publisher colophon


Romances, Historical Novels, National Novels

The three classification terms discussed in this chapter have had special importance in the twentieth century for those writing American literary history and selecting a supporting canon. For many scholars, as the editors of the Literary History of the United States put it in their “Address to the Reader,” ours is “a literature which is most revealing when studied as a by-product of American experience” (New York, 1959, xix). In finding the right works for this view, critics have more often than not approached novels (and other literary works) with firm convictions about what constitutes the American experience and have chosen works that they construe to back up these ideas. Although the specific content of Americanness varies from critic to critic, most have agreed that literature displaying it must involve a degree of conscious reflection on national identity.

The circularity of this enterprise has led to neglect or devaluation of a great many literary works written in America, not on account of aesthetic inferiority (though in some instances aesthetic superiority has been equated with the desired Americanness of content) so much as their lack of the requisite American essence. Some critics have felt that as a nation uniquely related to time—both the past and future—we express ourselves characteristically in a special sort of historical fiction. Others have felt, on the contrary, that in the absence of history as well as a social field our literature is characterized by an ahistorical, mythical form that they have called the “romance.” Although the three terms—historical novel, romance, and national or “American” novel—functioned in American novel reviewing around the middle of the nineteenth century and before, they had quite different applications from those in present-day study of American literature.

The Romance

The single most powerful theoretical concept in modern American literary history and criticism is that of the “romance” as a distinct and defining American fictional form. It is thought of as emerging in the works of Charles Brockden Brown—who, according to the North American, could not be said “to have produced an American novel. So far from exhibiting any thing of our native character and manners, his agents are not beings of this world; but those dark monsters of the imagination, which the will of the master may conjure up with an equal horror in the shadows of an American forest, or amidst the gloom of long galleries and vaulted aisles. His works have nothing American but American topography about them” (July 1824). This review is interested in the specific nature of Americanness as it might be manifested in novels; but it implies that the “romance” (if that is what Brown was writing—the review did not use the term) was not especially American; and it also hints that Brown’s form (whatever it was appropriately called) was not the novel. We can read the review as suggesting that Brown wrote novels that were not American, or that he wrote works that were not novels. In any case, the critical frame was quite different from that which subsequent literary history has retroactively imposed.

In all the material I examined, I found only one comment prefiguring the notion of the American imagination as particularly well suited to something like what we now call the romance, and it is a reprint in Harper’s for April 1852 of a criticism originating in a British journal, the London Leader. The magazine saw in “such genuine outcoming of the American intellect as can safely be called national”—an “outcoming” that included Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Emerson—“a wild and mystic love of the super-sensual, peculiarly their own. To move a horror skillfully, with something of the earnest faith in the Unseen, and with weird imagery to shape these phantasms so vividly that the most incredulous mind is hushed, absorbed—to do this no European pen has any longer the power—to do this American literature is without a rival. What romance writer can be named with Hawthorne? Who knows the horrors of the sea like Herman Melville?” The fact that this is a British perception does not, of course, necessarily make it wrong. But it is worth noting that the defining quality of the American imagination in this approach is something the European writer believed his continent to have outgrown; the imagination of the uniquely American writer is atavistic, simple, primitive, superstitious, of earnest faith. The novel is beyond this kind of writer because it is so advanced, so modern.

I will consider shortly how reviewers thought a national aspect might enter into the novel as they understood the genre. First I want to discuss the term “romance” in novel criticism of the era. If, in my sample, only one essay associated something called romance with American literature, the idea could not have been a common one. The term romance was certainly used in novel reviewing, but with no national reference; in fact it was used so broadly and inconsistently that in any given instance of trying to fix its meaning the critic (then and now) was evidently indulging in a creative rather than a descriptive activity. But mainly the term romance was deployed as no more than a synonym for the term novel.

The North American said that Cooper “has laid the foundations of American romance, and is really the first who has deserved the appellation of a distinguished novel writer” (July 1822); wrote both “historical novel” and “historical romance” in a discussion of Italian “romances” (April 1838); began a review of new popular “novels” “with the romance which stands at the head of our list” and ended, “we have selected these three novels from the multitude about us” (October 1856); and commented with reference to a novel by Bulwer that “there are so many different ways of doing one or the other of these things through the medium of a good romance, that the novel which fails of them all cannot redeem itself” (April 1859).

