Classes of Novels
The critics’ project of demanding philosophies, moralities, or statements about life from the novel involved them and their descendants in the continuing problem of how to distinguish a serious from a nonserious novel, or a better from a worse one, when idea content or morality formed the only basis for judgment. Searching for some objective, formally discernible features to which their judgments might appeal, they developed the odd criterion of story in reverse: the more the novel at hand was merely, or only, a story, the less it could be a work of importance. The good way of reading a novel came to be reading beyond the story for something else: its meaning. And hence the novel was transformed into a text to be interpreted. This approach imposed a formal paradox or impossibility at the novel’s core, because it was as narrated story that the genre was identified. And since, apparently, the popular audience continued to read novels for their stories, the work defined as insignificant by critics was more often popular than the one they praised for seriousness. Here, then, is the source of the break between critics and readers that has plagued the history and development of the novel from the mid-nineteenth century on.
As novels proliferated during the period, reviewers took on a less problematic task: ordering them into subclasses. This enterprise was not theoretical or ethical; it rose from the practical desire to impart more information about the particular novel than merely calling the work a novel could convey.
It would be of great service to criticism, or at least to critics, if some judicious classification of books could be made, by which a more minute discrimination should be effected, than at present exists. The fact is, there is too much generalization. Works are included under one general head, which ought properly to be arranged under half a dozen; and the consequence is, a great increase of labor and perplexity to us, whose vocation it is to write, not books but of books, by reason of the necessity to which we are put, in almost every instance, of prefacing our opinions with a description, more or less elaborate, of the work to which they apply. Take the head of novels, for example; we have but two recognized divisions,—namely, the novel, properly so called, and the historical romance. Yet there are a multitude of fictions which require something more definite to express their peculiar qualities; and each of the two species includes almost an infinite of varieties. We feel the want of that more particular classification to which we have referred, in noticing the work whereof the title appears at the beginning of these observations. It is nothing like Ivanhoe, or Tom Jones or Gil Blas, or Mr. Cooper’s Monikins; it is not a historical novel, a religious novel, a political novel, a descriptive novel, or a satirical novel. Neither is it metaphysical, like Godwin’s Caleb Williams, or Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein; nor yet fashionable, (Heaven save the mark!) like the frothy nothings of my lady Blessington. Of its kind it is excellent; but what is its kind?
This witty complaint in Knickerbocker for August 1835 shows that many terms for classifying novels existed early on; it also shows that the subsequently all-important distinction between novel and romance was already obfuscated; and it shows that the project of classifying novels, though helpful and necessary, was also an endless one, given the formally unparalleled flexibility and freedom of the genre.
Many years later (in November 1859) a Knickerbocker reviewer said more directly that no totalizing system of classifying novels was possible. Reviewing an academic work called British Novelists, and Their Styles, by David Masson, in November 1859, the magazine described his system and dismissed it:
from the time of Scott he reckons thirteen great classes. … This classification is hardly more useful or scientific than that of Bulwer into the three classes of the familiar, the picturesque, and the intellectual novel, which might be sub-divided till every purpose of theory would be satisfied, though possibly it would be impossible to decide in which of a dozen classes to range any particular novel. Of all departments of literature the novel is that which embodies the elements of real or ideal life with the least attempt to transfigure them; it lies the nearest to the extemporaneous and shifting phenomena of life as distinguished from the abstract principles and forms, the pure results of wide generalizations, which constitute the vital organism of productions of high art or exhaustive thought. To classify novels, therefore, is very much such an undertaking as it would be to classify men and women, to classify the seemingly fortuitous occurrences of an hour, a day, or a season, to classify the variations of the weather, or write the law of individual moods. The lectures of Professor Masson are nearly the first attempt to weigh in the critical balance the most peculiar and distinctive class of books in the literature of the present century, regarded comprehensively, but probably it is as yet impossible either to assign to past novels their proper comparative place in literature, or to predict what new forms the prose romance may assume in its future developments.
Classifying, then, was helpful if its limitations were recognized. Grouping novels remained pragmatic, ad hoc, ongoing.
The earliest distinction in use discriminated the modern from the older novel; but by about 1850 that approach had lost its usefulness on account of the great number of new novels. Old novels were invoked merely as a means of congratulating the current age on the superiority of modern works. For some the novel itself was so new a genre that it was appropriately contrasted not with older forms of itself, but with fictions that were not novels. “Beautiful as are the tales of the Arabian nights, and perennial in the delight which they have afforded to successive generations, yet they lack many of the elements which are now deemed indispensable in fictitious composition; such, for instance, as the close discrimination of character, the ingenious complication of plot, and above all, the close adherence to the realities of life and achievement” (Mirror, May 20, 1837). In another place the same journal called the novel “a fiction copied from common life,” a type “not above a century old” (June 2, 1838). Reviewers who distinguished modern from old-style novels assigned to the old-style novel the very features that the Mirror had given to nonnovelistic fiction. So, for example, the North American, reviewing Cooper, defined “machinery” as “all that answers in the modern novel as a substitute for mythological divinities, fairies, giants … within the narrowed limits of modern probability” (July 1826). “Where is the Children of the Abbey?” asked a critic for the New York Review, “where the Scottish Chiefs? where the Three Spaniards? where the Mysteries of Udolpho, and a dozen others? Aye, where is Tom Jones? where is Peregrine Pickle? where Roderick Random even? … The public taste has left them. Some were too coarse, some too silly, some too extravagant, some too ridiculous” (January 1842). A Literary World reviewer described two forms of early novel, one centering on “the graceful profligate or gentlemanly highwayman,” the other on “the pattern hero or heroine” (July 1, 1848). The North American opposed the modern novel to the earlier sentimental novel, which had “a hero, whose duty it was to suffer impossible things and say foolish ones; a heroine, oscillating between elegant miseries and genteel ecstacies; a testy old father … a talkative maiden aunt, who imagines the hero to be in love with herself; a pert chambermaid … and a deep villain, who is the only sensible person in the book:—these shadows of character, which the author has the impertinence to call men and women, joined to an unlimited power to create and demolish fortunes, constitute about all the matter we have been able to find in some scores of these novels” (October 1849).
