Our literary historians tell two stories about the novel in America before the Civil War. First, our Puritan tradition, enhanced by Scottish common sense philosophy, created an atmosphere hostile to fiction. Second, the sparseness of American social life made conventional novels difficult, even impossible, to write. Together these narrative strands conduce to a single denouement. The would-be American novelist before the Civil War was drawn or forced toward a quasi-novelistic form better suited to American imaginative space—the “romance,” created in an ambience of isolation, alienation, defiance, and apology that left its traces in the work. The antebellum romances established an American tradition that persists to this day.
This powerful critical myth, which at least since the 1950s has controlled our understanding of the novel in America, does not hold up well under empirical investigation of prevailing historical conditions. For one thing, expressed hostility to fiction was no less strong in England than in America; much of what Americans wrote and said about novels was derived from English sources. Scottish common sense philosophy should not be described as an American phenomenon. Second, the “conventional” novel at that time was only in the process of becoming conventional. Third, a great many novels were written and published in America at this time of supposed hostility to fiction, and a great many more were being read. In the American reviews of novels that form the basis of this study, about eight hundred separate titles received individual attention and about half of these were American in origin. Nor were American works received adversely by the reviewers. On the contrary, those on the magazine staffs who set themselves up as guardians of critical integrity complained about indiscriminate puffery among reviewers rather than the opposite. The America into which Hawthorne launched The Scarlet Letter and Melville launched Moby-Dick was a nation of novel readers. The essential premise on which our history of the American novel is based, that the nation was hostile to fiction, is demonstrably incorrect.
This book attempts to chronicle actual American thinking about novels. It is based on reviews of individual novels—any novels—that appeared in major American periodicals, chiefly between 1840 and 1860. The 1840s in America were the time when the periodical press came into its own. Whereas, according to Frank Luther Mott’s History of American Magazines, there were fewer than 125 American magazines in 1825, by 1850 there were about 600, with most of the expansion occurring in the 1840s. Many of these magazines were local or specialized in their appeal, but a few dozen, by virtue of their circulation, influence, or national scope, are properly called “major.” Some journals passed the 100,000 subscriber mark in the 1850s (a number that would extrapolate to over a million today), including Harper’s, Godey’s, Peterson’s, and the Ledger, while Horace Greeley’s Tribune in the aggregate of daily and weekly editions surpassed 200,000 in 1858. None of the journals I have used fell below 5,000 paid subscriptions during their strong years, which would bring them into the contemporary range of The New Yorker and the New York Review. Not all of the national magazines carried novel reviews, or even book reviews, but most did. My sources are the more than two thousand novel reviews I found that make some attempt, occasionally in only a sentence but often much more, at description and evaluation. By 1850 the vocabulary available for writing about novels was extensive, flexible, and sophisticated, a sign that the novel had entered the world of intellectual discourse.
The periodicals on which I draw, ordered according to the number (not necessarily the complexity or richness) of reviews from most to least include:
1. Godey’s Lady’s Book (hereafter Godey’s). Issued monthly in Philadelphia between 1830 and 1898; published by Louis A. Godey and edited chiefly by Godey and Sarah J. Hale. It avoided politics and current events, containing mostly stories, poems, and sketches, and had numerous engravings, colored fashion plates, patterns, recipes, and household hints. A woman’s magazine with a national circulation, early issues were about thirty-two pages long, but by the 1850s a number usually ran to ninety-six pages or more. (Growth in the size of individual issues is characteristic of other journals of the period as well and is evidence, along with the increasing number of periodicals, of their success.)
2. Peterson’s Magazine (hereafter Peterson’s). Issued monthly in Philadelphia between 1842 and 1898, at first under other names. Published by Charles J. Peterson and edited chiefly by Peterson, but also by the popular writer Ann Sophia Stephens between 1842 and 1853. It was a woman’s magazine similar in scope and appearance to Godey’s. It made a greater point, however, of publishing work by women as well as work of interest to them, boasting from time to time that contributions in a given issue were entirely from women.
3. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (hereafter Harper’s). Published monthly in New York City by Harper and Brothers publishing house from 1850 on. It began as an “eclectic” journal, that is, a magazine reprinting material published elsewhere, especially in British journals, and it popularized the serialization of fiction in America. It soon modulated to a magazine of general interest using original American contributions along with its foreign borrowings, and it featured monthly narratives of current events, foreign affairs, and literary intelligence as well as a variety of editorial features: the Editor’s Table, a serious monthly editorial; the Editor’s Chair, a more genial and informal editorial; and the Editor’s Drawer, a potpourri of reader contributions. It was lavishly illustrated but had no women’s features as such. Its issues often ran over a hundred pages; it was the most ambitious and successful journal of the decade. It led to format alterations in several of its competitors and forced some others out of business.