From the New York Review: “the common prejudice of sober men against novels is well founded. … But romance may become, and often is, an impressive medium for the transmission of truth” (April 1839). From the Literary World: Lady Alice is “considerably above the common level of modern Romances. … It is a genuine novel, with a plot and a catastrophe” (July 21, 1849); “it is very hard work nowadays for the novelist to construct an effective romance out of those meagre materials which, fifty years ago, were considered all-sufficient” (August 17, 1850). From Graham’s: “some of the most deleterious books we have are romances. … Hence, in criticising a novel, it becomes important to examine the tendency of the work” (May 1848); Vanity Fair is “one of the most striking novels of the season. It bears little resemblance in tone, spirit, and object, to the other popular romances of the day” (November 1848). The Scarlet Letter is “a beautiful and touching romance”; readers “will hardly be prepared for a novel of so much tragic interest and tragic power” (May 1858). A review of Westward Ho! referred to “the evident intention of the novelist” that “the romance evinces” (July 1855).

From the Mirror: a new “novel” was “happily” not “executed in the worst style of modern romances” (June 2, 1838). From Knickerbocker: “we live in such a novel-reading age, that every work of romance, possessing more than ordinary excellence, is seized on with avidity, and made popular at once” (October 1838); “in the romance before us, as in his previous novels …” (June 1843). From Peterson’s: “the author of this novel is favorably known to the public. … The present story is exceedingly well told; and, like all the author’s romances, teaches a moral lesson” (July 1846); “one of the very best works of romance that has appeared since Christmas, a period, it must be remembered, fertile in superior novels” (August 1851); “a new romance by Hawthorne is always an event. … The novel [The Marble Faun] is, in one sense, an art-novel” (May 1860).

From the Christian Examiner: “a little more of human imperfection would have made her more interesting to all but thoroughbred novel readers, who expect, as a matter of course, to pursue one such ‘faultless monster’ through the mazes of romance” (July 1843). From Harper’s: “a new romance by the author of Talbot and Vernon. … Like the previous work of the same author, the novel is intended …” (November 1850); a work’s “interest as a novel … is guaranteed by a plot of high wrought romance” (June 1854). From the Atlantic: “novelists recognize that Nature is a better romance-maker than the fancy. … Sometimes, indeed, a daring romance-writer ventures …” (May 1858).

Examples could be greatly multiplied, but these will show how the terms were used interchangeably in all the journals throughout the period. There were reviews and essays that did make an effort to distinguish the two terms, but definitions varied from review to review, and whatever was established was often abandoned even within the individual reviews. In many cases the distinction appears to be entirely ad hoc; the reviewer is developing an idiosyncratic scheme and calls on these two words to make a point in a classification not duplicated in other critical writings.

For example, a Knickerbocker review said that under “the head of novels” there are “but two recognized divisions,—namely, the novel, properly so called, and the historical romance”; it later explained that the novel implied “only fiction,” whereas the historical romance was bound by fidelity to events and personages that had actually existed or taken place (August 1838, October 1838). The Southern Literary Messenger similarly distinguished between the novel and the historical romance: “in the novel, all this is bad enough, but it becomes intolerable in those romances which, blending history with fiction, aim to portray the renowned characters of other ages” (June 1847).

A critic in the Southern Literary Messenger, in a long essay on Hawthorne, distinguished “two distinct kinds of fiction, or narrative literature, which for want of more apt terms, we may call the melodramatic and the meditative; the former is in a great degree mechanical, and deals chiefly with incidents and adventure; a few types of character … approved scenic materials and what are called effective situations, make up the story; the other species, on the contrary, is modelled upon no external pattern, but seems evolved from the author’s mind” (June 1851). The terms novel and romance do not appear in this essay, which distinguishes outer and inner fiction but fails to mention the form contemporary fictitious narrative was usually thought to take, the unmelodramatic narrative of everyday life.