The point that critics were making in these contrasts had to do with the fantastic nature of the story and characters in early fiction. In the modern novel beginning with Waverley (which until about 1850 was accepted as the first example of the new form), all agreed, “fiction is brought home to daily occurrences and observations,” at “home among natural objects and real persons” (North American, July 1816), “a tale of our own times” in which “every body knew the characters” (North American, April 1833). “What could, to a great extent, be very well predicated of novels fifty years ago, is totally false in its sweeping application to our present species” of novel; “we have now no desire for the extravagances of sentiment and action, that, with a few brilliant exceptions, characterized English novels of former times. … What is wanted to constitute a good modern novel” is that such works be “veritable and veracious segments of the great life-drama, displaying Nature and Man as they are, sentiments as they are felt, and deeds as they are done” (Putnam’s, October 1854). The novel has not lost its form as narrated invented fiction, but that form is now embedded in what represent themselves as representations of the real world. These representations permit a much greater novelty of story and character than in the old, repetitive form. Nothing is said in these distinctions about greater decency or more elevated morality in the modern novel: form remains the essence.
If the first characteristic of the modern novel was its greater fidelity to everyday life, the second was precisely its proliferation and fragmentation into subgenres treating different segments of the social field. The earlier novel, not taking the social field for its domain, had no particular responsibility to locale; the modern novel, given the complexity of modern life and its responsibility to that life, had to specify and specialize. Thus the emergence of classes of novels was itself an aspect of the modern novel that those classes exemplified: the older novel had no subclasses. Where, then, at the advent of Waverley the label of modernity had seemed sufficient characterization of a novel, new novels called for more subtle description. And the trend accelerated in the 1850s. “Modern fictions, we know, are expected to do, not only their own legitimate work, but also that of the hard, dry, voluminous treatises on philosophy and morals of former times; they are expected to supply the place of legislators and divines, to obviate the necessity for polemical essays and political pamphlets, in short, to perform all the functions which the several departments of literature could scarcely accomplish half a century ago” (North American, April 1856). At first, critics believed, the modern novel had supplanted other fictional modes, creating and uniting a vast readership through its appeal. Now, as its very popularity led to expanded scope, this community of readers might again be fragmented, the modern novel fall victim to its own success.
Modern novels were most commonly distinguished from each other by subject matter—the area of the real world from which they ostensibly derived and to which they referred. Masson’s categories, for example, included the novel of Irish life and manners, of English life and manners, the fashionable novel, the illustrious criminal novel, and so on. Subject matter, in turn, broke down geographically (where it took place) and vertically (among what social class it was set). Since the modern novel was presumably a story of the present day, the historical novel—sometimes called a historical romance—presented itself as another subgenre (see chapter 11). It was also common to categorize books by pointing to other novels or other authors who presumably had supplied the model: the school of Dickens, the school of Scott. A novel whose purpose was other than storytelling—religious, didactic, political, reformist—appeared in a separate, somewhat problematic class of novels, each kind of purpose defining a subclass of the subclass. The “domestic novel” was much written about, defined partly by subject matter (the everyday doings of ordinary, usually rural or small-town people), partly by setting (mostly indoors, in the home), and partly by its low-key, quiet style. Though associated with women writers, it was not confined to them, nor they to it. Reviewers struggled throughout the era with the question whether there was such a thing as women’s fiction but were unable to find a way consistently to distinguish works by women from works by men. Women read, wrote, and appeared as characters in every class of novel. Opposed to the domestic novel was the highly wrought fiction dealing with extraordinary personages, unlikely events, and unfamiliar settings, and composed in an intense, flowery style; this evolved into the “sensation novel” of the late 1850s and after, a genre much written about in criticism of the English novel but hardly noticed in American literary histories.
One term—amazingly—that never appears is “gothic,” and this is because, so far as I can see, the very idea of the gothic at this time seemed incompatible with the idea of the novel. Conversely, since it is the characteristic of modern fiction that it uses the real world as its source of story, the word “realistic” had no particular defining utility and does not appear. Yet another concept, as already noted, that has come to occupy an important place in discussions of the American novel but had no force at the time is that of the romance as distinct from the novel; although the distinction appears in a variety of contexts, these subvert one another (see chapter 11).
Given that the novel was recognized as a genre of unprecedented literary freedom and possibility, it is surprising that reviewers had so little trouble telling what was, and was not, an instance of the novel itself. Perhaps the very scope of the subcategories allowed them to assimilate problematic instances, but in general we see only a few criteria, and these of no particular subtlety, used to tell the novel from other forms: length, prose, fictionality. If short, the work was a tale or sketch; if in verse, it was a poem; if not fiction, then history or philosophy or essay; if a fiction whose agents were abstractions, then an allegory.
Along with the sketch, reviewers recognized the book of sketches as a form in its own right, a collection connected by various possible threads but without the unifying, complex plot of a novel. This absence relieved the writer of a serious artistic challenge and made both the individual sketch and the sketchbook as a whole minor forms in comparison to the novel. “Why, with all her successful experience, Mrs. Embury has not yet tried her hand upon a two-volume novel, we really cannot understand. … The desire again returns that a gifted writer of such acknowledged ability should give full play to her powers in a novel”; “defective in plot … rather a series of sketches” (Literary World, May 26, 1849). “Not a novel. It is but a series of sketches wired together. Looked upon as sketches, they are capital, and furnish decidedly some of the most amusing and racy reading of the season”; “not a novel, but a slight sketch of modern habits, manners, and conversation” (Literary World, August 18, 1849; February 9, 1850). Before Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter he was not taken seriously as a candidate for high art, though at least one reviewer found his sketches unusually weighty: “we are startled in the class of composition chosen by Hawthorne with these revelations” (Democratic Review, April 1845).
The most interesting question of this sort was, When did a long prose fiction, by virtue of incremental nonfictional additions, cease to be a novel? Sylvester Judd’s Margaret, Longfellow’s Kavanagh, and Kimbell’s St. Leger were all novellike works that reviewers did not accept as novels, chiefly because of sparseness of plot. Melville’s problem works—Mardi and Moby-Dick—were not problems to these reviewers, who agreed that they were not novels, though they also agreed that it was hard to say what they were.
The use of the term “domestic” to describe a type of novel became common in reviews of the 1830s and continued to the end of the period. Allen Prescott was a “natural domestic story” (Knickerbocker,, March 1835). Caroline Norton’s The Wife was “a tale of the domestic class,” giving “a picture of every-day life and manners, which, after all, are the most interesting, and come home more closely to our bosoms and business” (Mirror, July 25, 1835). Fredrika Bremer’s novels were “quiet, simple tales of domestic life” (Democratic Review, April 1843). Mary Grover was “of a domestic cast” and The Elder Sister “a story of domestic life” (Peterson’s , September 1848, November 1855). Mrs. Ellis was “an excellent domestic writer” (Home Journal, February 8, 1851). The Tribune took note of a “popular school of novel-writing, of which The Wide, Wide World was the pioneer,” which it called “domestic novels” (June 26, 1852), but a month earlier Godey’s called Jane Austen’s reissued Sense and Sensibility “a domestic story,” thereby endowing the form with a pedigree (May 1852). Marion Har-land’s Alone was a “domestic story” (Putnam’s, October 1855). Cora and the Doctor was “an unpretending narrative of domestic life,” Sea-Spray “a new novel of American domestic life,” Catharine Sedgwick an author “particularly at home” in the “quiet, domestic sphere,” and Walter Thornley a “charming domestic story” (Harper’s, November 1855, April 1857, September 1857, Au-gust 1859).