4. The Literary World. Issued weekly in New York City between February 1847 and December 1853. Published and edited chiefly by E. A. and G. L. Duyckinck, it was a successor to their literary nationalist Arcturus but was much less stridently nationalist in tone. It was a large-format journal of sixteen to twenty-four pages per issue, featuring a great deal of book advertising (almost none of the other journals carried advertising), literary gossip, and numerous reviews.
5. The Knickerbocker Magazine (hereafter Knickerbocker). Published monthly in New York City from 1833 to It had many publishers and editors, most prominently Lewis Gaylord Clark from 1834 to 1860 with his brother, Willis Gaylord Clark, as associate from 1834 to 1841. A magazine of general interest for and about New Yorkers, featuring opinion, literature, and reviews; its opinions and essays were reprinted around the nation in other journals.
6. The North American Review (hereafter the North American). Published quarterly in Boston from 1815 to the twentieth century. The most “serious” American magazine, determined to establish an American intellectual presence and to lead educated public opinion. It was made up chiefly of long review essays, though in time it added a section of briefer reviews as well; its tone was scholarly (many of its contributors were academics) and its influence immense, since the editors of many other journals read it.
7. Graham’s Magazine (hereafter Graham’s). Published monthly in Philadelphia from 1826 to 1858. A beautifully illustrated magazine of general interest directed toward women, though with a broader scope than Godey’s or Peterson’s. It had many editors, most importantly George R. Graham.
8. Putnam’s Monthly Magazine (hereafter Putnam’s). Published monthly in New York City from 1853 t0 1857 as an alternative to Harper’s for the more highly educated. Its initial readership was based on the subscription list of the defunct Whig American Review (see below). The journal was discontinued in 1857, a victim of the Panic of that year, and did not resume publication until 1868.
9. The New York Tribune (hereafter the Tribune). Published daily in New York City from 1841 into the twentieth century; edited from its inception until after the Civil War by Horace Greeley. It began as a large-format four-page publication, expanding to eight and then twelve pages in the 1850s. A weekly edition, designed for the nation, carried its opinions throughout the country.
10. The Southern Literary Messenger. Published monthly in Richmond from 1834 to 1864 with various editors and publishers, it attempted to speak for the educated South, addressing the North and the South.
11. The Christian Examiner. Published bimonthly in Boston between 1824 and 1869; a Unitarian journal, written by clergyman contributors and specializing in lengthy reviews of theological works but containing more general review essays as well. It had various publishers and editors including William Ware (1839–1844), George Putnam (1849–1857), and Frederick Henry Hedge and Edward Everett (1857–1861).
12. The Ladies’ Repository. Published monthly in Cincinnati between 1841 and 1876, it was the leading Methodist journal and was directed toward women. It eschewed the frivolous; its illustrations were not fashion plates or domestic scenes but landscapes and portraits of leading Methodist ministers.
13. The New York Mirror (hereafter the Mirror). Published weekly from 1823 to 1842; a lively New York City magazine widely read by editors of other journals, though its general tone and approach became dated in the 1840s.
14. The American Review, a Whig Journal (hereafter the American Review). Published monthly in New York City between 1845 and 1852, when it went down with its party. A journal of politics and current events including literary essays and some imaginative literature as well.
15. The Home Journal. Published weekly in New York City from 1846 to the twentieth century; between 1846 and 1864 edited chiefly by the popular magazine writer Nathaniel P. Willis. An eight- or twelve-page, large-format family-centered journal.
16. The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (hereafter the Democratic Review). Published monthly, at first in Washington and then in New York City, from 1837 to 1859. It had various editors, chiefly John Louis O’Sullivan, a friend and booster of Hawthorne’s, and was a political magazine of opinion and current events. Although it published much of Hawthorne’s work in the 1840s, it contained little other imaginative writing.
17. Sartain’s Union Magazine (hereafter Sartain’s). Published monthly in New York between 1847 and 1852. Its chief publisher was John Sartain, an engraver, and it contained more essays and features about art than any other journal of the time. It was edited chiefly by Sartain, by the popular writer Caroline Kirkland, and by John S. Hart, a professor and compiler of anthologies. In format it resembled Godey’s and Peterson’s, and like them it defined its audience as mainly women. It was unable to survive the competition of these magazines and Harper’s.
