In this book I attempt to describe and analyze the repertory of ideas about the novel that were generally circulating in the United States before the Civil War. I have used as my sources original reviews of novels—any and all novels—appearing in the most widely read periodicals of the antebellum period. The bulk of the material comes from the years 1840–1860, for in these decades magazines, novels, and novel reviews all proliferated. Reviews were almost always anonymous, and since I am interested in a body of critical opinion rather than in individual personalities, I have usually left them so.
Studies of American attitudes toward fiction commonly use general pronouncements on literature as their sources—theoretical and pan-generic rather than practical criticism. This book, in contrast, taking the novel as its field, uses only material about novels, and usually about specific novels. In Chapter 1, I talk about the journals and reviews I use and describe my method. In Chapter 2, I show that “the novel” was itself, long before 1840, a cultural concept thought to refer meaningfully to a large number of specific literary works. In the remaining chapters I work with those aspects of the novel most frequently defined and discussed in reviews. I do not discuss the correctness of reviewer evaluations, for I am not interested in their judgments so much as in the criteria on which judgments were allegedly based.
So far as I know, no work like this exists for any genre in America (or England, for that matter). Where the United States is concerned, reviews have figured importantly in two kinds of research: reception studies and investigations of the phenomenon of literary nationalism. Both kinds tend to disregard genre, and hence to render it invisible. My assumption is that ideas about the genre of the work at hand enter into that work at every phase of its history: into its creation by the writer, its presentation by the publisher, its reception by readers, and its assessment and transmission by critics. The cultural concept of the novel, then, is an influential historical reality. I hope that the scope of my coverage will provide for some comprehensiveness in the assertions I make about the state of novel discourse in antebellum America.
Although my focus is not on major authors, my work may suggest how our current view of their historical situation might be in error. Many antebellum writers and reviewers whose names today are forgotten were, in their time, among the most immediate influences on the literary thinking and output of their contemporaries who have since achieved “major” status, and correctly understanding the impetus and intentions behind the work of a major literary figure frequently requires some familiarity with issues that only briefly animated the literary world. From the vantage point of a large number of novel reviews one can perceive the commentary of a particular author—Hawthorne, say, on romance; or Poe on unity of effect—as intended to persuade rather than to describe; or, more precisely, to persuade by pretending to describe. Again, taking the reviews of Melville’s Pierre at face value we can only conclude that the book’s immorality killed its sales. But when we note how very many novels were faulted for their immorality and how many of these were thought by reviewers to be popular on account of that immorality, and as we read review after review lamenting the critic’s inability to affect the sales of “vicious” novels, we may have to revise this opinion.
I am grateful to the University of Illinois for a sabbatical leave and to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a fellowship, which together gave me the time to carry through this work. The library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Cham-paign, which has complete holdings of most of the periodicals I used, was a wonderful place to work, and a helpful staff greatly expedited my research. A portion of Chapter 11, in different form, has appeared in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, and I am grateful to the editor for permission to republish it here. Lawrence Buell gave me good advice at various stages of this work; other literary historians whose publications have been most helpful to me are cited in the bibliography.