In one sense the domestic was simply the novel’s ultimate modern manifestation; “novels (we use the word in the sense it now expresses) are the epics of private, domestic life” (Democratic Review, March 1845). But for most reviewers the term had a more specialized sense, implying a setting chiefly within ordinary people’s homes and a plot made up of incidents that were appropriate to such a setting. The North American identified a “class of domestic novels … describing minutely and faithfully the interior of households in our own times” (April 1843). “No novelist has approached [Fredrika Bremer] in the interest with which she invests home-scenes and incidents of every day life”; the scenes of Angela, by Mrs. Marsh, “are principally laid in the quiet of home” (Peterson’s, October 1843, September 1848). Harper’s described Eliza Buckminster Lee’s Florence as “filled with charming pictures of domestic life in the interior of New England” (January 1852). “Whatsoever Emilie Carlen writes is true and affectionate,” Knickerbocker observed. “She loves home-hearths and firesides like a cricket, and wherever you hear the crackling of the logs; wherever you see the cheerful blaze, and the genial faces gathered around it, you may be sure that every sound she utters will find some quiet human heart for its home and resting-place” (June 1853). Toiling and Hoping was, for Knickerbocker, “a narrative of home, and its characters are such as are met around the fireside” (May 1856). This approach permitted the reviewer to identify a domestic novel simply by its content.
Although the domestic novel was not confounded with—it was usually distinguished from—the sentimental novel, an outmoded form dealing with “pattern” heroes and heroines and impossible situations, the concept did carry expectations about tone, attitude, sentiment, and beliefs. Simply, domestic fiction was presumed to be written not only to depict but also to celebrate home as haven. References recur to calm, quiet, the unpretending. Bremer’s novels were “quiet simple tales of domestic life” possessing an “indescribable charm” such as “one rarely meets” in “more elaborate novels” (Democratic Review, April 1843). In The Diary of Lady Willoughby “domestic life, with its quiet scenes and deep, silent enjoyments, is here painted in the master-strokes of nature” (American Review, May 1845). Katherine Ashton was notable for its “quiet domestic scenes” (Southern Literary Messenger, September 1854). In Kathie Brande “the quiet routine of domestic life is wrought up into a delightful narrative remarkable for its simplicity and pathos” (Harper’s, February 1857). Godey’s classified Trollope’s early Doctor Thorne among the “quiet narratives” and Isabella Grey as a “quiet, unpretending story” (October 1858, December 1858). As with the western or the New England tale (see chapter 6), the reality of the depicted social field was thought to require a specific kind of treatment. Decorum, a match between matter and manner, is anticipated. Such anticipation had, of course, no necessary relation to objective truth, and it might be supposed that the rhetorical purpose of the domestic novel was precisely to imagine home as a quiet place no matter what the truth might be. In due time this literature generated its antithesis, as other writers exploded the home’s claim to “deep, silent enjoyments” by presenting another sort of domestic literature where home is the setting of misery and melodrama.
A second aspect of domestic fiction, to judge by the praise it won from reviewers, involves its conception and control of the reading experience itself. The reader of a domestic novel has a calm, soothing time: home and the reader alike are domesticated. Agnes Morris; or, The Heroine of Domestic Life “will be considered tame by readers whose taste has been accustomed to the spiced wine of popular modern fiction, but its quiet pictures of domestic life … will gain for it many admirers” (Tribune, April 28, 1849). “For the ‘fast’ taste that is now so much the rage, this quiet domestic story [My Brother’s Keeper] will be too tame”; The School of Life “is a quiet, domestic story” that contains “numerous passages of graceful vivacity, and inculcates a pure and noble moral aim; but it is destitute of the exciting scenes which are demanded by the taste of modern novel readers” (Tribune, May 16, 1855; June 26, 1855). Clearly, the domestic novel had to compete with more exciting fictions and was appreciated by reviewers for the reading alternative it provided.
But though appreciative, the very reviewers who praised domestic fiction all admitted, sooner or later, that the heights of literary art were inherently beyond the reach of this subgenre. The art of domestic novels, as the North American explained, lay in “describing minutely and faithfully the interior of households in our own times … without aspiring to touch the higher chords of passion and sentiment” (April 1843). Bremer, noted the Southern Literary Messenger, “writes of Homes and Neighbors, the Strife and Peace of the Household and the Diary of Domestic Life. These subjects can soon be exhausted, not of their purity and loveliness, nor of their importance; but of all originality” (April 1844). Agnes Morris, according to Knickerbocker, “without laying any great claim to originality of plot, brilliancy of style, depth of thought and observation, or new delineations of character” is still “a winning book,” one that “comes under the list of pleasant books” (August 1849). While granting that Caroline Lee Hentz’s Linda and Rena were “models of graceful domestic fiction,” the Democratic Review thought that in her political and prosouthern Marcus Warland the author “has chosen a higher path” (April 3, 1852). And Graham’s reported that Peace; or, The Stolen Will was “a spirited, genial, and original novel” representing “a move out of the circle of the thousand and one commonplace stories of domestic life with which editors’ tables groan—all very well written, but all intolerably stupid” (December 1857).
Since reviewers thought that most novel readers were women and knew that many novel writers were women, logically they should have associated every kind of novel with women; in fact they especially associated the domestic novel with women writers. Margaret Capel is “evidently a lady’s production. It is one of those simple narratives of everyday life, which your concocters and devourers of raw-head-and-bloody-bones stories despise” (Literary World, March 17, 1847). This association obtains for obvious reasons. First, home was seen as woman’s particular province, and therefore to celebrate the home was especially in her interest. Godey’s made the connection overtly and continuously throughout its long life as the voice of the domestic American woman; we do not think, it wrote in describing its own aims in an editorial of June 1841, that “scientific researches or literary criticism, though of such elevated standards as to give the highest reputation for learning to our periodical, are so much to be desired as pictures of domestic life, which will convey to the young of our own sex, a vivid impression of their home duties and their moral obligation to perform them; also impressing on their minds the power which intellectual attainments, when united with moral excellence and just views of the female character, give to woman to promote the refinement, the purity and happiness of society, and even decide, as it were, the destiny of our country.” While domestic ideology aimed to persuade men as well as women to acknowledge the female character as higher than the male, the immediate appeal of this ideology would naturally be stronger for women than for men.