18. The New York Review. Published quarterly in New York City from 1837 to 1842, it was meant to attain the quality of the North American from a more conservative stance and had a loose Episcopalian association. It had various editors and publishers.
19. Arthur’s Home Magazine (hereafter Arthur’s). Published monthly in Philadelphia between 1852 and 1898, at first by Timothy Shay Arthur, a didactic writer.
20. The Atlantic Monthly (hereafter the Atlantic). Published monthly in Boston from 1857 to the twentieth century and intended as Boston’s answer to Harper’s. It had various publishers and editors, including James Russell Lowell from 1857 to 1861. Its late inaugural date explains the small number of reviews I use from this source, but from the 1860s on it was an important vehicle of critical opinion on literary works and other cultural matters.
21. The New York Ledger (hereafter the Ledger). Published weekly from 1847 to 1898, its chief editor from 1851 to 1887 was Robert Bonner. It was the nation’s most popular fiction weekly, attaining a circulation of 400,000 by 1860, and featured exciting serialized novels, lively columnists, and entertaining fillers. It had a large format, running about twelve pages an issue. Book reviews appeared only occasionally, usually touting a Ledger contributor; Bonner explained that the periodical reviewed few books because few were worth reviewing. Little essays on fiction, however, were frequent fillers.
Taken together, these journals represent a diversity of opinions and interests. They share the characteristics, important for my study, of being general rather than specialized publications and of aiming for and achieving a wide circulation. The opinions they expressed were directed toward, but also responsive to, the views and interests of their supposed readers. Of course a review does not necessarily represent the notions of anybody except its author, and even numbers of congruent reviews may express only the opinions of a particular group of interested people. This caveat, with respect to accepting reviewer opinion as representative of public opinion more generally, was articulated by William Charvat some time ago. But novel reviewing, I have found, was directed toward readers, was conducted in constant awareness of what people were reading, and was always trying to understand the reasons for public preferences. The reviews offer guidance and correction in a way that enables us to see what they thought they were guiding and correcting.
Reviewing, like magazines themselves, began in America because it had begun in England. In the early years of the nineteenth century, reviews tended to be long and to include lengthy extracts from the books being considered. In the context of few and expensive books, these reviews served many as substitutes for reading the book itself. Between 1830 and 1840 in the United States the publishing scene changed dramatically: improvements in papermaking, typesetting, and printing machinery, along with the railroad and the steamboat, put books within the physical and financial reach of a vast segment of an increasingly literate population. The 1840s in particular were the decade of “cheap books,” when, for example, a reprint of Bulwer’s Zanoni was available for only six cents. The nature of reviewing changed: long extracts were not necessary, and reviews became more essaylike. But the very large number of reviewable books called for concision; the essay became something like a brief report.
Although a few of the journals—the North American and the Christian Examiner in particular—were from the first made up of long review essays, most journals put their reviews in a special section a few pages long at the back of each issue, along with other editorial columns. (In the 1850s such special sections were added to the North American and Christian Examiner as well.) A particularly notable book might call out an entire article or inspire an essay on the author, and occasional essays on the novel as a form also appeared in leading journals; but the preponderance of reviews were no more than a few paragraphs of commentary and assessment, and many were even briefer—a few sentences. Happily for my project, despite their brevity, many of these reviews were careful to articulate the general principles according to which they were faulting or praising a particular work.
Review sections, often set in smaller type than the rest of the journal, were arranged with the longest reviews first, descending in length to the mere notices of books received. The number of books reviewed in one issue or another of the same journal varied considerably. Novels were by no means the only kind of book reviewed; histories, biographies, memoirs, collections of letters, and books of poetry were regularly noted along with an occasional philosophic or scientific work. The resulting section of the periodical was flexible and informal, the only apparent rule being that reviewers considered only works issued by American publishers.
Because they were brief, reviews tended to be written by staff rather than occasional contributors and to be anonymous. In many instances the reviews appear to have been written by the chief editor or editors; in others one editor had particular responsibility for reviews. The editors were often engagingly frank in admitting that they had been too busy in a given month to read more than a fraction of the books on their table, or in promising a review for the next issue that never materialized, or in copying a review from a brother or sister journal. These conditions parallel those in the British journals, but a comparative study of the journals of the two nations was beyond my scope at this point, though I think it would be very rewarding to carry out. It is important to remember that the leading British journals were available in American reprints throughout this period; the Revue des Deux Mondes was also accessible from its inception in the early 1850s. The American reviews were not so much derivative as contributory to an ongoing discussion, for with their orientation toward American authors and readers they naturally take on a different emphasis in a transatlantic dialogue. Overall, the reviews were both less severe in their judgments and much less savage and lofty in their rhetoric than their British counterparts.
