- Love and Depth in the American Novel: From Stowe to James by Ashley C. Barnes
Love and Depth in the American Novel: From Stowe to James
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020. 240 pp.
For Ashley Barnes, to read the American novel carefully, or, perhaps, deeply, is to employ elements that resemble worship. Developing this idea further as she explores nineteenth-century reading practices, Barnes claims that interpreting literature can invoke communion: "Communion … stands as an alternative to the apparently deeper love of mutual revelation that might be figured by the heart-swapping merge Melville imagines" (2). By her title, Barnes invokes and rephrases the classic work by Leslie Fiedler, and she explains it this way: "The great American love story that was canonized by Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel is a tale built on the frustrated longing for revelatory union" (5). Using a broad set of interpretive goals—"what does it mean to know and love a text?"—the book sets out to weave a story in between what have been read as the opposite poles of interpretive strategy, namely the poles of ethical and historicist critical practice.
It is that gap between an attachment that she celebrates and an approach that folds ethics into historicism that the book repeatedly attempts to bridge; yet, even as it argues for an expansion of possibilities, an intriguing resilience keeps these elements apart. While the author attempts objectivity, the book proposes to guide "a literary ethicist who wants to avoid the bad interpretation of colonizing sympathy or of ideological unveiling" (7). Even as the book argues for a "literary-ethical historicism," a "hybrid of historicism and formalism," it does not quite hide its discomfort with presentations that remain in the camp of historical readings (7). According to that discomfort, historicism might be excused for being somewhat random, but its "crime" lies in the "aha" moments of "ideological unveiling" that do not promote community. In the attempt to assuage what often appears literally as an ideological difference between the histories of Catholic and Protestant ideology in the United States, the book allows value to historicism when it announces that "historical contextualizing can forge real intimacy with literature" (8). Under the influence of [End Page 97] such critics as Rita Felski, the author might be seen to present such a statement as a major concession. I'm sympathetic with the desire for bridge building, even as the title of the book indicates its ambition. Further, the careful use of chiasmic statements indicates the oppositions that the book seeks to unpack and that it investigates through a detailed account of critical perspectives in its first and last chapters. If found neither through the "spirit that vivified a historical text" nor the "historical motor that animated a spiritualized text," then it proposes to describe what remains within the opposition: "the idea that the text's deep power must be either exposed or submitted to" (9). Drawing on nineteenth-century belief practices, the "ideology of transcendence finds its emotional justification in the Protestant standard of revelation" (11), which Barnes finds deeply flawed even as she retains some desire for it. Since "the idea of transcendence has served to extract a text from history" (11), she wonders if it is possible to re-embed texts within their histories and still find a form of communion that invokes, without solving, the fraught relations that continue to divide such Protestant yearnings from the doctrines of Catholicism.
Interestingly, the novel becomes the necessary battleground for describing a "historicist literary ethics" that fuels what the author also describes as a "postsecular approach" (11). In her elaboration of this position, Barnes invokes the "familiar genres of the sentimental, the romantic, and the realist" novel (13). The didacticism of the oppositional constructions continues as she comments that the "scholarship on sentimentality … can be reductive and high-handed" (21). Such scholarship especially confounds her because it "treats as naïve the view that reading is an encounter with otherness." The concept of communion, for Barnes, "avoids the potential aggression of revelatory reading" (22).
The book's paired juxtapositions include some surprising choices as...