Domestic fiction was also associated with women because they were supposed to have the finer powers of observation and discrimination that the minute chronicling of domestic detail required for interest or notice. The North American observed of domestic novels that “women have labored most successfully in this department, as might be expected from their finer tact, and power of keen and delicate observation”; reviewing the novels of Charlotte Yonge it commented that “in one of the most fascinating department of literature, that of the novel of domestic life, we think the gentler sex, if not unequalled, quite unsurpassed” (April 1843, April 1855). The type was also associated with women, of course, because they spent so much of their lives within the home’s confines and therefore knew more about it than men did and also knew more about it than they knew about anything else. “There is something in the department of polite learning, and especially of the novel, dwelling as it does, or should do, chiefly on the scenes and characters of domestic life, that renders it a field particularly fitted for the graceful genius of the sex. When a man sits down to write a novel, he is apt to consider it as a means of effecting some, as he supposes, more important end, and you find with dismay, before you have finished the first volume, that you are perusing, under this seductive form, a treatise on metaphysics, or an inquiry into the antiquities of Italy, Egypt, or China” (North American on Sedgwick’s The Linwoods, January 1836). In Mary Jane Holmes’s Tempest and Sunshine, “the domestic scenes are written as only a woman could write. In this department there is no comparison between male and female writers. The former always fail,—the latter nearly always succeed” (Southern Literary Messenger, August 1854).
Though they knew the home, women were supposed to know little of anything else. “Restricted as [women] are to a much inferior knowledge of life and the world, the choice of subjects is much more limited, their style and expressions must be much more guarded, and their delineations of the more hidden passions of human nature must, in many instances, be much more feeble and imperfect” (Mirror, September 3, 1842); this view, though not usually expressed so bluntly, was widely shared. The domestic women writers did not disagree but responded that what women did not know was not fit to be known, so that their novels, if not able to show life as it really was, were of the unexceptionable moral tendency that reviewers were everywhere looking for and praising in fiction. Given the dilemma in which moralist criticism of fiction had enmeshed critics, this argument had to be accepted. The domestic novel was therefore both advanced as better than, and patronized as feebler than, other sorts of fiction—precisely as women were better and yet weaker than the other sort of human being: men.
Highly Wrought Novels
Though women were believed to be the chief, if not the only, composers of domestic novels, they were also seen as the major perpetrators of something called “high-wrought fiction,” which was the domestic novel’s antithesis: a feverish, florid, improbable, melodramatic, exciting genre whose emergence was closely linked to female ignorance (knowing little about life, women produced these improbabilities) and susceptibilities (out of the same ignorance, women enjoyed them). “Novels of passion, which try to ‘pile up the agony’ of our poor human nature,” Putnam’s complainingly called them (June 1855). Three extremely successful American practitioners were E. D. E. N. Southworth (at first called the American George Sand), Ann Stephens, and Eliza Dupuy. Indeed, these writers ultimately were more successful than such “domestic” authors as Susan and Anna Warner or Maria Cummins, though sales of individual books may not have equaled those of The Wide, Wide World or The Lamplighter. In Southworth’s The Discarded Daughter, Harper’s found “an intolerable glare of gas-light; truth is sacrificed to melodramatic effect”; Dupuy’s The Country Neighborhood contains “high-wrought language … several situations of exciting interest,” and “lurid exhibitions of unbridled passion” (October 1852, April 1855). Peterson’s, describing Southworth’s The Curse of Clifton, said she would take “very high rank as a novelist” if only she “intensified less,” and it identified Ann Stephens (one of its editors) as one who had no rival “in American literature, in the higher walks of passionate fiction” (June 1854, August 1854). Putnam’s also saw Stephens’s works as “belong[ing] properly to the melo-dramatic and sensation schools” (July 1857).
Many other highly wrought works were written by women. According to reviews in Harper’s, Mrs. Martin Bell’s Julia Howard was a “story of exciting interest, which, by its powerful delineation of passion, its bright daguerreotypes of character, and the wild intensity of its plot, must become a favorite with the lovers of high-wrought fiction”; Hagar the Martyr by Mrs. H. Marion Stephens was “a story belonging to the school of melodramatic intensity … more adapted to charm the lovers of ‘fast literature’ than to gain the approval of discreet readers”; Mrs. Marsh’s “highly dramatic” The Heiress of Houghton was “distinguished for its intensity of conception, its almost masculine vigor of style”; and The Heart of Mabel Ware, anonymous but assumed to have been written by a woman, was “a romance portraying the darker passions of the human heart in lurid and terrific colors. Written with a singular power of expression, it unfolds a terrible domestic tragedy” (September 1850, February 1855, August 1855, February 1856). Many more women read this sort of fiction than wrote it, of course, so that the reviews reveal the woman reader escaping domesticity as much as, or more than, accepting and celebrating it, at least so far as favorite books were concerned. The reviewers completely failed to integrate their two types of woman reader, the lovers of domestic and of high-wrought fiction, into one gender. (As I have proposed elsewhere—in Woman’s Fiction [Cornell University Press, 1978]—what might have united the readers and writers of domestic and high-wrought fiction was their deployment of an essentially similar plot, the story of female trials and triumph. The high-pitched agonies of a South-worth or Stephens heroine were intensifications of the quiet sufferings of a Cummins or Warner protagonist, a similarity the rhetorical differences may have obscured for reviewers.)
Domestic tragedies did not exhaust the scope of highly wrought fiction, nor were women the only writers of these exciting books. Another significant variant of the mode, more congenial to men though not exclusively written by them, was the “metropolitan novel” or the “novel of low life.” Characters in such works were drawn from the bottom of the social heap, and the novels took place mostly on city streets or in public places. This was the domestic space, so to speak, of the urban poor. The metropolitan novel was the novel of ordinary life among the lower classes and, considering the middle-class orientation of most American readers, a sort of exotica. Reviewers frequently placed the metropolitan novel, or novel of low life, at an extreme from the fashionable novel, or novel of high life, with the domestic novel occupying the normative middle ground. Though domestic fiction embodied an ideology we can properly call bourgeois, it was seldom set in the city; placed in rural or suburban space, the domestic fiction complicated its celebration of middle-class values by a nostalgic setting that made it oddly unrealistic even as fidelity to daily life was its announced achievement.
