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  • Seduction, Sentiment, and the Transatlantic Plain Style
  • Ezra Tawil (bio)

from perry miller’s american language to pamela’s plain style

In a posthumously published essay entitled “An American Language,” Perry Miller returned to a theme that he had treated with definitive precision earlier: the “plain style.”1 Miller was obviously one of our great readers of the Puritan plain style, and his treatment of the subject in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939) is still required reading on the subject. What sets Miller’s later essay apart, however, is that rather than just accounting for “the sermon, the treatise on polity, the history, the explanation of political theory” (“American Language” 211–12), Miller attempts to generate out of these forms a full-scale argument about American literary style that he can carry forward into our nineteenth-century great tradition and beyond. This was a radical departure from Miller’s earlier insistence that “any criticism which endeavors to discuss Puritan writings as part of literary history” or to “estimate them from any ‘aesthetic’ point of view” was inappropriate to the object (New England Mind 362).2 In “An American Language,” by contrast, Miller tells a story about the cultural career of “the ideal of the plain style as it was brought to New England” (213), where it first became the cornerstone of “the Puritan aesthetic” (214) and then “the presiding rule of American prose” (213). This path takes Miller from the “founders of New England” all the way up to Ernest Hemingway, with stops along the way at Revolutionary political discourse (215), the American Renaissance (Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s Moby Dick) (215–28), and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (“as Mr. Hemingway rightly proposes, the progenitor of modern American literature”) (228–240, quotation on 236). Through this remarkably bold act of critical extrapolation, Miller thus traces how the plain style developed [End Page 255] from a “colonial dialect” (208) into an “American language,” which he can pursue “into the extending vistas of American self-expression” (216).

This essay, too, will argue that plain stylistics acquired an important cultural status in the imaginative literature of the early United States, though I stop short of declaring it the “presiding rule of American prose” (Miller, “American Language” 213). Moreover, I will focus on a subgenre absent from Miller’s account, namely, the sentimental novel of seduction. Post-Revolutionary seduction fiction, for all its self-conscious typicality and conventionality, in fact made an aggressive bid for cultural novelty and articulated an argument about the plain-spoken virtues of American expression that radiated far outside its presumed sphere of influence, eventually becoming assimilated into our common sense about the distinctive features of our literary tradition. Even Perry Miller’s idea of an “American Language,” I shall suggest later, bears the unwitting influence of this devalued subgenre and the theory of style immanent in it.

Let me begin by making a simple prima facie case: it must be more than coincidence that the same moral and characterological features valorized by the seduction tale—simplicity of style, authenticity of expression, and homespun virtue, perhaps lacking in elegance or splendor, but thereby of greater power and substance—correspond to some of the most familiar positive stereotypes about an “American” literary aesthetic. These correspondences ought to be obvious, but criticism has yet to explore the possibility that the seduction novel could have been central to this literary story, it seems to me, for at least two reasons. First, because we generally prefer to emphasize, along with Miller, the colonial Puritan origins of these aspects of the American literary voice. Second, judging from the tradition Miller self-consciously authorizes from this origin, we might suspect another reason lurking behind the first: like the larger sentimental tradition to which it belongs, the seduction novel has been branded a derivative cultural form whose failure of originality qualifies it only to play the foil to the truly American voice embodied in a properly literary—and properly masculine—canon flourishing elsewhere. By digging around in this little pocket of literary history, this essay wagers, we stand to learn a lot about the role of the plain aesthetic in American literary...