such individualizing effects, then we must also assume that novels train readers to imagine community in terms that are responsive to the organization of the liberal state. But what happens to that form and the kind of community that they ask us to imagine when novels do not aim at producing these individualizing effects?

Going strictly by the novels produced in the United States during the period of the early republic, one has to conclude either that this substantial body of fiction simply abandoned the standard set by other national novels, specifically those published in England, or that the new United States was not a nation in the sense that later novels would insist it was and so could not be imagined as a cohesive aggregate of rights-bearing individuals.1 We hold both conclusions to be true.

To make this argument, we accept Benedict Anderson’s influential hypothesis that novel and nation emerge together, the former as both facilitating and reacting [End Page 353] to the latter. Like Anderson, too, we are less than satisfied with previous explanations of the near simultaneous appearance of novel and nation and what the one had to do with the other.2 Nor do we have major quarrels with Anderson’s definition of a nation as “an imagined political community—imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (6). As he goes on to describe the formal characteristics of such an “imagined community,” however, and to elaborate the narrative maneuvers by which it hails readers into a modern nation-space, Anderson’s model community comes to resemble the notion of “the people” (99) that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri rightly criticize for being an idealized and unitary figure that misrepresents the heterogeneity that actually characterizes a population.3 So long as we think of the forms of community—people and multitude—as discrepant in this respect, we cannot quarrel with Anderson’s claim that the novel’s imagined community is one that synchronizes social information to produce a temporality much like Benjamin’s “homogeneous, empty time” (Anderson 24), as well as the temporality that E.P. Thompson calls “work-discipline” (56). Caught in the epic sweep of all the novels that back up Anderson’s claim, we see how they use a classification system of representative characters to make variant local details intelligible to a wide range of readers.

In view of Anderson’s stunning examples and the ethnographic sensitivity with which he presents them, why would anyone want to challenge his claim that these formal principles accomplished two such substantial political feats? For Anderson, novels not only created the illusion of temporal coincidence among their multiple plots, but, in so doing, they also made it possible for individuals who never encountered one another to imagine belonging to the same community. To think of themselves as part of such a readership, as Anderson insists, these readers simply had to share certain forms of information published in the print vernacular. As such a form, the novel provided “the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the...


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pp. 353-369
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