The metropolitan novel is then, paradoxically, both a variant of the domestic novel (when that novel is thought of as representing the lives of ordinary folk) and the antithesis of that form (in that its ordinary folk’s lives are virtually devoid of domesticity). This important paradox was most remarkably embodied, for reviewers of the age, in the brilliant work of Charles Dickens, which might be seen either as ethically salutary or as socially dangerous. For the North American, in Dickens “the native beauty of the human soul has been drawn from under the coarse disguises of want, hardship, and woe, and clothed with living light” (January 1843). For the Christian Examiner his books “breathe a tender sympathy with man as man, in whatever garb, under whatever culture. He is doing more than any other living or recent writer, to open the fountains of kindly feeling, and diffusive world-embracing charity, and to inspire deep compassion, earnest prayer, faithful effort for the toiling, suffering, and neglected of our race” (March 1843). To Graham’s, “the tendency of Dickens’ work is irresistibly democratic. … Shakespeare has degraded the lower classes in every picture he drew of them. Dickens has degraded the upper classes in just the same way. … In the hands of a man of less genius, the same undertaking has often degenerated into vile demagogism. But, so to speak, Dickens is the statesman of the masses, while the scribblers to whom we allude are but the grovelling stump orators. His works are to us great studies” (November 1856). The Graham’s review conveys a characteristic uneasiness at the possibility that an approach like Dickens’s might encourage social unrest. The metropolitan novel always made reviewers uncomfortable, all the more because it tended to be so exciting and hence so attractive, and they were relieved when novelists who chose the genre studied, rather than agitated on behalf of, the social group on which they concentrated.
To a journal like Godey’s, programmatically dedicated to advancing the middle class and its values, espousing the middle way, and addressing an audience of women whose leisure to read the journal depended on a degree of financial comfort, the city novel’s emphasis on the worth of poor people, especially the permanently poor, could be quite overdone. Helen Leeson will “correct some erroneous impressions in regard to a class against whom an envious and unsparing warfare, as malignant as it was undiscriminating, has been kept up for years, the only effect of which has been to widen the social breach between honest wealth and honest poverty” (January 1856). It complained about Glen-wood, a novel describing the appalling conditions in a New England poor house: “Books of this description have become very popular of late, and, whether exaggerations or the relations of simple facts, they add but little to the moral or literary reputation of the country” (February 1856). Reviewing a novel called Hampton Heights, it objected that “there has been, as we humbly conceive, quite enough written for the present, about rag-pickers, lamp-lighters, foundlings, beggars, rogues, pirates, murderers, etc., to allow that particular species of literature to rest for a season, or at least until the details of mendacity and vice can be reproduced with some pretence to originality” (April 1856). It praised a novel called Blonde and Brunette because it was not “an olla podrida of all kinds of crime, licentiousness, and horror … but a natural picture of such personages, scenes, and events as are to be met with in what is most usually called ‘good society’” (February 1859). Note how Godey’s reviewers slide from the honest to the criminal poor and associate virtue with the higher social classes.
The other side of the metropolitan novel was its possible encouragement of sympathy for crime and the criminal, and more generally of an attitude that saw the poor—criminal and virtuous alike—as victims of society rather than of their own shortcomings or of an inscrutable yet eventually proper divine plan in which some won and others lost in order to validate the necessity of struggle and self-reliance. Not everyone had Dickens’s balance. “The brilliant success of Mr. Dickens, in his incidental but matchless pictures of metropolitan degradation and crime, undoubtedly prompted our author to attempt the feeble imitation before us; but instead of employing these themes as final accessories to a good purpose, Mr. Ainsworth adopts them as the very staple of a work whose lessons are of the worst description. Crime is the one source of every interesting situation” (Knickerbocker, December 1839). Another offender was Victor Hugo, “the first who dared to descend from courts and palaces, for heroes and heroines, to the walks of lower life; and like most daring innovators, he rushed from one extreme into another. His characters are literally picked up out of the street” (American Review, March 1846). The error, however, was not in choosing such characters, but in making them virtuous. “That moral purity might possibly be found to exist in the breast of one whose earliest associations had all been connected with scenes of vice and low debauchery, is but within the extreme verge of possibility—a kind of special miracle, to be met with in possibly one instance out of ten thousand,” it explained. “However good may be the intention of authors whose pens trifle with the lower and disgusting phases of metropolitan life, we fear the results of their labors are not always rewarded with the desired effect” (Literary World on Cornelius Mathews’s New York novel, Moneypenny; or, The Heart of the World, December 9, 1848). Since the source of all virtue is the home, street characters cannot be virtuous.
The author of Hot Corn; or, Life Scenes in New York “has long been familiar with the pauper classes of New York, as well as with the haunts of misery and vice in which the destitute and inebriated harbor in that great city; and in this volume he has described them with a fidelity only equalled by its power, and with a power only surpassed by its pathos. Few more absorbing books, perhaps, have ever been issued from the press” (Peterson’s, February 1854). But the Southern Literary Messenger complained of that book in the same month: “if we ever wish for a censorship of the press, it is when we see works like that now before us. … It may be a very efficient agent of bringing about a moral revolution, but that revolution will only bring down the rest of the community to the level of the Five Points—not elevate the degraded wretches of that locality to decency and virtue.” Emerson Bennett’s The Forged Will was a work “containing many elements of popular success. The scene is laid among the haunts of crime, poverty, and wretchedness in New York describing situations which always challenge the interest of the reader” (Harper’s, November 1853); Bennett’s Ellen Norbury was “another of those melancholy pictures of the sin, shame, and misery of city life” (Godey’s, July 1855). Fashion and Famine, by Ann Stephens, was “a story of geniune power, founded on the hideous contrasts of social life in an overgrown city. The staple of the work, of course, is the misery, desperation, and crime which are always festering at the heart of a great metropolis” (Harper’s, July 1854). In this context the appearance of Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter, a work that domesticated lowlife scenes and elevated all the characters to middle-class prosperity at the conclusion, was welcome. “Devoted to the delineation of scenes in lowly life, without aiming at melodramatic effect by high-wrought pictures of depravity and crime” (Harper’s, April 1854). The Lamplighter was followed by The Watchman and Old Haun, the Pawnbroker, imitations that were also favorably reviewed by a press disturbed about the metropolitan novel’s appeal “to an imaginative craving for unnatural excitement” (Harper’s, September 1855).
Perhaps the most dangerous of all these metropolitan writers was Eugene Sue, whose The Mysteries of Paris was a phenomenal best-seller throughout the 1840s. At least one translation of this work eliminated all the passages in which Sue advocated socialism as a cure for the appalling conditions he depicted so thrillingly, to the relief of several reviewers but the outrage of Horace Greeley’s Tribune: “to chronicle the horrors and suppress their moral—omit the very passages that can alone excuse such exhibitions—is the wrong way entirely” (November 24, 1843). The next month it recommended an uncensored translation of the work, commenting that “no work of the age has made a more vivid impression than this, and though its exhibitions of human depravity and villainy are horrible, almost beyond belief and endurance, yet we believe more good than evil will result from its publication” (December 28, 1843).