Because they were so often staff people, the reviewers are most usefully thought of as members of the group that Frank Luther Mott has called “magazinists,” that is, people who were professionally engaged in producing magazines. As such they were literary people of a certain sort, different from those who hoped to support themselves by occasional or even regular contributions to magazines, and again from those who aspired to great works of literary art. There was overlap among these three categories to be sure: Ann Stephens and Caroline Kirkland, for example, were prolific contributors to many journals as well as editors; Poe divided his energies between criticism and creation; T. S. Arthur thought of his journal as promoting his didactic reputation. In the main, however, magazinists were people who wrote for the moment, did not write fiction and poetry, and did not expect their work to endure. Nor were they, in the main—though clergymen and professors put out journals—the best-educated, most cultivated, or most leisured members of American society. (Neither, for that matter, were the group of writers now thought of as “major.”) In general the state of the art of reviewing was precisely that it was not an art but a service, performed because readers wanted to know about current books; if the review had previously substituted for the book, now it provided guidance about whether to buy.
The reviews in most magazines were by men, though there are significant numbers of women reviewers too. Sarah J. Hale reviewed for Godey’s, as did her associate editor Alice Neal. Caroline Kirkland reviewed for Sartain’s, Ann Stephens for Peterson’s, and Nathaniel Willis’s sister-in-law for his Home Journal. The proportion of women reviewers may be as high as 20 percent, but they are not represented in the North American, the Christian Examiner, Harper’s, Putnam’s, the Atlantic, the Mirror, Knickerbocker, the Southern Literary Messenger, and so on, even though many women published in these journals. Overall one can conclude that the proportion of reviewers who were women was notably lower than the proportion of writers who were women. The gender of a given reviewer is not immediately apparent unless a reference to “our sex” as opposed to “the fair sex” appears to give it away; and the reviewer opinions do not divide along gender lines, even where women’s issues are concerned. Except for Margaret Fuller, writing for the Tribune, the women reviewers were not radical in their views. Where the novel’s potential for forming or deforming the reader’s character was at stake, to a man or woman the reviewers preferred novels enforcing Victorian ideals of duty and self-control to those favoring anarchistic, self-expressive tendencies.
My procedure in the chapters that follow is essentially to disassemble the many reviews I have read and reassemble them into one large “overreview” in a structure of eleven chapters, taking up the various topics covered in individual reviews. To give a sense of the flow of an individual review and show how it might be treated in my study, I quote in part a review from the December 1859 Atlantic of Sword and Gown: A Novel. The review gets under way by calling the work
rather a brilliant sketch than a carefully wrought and finely finished romance. The actors are drawn in bold outlines, which it does not appear to have been the purpose of the author to fill up in the delicate manner usually deemed necessary for the development of character in fiction. But they are so vigorously drawn, and the narration is so full of power, that few readers can resist the fascination of the story, in spite of the intrusive little digressions which everywhere appear. … It is certainly a book in which the interest is positive, and from which the attention is seldom allowed to wander; and is, so far, a success.
But there is also another relation in which it is to be considered. Without being much of a moralist, one may clearly perceive that its tone is unhealthy and its sentiment vicious. … Dealing with the subjects it does, it must work good or evil. … The moral of such a book is not a good one. The author does his best, by various arts, to make the reader look kindly upon a guilty love, and to regard with admiration those who are animated by it, notwithstanding the hero is no better at the end than he was at the opening, and the heroine is rather worse. And such is his undeniable power, that with many readers he will be too likely to carry his point.
