- Reviewed by
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
654pp. £110. ISBN 978-0-19-538535-9.
This volume represents a major synthesis of scholarship on the American novel from the colonial period through the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. The thirty-four essays, organized into seven topical sections, explore an astonishing variety of different issues related to the novel and its history, from formal and generic concerns to the social, political, and economic contexts of literary production. The essays are penned by distinguished scholars whose previous research has made a significant impact on our understanding of American literary history. Many of these scholars are especially well known for their work on the transatlantic history of the eighteenth-century novel. While the majority of the essays focus on the more celebrated developments of the mid-nineteenth century, when now-canonical novelists such as Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Stowe plied their craft, there is enough attention paid to earlier periods to justify the interest of specialists in the eighteenth century.
This volume is the fifth entry in a projected twelve-volume series intended to survey the history of the novel in English throughout the world. Series editor Patrick Parrinder acknowledges in his preface that the creation of a global survey involves choices of emphasis and categorization that are “unavoidably selective” (xiii). As the first volume in the series focusing on a geographical area outside of Britain and Ireland, the present collection occupies especially uncertain ground. Which early American writings should be considered novels, and which novels should be considered “American”? Given that eighteenth-century novelists such as Susanna Rowson spent time on both sides of the Atlantic, and that narrative prose writers including Olaudah Equiano traversed regions from Africa and the Caribbean to North America and Europe, it can be difficult to say which writers and works fall within the boundaries of “the American novel.” Perhaps most importantly, American literature has always been polyglot. Any effort to situate “The American Novel to 1870” within a history of “The Novel in English” will necessarily run up against [End Page 493] one of the dominant trends of American studies scholarship in the past two decades, which has been to shift our understanding of American literature and culture away from its traditionally Anglophone preoccupations and towards a more multilingual and multicultural perspective.
Editors J. Gerald Kennedy and Leland Person adeptly turn these challenges into strengths by making such problems of definition into focal points for many of the essays they have chosen to include. As Kennedy and Person write in their introduction, “The habit of categorizing literary genres in relation to national cultures—to insist on entities like ‘the English novel,’ ‘the American novel,’ and the like—now seems to many critics and theorists, and perhaps to general readers as well, a perpetuation of nationalism itself ” (8). The five chapters in the first section, the part of the book that devotes the most attention to the eighteenth century, take up the challenge implicit in this declaration. Indeed, the title of this section, “The Beginnings of the Novel in the United States,” is itself intriguing, as it is explicitly developmental and nationalistic, whereas the essays within the section mostly challenge this kind of framework. Leonard Tennenhouse sums up these problems succinctly in the opening paragraphs of his essay “Unsettling Novels of the Early Republic.” Tennenhouse gainsays our sense of the novel’s generic characteristics and political affiliations when he writes, “Despite a plenitude of fiction written and read in the North American colonies, few if any of these novels use narratives of individual development to signify an emerging genre, an American readership, and ultimately a nation” (89). Instead, Tennenhouse argues, the American novel in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (before James Fenimore Cooper) was “a cosmopolitan form” in which transatlantic movement took precedence over national or territorial attachment. The theme of displacement also provides a focus for Betsy Erkkilä’s outstanding essay “Before the American Novel,” which offers a trenchant interrogation of cultural nationalism and its...