The kind of novel that reviewers thought the best, as we have seen in earlier chapters, was one in which the world was detachedly contemplated and hence presented to the reader as an object from which detachment was possible; such a novel was itself rather an object of contemplation than a source of excitement. When novelists like Eugene Sue or George Sand wrote novels advocating socialism or attacking marriage, they went even further in what most reviewers thought to be the wrong direction: not only did they ground their works in an interactive rather than a contemplative model of the relation between reader and text, but they aimed for specific social change as the result of such interactions. Reviewers almost unanimously felt that this use of the novel form was both inartistic and unfair: social advocacy was supposed to issue from reasoned or rhetorical argument, not from attachment to attractive characters and their exciting adventures. Yet the novel of advocacy became an increasingly prevalent, and increasingly powerful, form during the era. Where critics were usually ready to argue that a novel was improved by having more to it than its form of narrated story, now they objected to the political or religious novel as a hybrid. In no other aspect of their reviewing were critics as purely formal as in their discussions of the novel of advocacy, and in no other was their formalism as suspect.
Among their other faults, French novels contained passages of improper political and social advocacy, but the earliest noted novel of advocacy was The Monikins, by James Fenimore Cooper. Knickerbocker grumbled over the book that “it is the unhappiest idea possible, to suppose that politics can be associated, in any effective way, with romance or fiction” (August 1835). The Mirror faulted Home as Found as “an imposition upon the public, put forth, as it is, in the form of a novel, when it has about as much claim to be ranked under that head as a fourth of July oration, or a book of travels” (December 8, 1839). They, like today’s literary historians, preferred Cooper’s mythic—unthreatening—stories of the forest and the Leatherstocking.
But complaints, as so often in this chronicle of reviewing, were to no avail; by April 1844 the North American was writing that “the novel has become an essay on morals, on political economy, on the condition of women, on the vices and defects of social life” and (July 1847) that “this is the age of lectures. … The novel has become a quack advertisement in three volumes. … Everywhere pure literature seems defunct. Art for the sake of art is no more.” Again, in a review of “Novels of the Season” (October 1848—a review commenting on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Hawkstone, The Bachelor of the Albany, Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings, Grantley Manor, and Vanity Fair): “opinions have nearly supplanted characters. We look for men, and discern propositions,—for women, and are favored with women’s rights. … The march-of-intellect boys in a solid phalanx, have nearly pushed the novelist aside.” “There is yet another class of novels that has sprung up within a few years past, those which aim at great political reform, or theological exposition” (Southern Literary Messenger, November 1849). “The novel is now almost recognized with the newspaper and the pamphlet as a legitimate mode of influencing public opinion, an indispensable organ in the discussion of any party question or set of opinions”; “every sect and every cause must now have its novels” (Literary World, November 30, 1850; October 29, 1853). Kingsley, Graham’s observed, “is not singular in this selection of the novel for a purpose apart from the general subject of novel writing. The tendency of the age is to present every thing in this form. Thus we have political novels, representing every variety of political opinion—religious novels, to push the doctrines of every religious sect—philanthropic novels, devoted to the championship of every reform—socialist novels, philosophic novels, metaphysical novels” (April 1854).
The reviewers maintained that this subgenre was a formal hybrid, whose argumentation cut across and spoiled the story, and whose story cheapened the argument. Sartairi’s reviewer called Cooper’s The Ways of the Hour “a political novel … a style of writing to which we bear no partiality. We do not like argument in the shape of a love story. … When we read politics, or metaphysics, or any other ics, let us have it in its own proper shape. But pray deliver us from all nauseous mixtures of love and logic” (August 1850). “A novel is not an appropriate vehicle for the exposition of doctrine, at the best” (Putnam’s, May 1854); its object “should be to represent life and manners as they are, and not to advance the cause of a party or sect.”
Although the putative criterion reviewers brought to discussion of this sort of novel was formal, their estimate of a given instance was closely tied to the degree to which it advocated controversial positions or enjoyed controversy itself. Public peace was the paramount issue. Accordingly, the didactic novel per se—that is, the novel of what was called “practical morality” —though seldom thought to be artistic, was yet not perceived as highly objectionable and indeed was considered appropriate for the undeveloped aesthetic tastes of the reader for whom it was designed. “Mr. Arthur writes very unexceptionable tales illustrative of American and domestic life, and adapted to the capabilities of the young and uneducated classes. All his stories inculcate a moral, and some of them are pleasing specimens of invention, and very true reflections of manners in the sphere for which they are designed” (Literary World, October 2, 1847). “Mrs. Ellis belongs to the class of utilitarian novelists, which are, we are happy to say, gaining ground rapidly” (Southern Literary Messenger, March 1843). “A work of much more practical value than cheap novels generally possess. … Another of Mr. Arthur’s plain, unromantic, commonsense, practical stories” (Sartain’s, June 1848). “This tale is eminently practical in its character, tending to show the rewards of enterprise and industry when combined with religious principle” (Literary World, February 2, 1850). “A charming and instructive book, and none can peruse it without learning wholesome lessons as to the conditions of their own happiness, and the connection of that with the happiness of others, through duty faithfully performed” (Christian Examiner, September 1852). “A practical story of real life, full of warning, instruction, and high moral teaching. … The writer is well known as the author of some of our most practically useful tales”; “a work of practical common sense … in which the author has connectedly and steadily illustrated sound principles”; “in this as in all his previous stories, the author has presented a practical lesson of life, from the relations of which the reader will be able to draw the most salutary admonitions” (God-ey’s, March 1853, December 1854, July 1858).
Knickerbocker praised the author of a didactic fiction in October 1846 by asserting that “no one can rise from her pages without being deeply entertained and as sensibly improved” (October 1846) and generalized that “no work of fiction can retain a reputation worth a just ambition that has not for its end the inculcation of virtuous principles” (March 1848). But how different this language is from what the same journal accorded to, for example, Thackeray, “this consummate master” (October 1855). Or Dickens; or Hawthorne; or Cooper. A mixed form, designed primarily for the less subtle intellect and the less skilled reader, the didactic novel was welcomed politely by the reviewer, who saw it as a wholesome alternative to the highly wrought fiction that such a reader tended to prefer. It was especially celebrated by reviews in those journals—Godey’s, the Home Journal, and (of course) Timothy Shay Arthur’s own Arthur’s Home Magazine—with didactic aims themselves.