According to the way I have organized my work, there is material in this review for nine of its chapters. In chapter 2, “The Triumph of the Novel,” I could note the references to power and influence exerted by the novel as a literary type. In chapter 3 on readers I could point out the use of the word “fascination” to describe a reading experience, and the somewhat patronizing reference to readers in the last quoted sentence of the review. In chapter 4, on plot, I might note the criterion of “interest”; in chapter 5, on character, that of “filling out” as a means of characterization. (This term, borrowed from the vocabulary of art criticism, could also be noted in chapter 8, “The Novel as a Picture of Nature.”) In chapter 6, on aspects of narration, I could note the disapproval of digressions; in chapter 7, on narrator presentation, the comment on an “unhealthy” tone. Chapter 9, on morality and moral tendency, could certainly avail itself of the second quoted paragraph. For chapter 11 the blurring of the distinction between the term “novel” and the term “romance” (Sword and Gown is subtitled “novel” but is called a “romance” in the first quoted sentence) would be useful. I would probably not use this review for chapter 12, on authors, but one might note that this anonymous work is simply assumed to have been written by a specific male human being, possessed of “undeniable power.”
One who has been schooled—as I have—in the belief that “America” was for many reasons hostile to fiction, cannot but be startled at the evidence of a veritable novel industry in this country long before 1860. The small number of American fiction writers who are now called major did, evidently, have trouble supporting themselves as novelists. But the explanation for this difficulty cannot be hostility in the public at large to fiction in general. There was a problem with copyright that has not been adequately appreciated in a literary historical mode that deals only with the context of ideas; with no international copyright law, American publishers found it more profitable to reprint European books than to encourage native authors. Virtually every essay on literary nationalism I have read from this period makes the point that lack of copyright hurt American authorship (although this was muted after Dickens turned the tables on Americans during his visit of 1846 and complained bitterly about how much money he was losing through the pirated editions of his works sold in the United States). Still, copyright is not the whole answer, since, as I have noted in my Preface, close to half the novels reviewed were American. Perhaps we have to ask again whether hostility or indifference to Moby-Dick really means hostility to novels in general.
If lack of copyright hurt American authors, it may have helped American readers, who had ready access to books written abroad. In the 1840s Americans could read Hawthorne and Poe stories in magazines or books; they could also read Cooper, Simms, Sedgwick, and a host of other American writers; and in addition they could (and did) read Dickens, Thackeray, Bulwer, Gaskell, C. Brontë, E. Brontë, Mrs. Gore, G. P. R. James, Miss Jewsbury, and the Honorable Caroline Norton, as well as George Sand, Balzac, Dumas (father and son), Hugo, Sue, and Bremer, and also German and Italian novelists. They read a great many American works, it is clear, but it is also clear that they had no interest in restricting their reading to native productions, a strategy that some of the more extreme literary nationalist critics advocated. This fact, far from suggesting that Americans did not like novels, implies the very opposite: that they liked them immensely. Thus Hawthorne and Melville did not introduce their works into a literary void, but addressed a market richly filled with Pickwick Papers, The Mysteries of Paris, Vanity Fair, The Neighbors, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, all in cheap editions within reach of most literate Americans.
The reviewers discussed a variety of aspects of fiction from many approaches, in conversation with assumed readers. Since this book means to be comprehensive, it touches on many issues without attempting to devise an overall system. Certain motifs, however, will recur. First, the novel is universally understood as a formal entity whose principle is plot narrated in prose; all other aspects of the novel are assumed to be subordinate and functional with respect to the unifying story. Second, although (perhaps because) the novel was recognized to be a woman’s form—crucially to involve women readers, authors, and characters—yet reviewers continually generalized about novels in ways that made women a special case. Among many ways in which culture entered into their “formalist” discourse, their assumptions about the nature and place of women may be the most striking. Third, between (say) 1820 and 1860, reviews increasingly asked questions about the views of life contained in a novel and judged novels as superior when their views accorded with a vision of a morally governed universe. This judgmental strategy was continually in tension with the idea of the novel as an artistic form as well as with the dynamic principle of plot as the novel’s formal essence. It was also the chief source of disagreement between reviewers and readers at large, as critics strove to make novels “better” by praising those that were “serious,” while readers apparently continued to buy and read novels that simply told stories and consequently provided more immediate pleasure and entertainment. This disagreement has never been resolved; if anything, it has intensified. “Seriousness” has become the justification for our enterprises of academic literary criticism and literary pedagogy and is the source of their tension with the general public. Once-popular books are plumbed in literature courses for their serious content, not for the sources of the enjoyment that drew people to them; novels designed to give pleasure to the smallest number of people are touted as the present age’s masterpieces; readers who read novels turn to authors and works that contemporary critics never read and never refer to except with contempt. The situation is now much more polarized, and the feelings more bitter on both sides, than it was in 1850, but its outlines were emerging clearly before the Civil War, even as the novel was extolled as the literary form of the age.