But perhaps the chief virtue of the didactic novel was negative: its lessons of practical morality, self-control, duty, and the like were uncontroversial and politically and socially safe. This was not the case with the religious novel, which was defined by these reviewers as a work either advocating or attacking the doctrines of a particular religious sect—“A religious novel, in which one form of religious belief is inculcated, as the only one in which safety may be found” (Literary World, March 6, 1847). It was a popular form, especially in the 1850s, and may well have been responsible for making novel readers out of numerous evangelical Protestants for whom the novel had before been anathema. “This class of religious novels has many admirers, and form[s], doubtless, an agreeable mode of disseminating what are conceived to be the truths of religious teaching,” the Democratic Review observed cautiously in a review of The Earl’s Daughter in September 1852; the next month, writing on Margaret Percival in America, it commented less favorably that “the class of religious novels seems to be spreading and multiplying through the jealousy of sects as to the usages detailed in those most popular.”
As examples of the form became more numerous and prevalent, reviewer objections crystallized: the partisan nature of such books would exacerbate controversy: “there is little difficulty in getting the better of an argument, both sides of which are carried on by the same disputant” (Southern Literary Messenger, October 1851); the affective and highly biased nature of the arguments would lead to religious irrationalism: “throughout this book, the opponents of the author’s religious creed are made to utter not only sentiments open to attack, but sentiments which no one possessing common sense can for a moment tolerate. Fiction is not a legitimate means by which to argue or enforce doctrines” (American Review, December 1851).
“It is perhaps too late in the day to discuss the expediency of wrapping up religion in a novel,” said a Literary World reviewer. “When the hybrid first made its appearance, many worthy and straightforward critics spent their strength in grave dissertations on the subject, and probably flattered themselves that they had weeded the literary garden of a mongrel that could never produce good fruit. But preaching (rather than practice) seems to be the mania of the day. … To attempt now to bring this class of literary anomalies into disuse, would be to try stemming Niagara with a straw.” But the critic tried: “the vocations of the novelist and the polemic are so at variance, that it is not to be expected that they can ever be united in one person, and we do wish those excellent people who think they can make the world better by the inculcation of doctrine, would offer it pure, leaving the personal application to the sagacity of the reader; while the few who are gifted with the power of interesting the imagination and the heart by the delineation of character, may safely be trusted to draw pictures of real life, from which the most obtuse reader can derive abundant lessons of virtue and religion, if he chooses” (March 6, 1847).
“‘Religious’ and ‘novel’ are not merely paradoxical but directly antagonistical,” according to a Knickerbocker review of the popular Hawkstone (May 1848). The Literary World objected to Lady Alice; or, The New Una: “this book has strengthened our conviction that the practical Christian moralities of life are very feebly enforced, if they are not positively weakened, by the prevailing style of modern religious fictions” (July 21, 1849). The Christian Examiner said Alban “is one of the religious (?) [sic] novels of our day,—for the most part, an unhallowed and mischievious class of publication” (January 1852). Some reviewers found the religious novel boring. In January 1846, for example, a North American critic asserted that “the doctrine is sure to crush down the narrative with its weight. The sable fleet of religious novels, oppressed with their leaden cargo, have shown marvellous alacrity in sinking where they were never heard of more; and the whole history of these experiments proves, that there is an inherent unfitness in this form of communication for any such purpose.” Since the greatest vogue of the religious novel still lay a few years ahead, the North American cannot be congratulated for its foresight.
Other reviewers, claiming that the presentation of competing religious doctrines was unfair, worried that these novels would increase controversy. “We confess that we are not partial to this kind of fiction,” Godey’s editorialized. “We do not go to novels to learn our religion, nor have we ever found in such works, any real aid to devotional feelings. Faith in the novel-writer is not faith in the Saviour; nor can the illustrations of a religious life found in novels, except on rare occasions, be useful, or even possible in the every-day duties of this working-day world” (March 1857). The editorial also complained of the “unfairness and bitterness” of the “satirical representation” found in most such novels; to this, in a review of a Southworth novel, it contrasted such lessons of faith, hope, and charity as “may have a tendency to soften the asperities of religious controversy, and to foster in many hearts purer and more amiable feelings than now find a place in them” (June 1857). “We do not, we confess, approve of the practice adhered to by many of our popular writers, of choosing their characters from sects of religion or sections of the country, and, after making them as odious as possible, leaving them to be viewed as fair representatives of classes or bodies of men” (Godey’s, January 1858).
Only a few entertained the idea that a partisan, quarrelsome spirit might be the precise attraction of religious works. “Under the guise of a novel,” a Southern Literary Messenger review said of Hawks tone, it “unfolds the present condition of religious opinion among a large body of Christians. All are more or less interested in the points at issue; to those who are actually partisans, we can imagine no recent volume half so attractive” (April 1848). “Apart from its controversial interest, which cannot fail to attract a numerous class of readers at the present day, the story is constructed with remarkable skill” (Tribune on Beatrice by Catherine Sinclair, March 24, 1853). Inez, by Augusta Evans, “will doubtless have a good run during the present excited state of the public mind on the vexed questions of religious faith and observance” (Godey’s, April 1855).
The reviewers’ response to political novels depended to a great extent on how pertinent the social analysis seemed to the American scene and how revolutionary was the proposed solution to existing ills. The socialism of Sue’s novels, and the attacks on marriage in George Sand’s works, were both severely criticized, but reviewers were much more worried that such books would lead to individual acts of rebellion than to widespread, methodical social disruption. Socialist hope in the United States “is not so warmly outspoken as in other lands,” the Tribune acknowledged in a review of Sue, “both because no pervasive ills as yet call loudly for redress, and because private conservatism is here great, in proportion to the absence of authorized despotism” (February 1, 1845).
They looked at the novels of Dickens, Gaskell, and others attacking the factory system as containing wholesome advice for England but having little pertinence for the United States. “The American reader will shudder oftentimes in perusing Mary Barton, and wonder at the extent and intensity of human misery, of which he had entertained no adequate conception,” the Democratic Review wrote in February 1849. “That such a state of things cannot for ever last, that sooner or later, the thousands who have long suffered in silence must be aroused to active despair, with some such war cry as ‘La propriété est un vol,’—lamentable experience teaches us to believe. Long may such a result be averted, even for England; and may the system that leads to such a result, never obtain upon our native soil!” In no less oratorical fashion, the Literary World reviewed Kingsley’s Alton Locke: “the Charter must eventually be the law of the land in England, all of its dreaded six points are as common and unquestioned to us of America as the air we breathe, but no charter, no republic, no Fourierite dreams, will ever thoroughly eradicate these evils. ‘The poor ye have always with you,’ said the Great Reformer, and with the poor must be always more or less of misery to be alleviated. Woe to us, as individuals and as nations, if we do not set our shoulders to the wheel and do what in us lieth for its amelioration!” (November 30, 1850).
The matter is altogether different, however, with respect to slavery and North-South relations. Reviewers would have gladly avoided this subject, but the phenomenal success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin forced it into their professional domain. “How to treat her book is our difficulty at present,” wrote an uneasy reviewer in the Literary World, “for as a lengthy abolition tract, we desire no acquaintance with it, as a political affair it is entirely out of our province. … We must regard the work as a whole, as rather an odd one, being neither fish nor flesh, nor yet good red herring.” But it acknowledged before concluding that this was “a book capable of producing infinite mischief” (April 24, 1852). The mischief to which it alluded was less the abolition of slavery than the exacerbation of hostilities between the regions and the consequent jeopardizing of the Union. There is no way to account for the tone of those reviews that grappled with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other books, pro- and antislavery, that followed it, other than to assume that the fragility of the Union was very much a recognized fact of the national life in the 1850s. This the Literary World made clear when it gave the book a second review, on December 4, 1852. “We are not prepared to deny that the motive of Mrs. Stowe in writing her book has been good, but we are ready to assert that its influence is bad. The social evils of slavery have been exaggerated and presented in a form calculated to excite an inconsiderate popular feeling. A subject which involves the happiness and life of many of our countrymen … has been tricked off … and displayed with a boldness that knows no reserve and cares for no consequences, to a pernicious and unthinking multitude. … What the common sense, the statesmanship, the religion, and the humanity of our country have by unanimous consent agreed to allay, Mrs. Stowe has been reckless enough to do her best to excite.”
Judgments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin invariably accorded with the particular journal’s political orientation. Critics who favored it were open in acknowledging their political bias. The Tribune, of course, was most commendatory, noting the “high moral purpose of this tragic story” and maintaining that it “cannot fail to produce a strong and healthful effect on public opinion” (April 9, 1852). The Christian Examiner, too, said “we know of no publication which promises to be more effective in the service of a holy but perilous work than this” (May 1852); the Ladies’ Repository said that both Dred and Uncle Tom’s Cabin “develop, in clear and strong light, some phases of that monstrous iniquity, which has long challenged the exertions of humanity and the judgments of God, and is now causing our very national fabric to totter as by the throes of a pent-up volcano” (November 1856). Only Harper’s, which did not formally review it, considered it as a work of art, editorializing: “more than a partisan, or even humane tract, it was a work of high literary art … an addition to the literature of the world” with characters “typical and individual … incidents and dialogue, which constantly rose in interest and dignity” and other “qualities of permanent literary value” (May 1855).
Opponents of the book were much more strongly political. The Southern Literary Messenger reviewed it twice in frantic rhetoric; among its milder comments was this: “the whole tenor of this pathetic tale derives most of its significance and coloring from a distorted representation or a false conception of the sentiments and feelings of the slave. It presupposes an identity of sensibilities between the races of the free and the negroes”; in fact, “the joys and sorrows of the slave are in harmony with his position, and are entirely dissimilar from what would make the happiness, or misery, of another class” (December 1852). A long angry essay entitled “Black Letters” condemning Uncle Tom’s Cabin and all the other books inspired by it appeared in Graham’s, asking, “what would the negroes do, if they were free among us? Nothing at all, or next to nothing. They have not the muscle or the mind of the European races” (February 1853).
But Uncle Tom’s Cabin also inspired an aesthetic criticism that denied the work’s literary value and tried to make those who had been moved by it reconceive their enthusiasm as overreaction. This criticism could not gainsay the work’s success. “The popularity of Uncle Tom is a phenomenon in the literary world, one of those phenomena which set at naught all previous experience and baffle all established and recognised principles. No literary work of any character or merit, whether of poetry or prose, of imagination or observation, fancy or fact, truth or fiction, that has ever been written since there have been writers or readers, has ever commanded so great a popular success. … Was there never a book before? … How is it to be accounted for?” asked the Literary World (December 4, 1852). It could not be literary merit; it could only be the coincidence of a strong antislavery feeling in the population with the larger human response to “the description of such terrible sufferings as never fail to awaken sympathy, and of such cruelties as are always sure to arouse indignation.” This was humanly commendable, perhaps, but not sufficient to validate the novel as a work of art.
The reviewer for the Literary World also invoked the criterion of probability: “atrocities that may have been committed by some depraved wretch devoid of human feelings, are here set down and pictured forth, as if such things were of common and daily occurrence.” Other journals reviewing pro- and antislavery novels following Uncle Tom’s Cabin commented on probability and, at the same time, on discretion and decorum as desirable in works dealing with such a sensitive subject. Godey’s, for example, called the prosouthern The Cabin and the Parlor “among the best and most feeling of the several productions that have appeared in relation to the delicate questions of which it treats. The author has shown himself to be not only an inimitable sketcher, but a writer of sound judgment and discretion, especially in relation to the mutual duties of the States under the confederation” (March 1853). And of another work of the same sort: “here we have still another generous effort in mitigation of the strong and odious contrasts of American life and character, as drawn by some of our native writers. … The author seems to have scrupulously avoided every expression that could, or ought to give offence to any honorable or conscientious person who has taken a part on either side of the question naturally involved in the development of her plot” (Godey’s, April 1853). “Great care seems to have been taken … to abstain from introducing offensively any of those Vexed questions’ which have lately been made the basis of similar works of fiction”; “happily for the reader, the author has taken care not to introduce any of those modern devices to obtain an ephemeral popularity which has rendered so many works, north and south, eminently untruthful and ridiculous, and, we may add, destructive to those fraternal feelings which should knit together all sections of our common country” (Godey’s, July 1854, January 1858). The “moderate” novels were invariably those written in mitigation of slavery, presenting favorable views of the South. Many more pro- than antislavery novels were reviewed.
Again, as with the question of the relation between a novel’s moral tendency and its effect on reader behavior, it is difficult to know what really happened to the reader of an advocacy novel. Abraham Lincoln is said to have credited Stowe with the Civil War, but that was gallantry: there is no reason to believe that an unthinking multitude was ready to take up arms to abolish slavery, as the Literary World’s rhetoric suggested; indeed, the antidraft riots in New York City after war was declared suggest the opposite. The Jungle is held directly responsible by some scholars for regulation of the content of processed meats, but not for ameliorating the wage slavery that was Upton Sinclair’s target. The persecution of dissident writers in totalitarian countries represents a clear conviction on the part of social authorities that novels (or poems) are dangerous; but Aristotle’s theory of catharsis seems to see narrative literature as safety valve rather than incitement. The subject needs careful study and attention of a sort it has never received. The point for our study of the novel climate in antebellum America is that reviewers distinguished sharply between ethicomoral content, which they thought to be transcendent, and sociopolitical content including religious advocacy. The former represented the perfection of the genre, the latter a troubling and troublesome hybrid.