In March 1842, a review of Dickens in the Christian Examiner began with a long general disquisition on fiction, defining epic, pastoral, novel, and romance. The novel “deals primarily with events, and makes character subsidiary. Its aim is to replace the lost thread of cause and effect, to bind actions to their legitimate consequences.” The romance mingles all the other forms of fiction, combining “the stately epic tread of heroes on an elevated stage, with the passion and sentiment of the tragic muse. It borrows the tenderness of the pastoral … while with the novel its plot turns on the principle of retributive justive.” This is not a particularly useful or acute distinction; indeed, it is difficult to know just what works the reviewer might have had in mind to exemplify his description of the romance. The comment shows how reviewers setting out to distinguish romance from novel were likely to invent their distinction on the spot. This means that a later critic or student looking for a distinction between novel and romance that was current and widely shared in this era should probably avoid precisely those essays which feature such a distinction.

In September 1850 the American Review, writing on Bulwer, also expatiated on the general nature of fiction, stating that “as a preliminary step” to a criticism “it will be necessary to set forth briefly the recognized ideal of a Novel, and to distinguish it from the Romance. This is a task demanded by the present scheme of criticism, and not out of place in correcting a prevailing error of the day, which tends to call every fiction a novel.” It described the novel as “a picture of society, a delineation of manners, increased in interest and effect by the aid of plot and incident. … Vastly more than other fiction it requires to be philosophic and scrutinizing.” In contrast, the romance was “a panorama of outward life” that “surveys men and manners in mass, avoids all analytic investigations of character, and deals for the most part in broad and free strokes,” with plots that are “rarely complicated,” thoughts that are “never above the comprehension of the most ordinary minds.” The romance is “vivid, startling, and fond of effect,” the romancer “essentially objective. Nothing that he relates conveys the bias of his own mind.” The novel is a more descriptive, more analytic, and more subjective mode than the romance. This distinction is not a true contrast; different and unrelated qualities are discussed for the two genres. But insofar as it might be related to our current distinction, it reverses the application of the terms. It is the romance that we see as the inward form, the novel as the outward.

Putnam’s in October 1854 featured a long essay entitled “Novels: Their Meaning and Mission,” which also merits quoting at length: “There is no more unfortunate circumstance than the lack of an appropriate and experienced name for that kind of composition to which we are necessitated in lieu of a better, to affix the appellation, Novels, Romances, etc. They are total misnomers, every one of them. The fact is, that the thing has repeatedly changed, while the name has not, and thus thing and name are mutual contradictions. … The terms novel and romance, though often confounded, are, in a general signification, analogous to the philosophico-metaphysical divisions, ‘imagination,’ and ‘fancy’ … The term Romance is an indication of a combination of wonderful deeds and daring,” while Novel “carries the idea of an Art-creation; not an accretion of circumstances and particulars from without, but an inly production of the mind in its highest imagining or poetic moods.” Again, novel rather than romance is identified with an inward creation, but the association of the novel with poetry is unique.

Another instance appears in an Easy Chair in the June 1858 Harper’s, distinguishing “novels of society,” where “it is the picture of life and the development of character that interest us, and not the fate of the people,” from “a love story, or a proper romance,” whose “point is the concurrence of every circumstance to the union or separation of the lovers. They may be, in themselves, but names and shades, but the description of where they were and what they did must be very absolute and distinct.” The Harper’s editorial uses romance to mean love story and also equates it with plot. Novel is related to character and description. In other words, the romance is the more dynamic and superficial form, the novel more static and reflective. A year later Harper’s repeated its definition in inconsistent if not incoherent phrasing: “the novel is interesting, philosophically, as illustrating completely the style of romance which depends upon the delineation of character for its interest rather than on the progress and development of a story. It is unquestionably the higher kind of novel—but equally without question it is less popular” (June 1859). This passage notably twice makes a distinction and twice erases it within the confines of two sentences: the novel is a form of romance, the romance a form of novel, and the two modes are distinct. Interesting, too, is the perception that insofar as the two forms can be distinguished, the romance is the more popular. This subgenre is certainly not the one today’s critics are writing about when they describe the romance as a genre developing in response to American hostility to fiction.

In this context, Simms’s distinction in the preface to a revised version of The Yemassee in 1853 and Hawthorne’s in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables in 1851 should probably be seen as two more attempts (and perhaps less disinterested ones than those appearing in the journals) to fix terms in flux at the time. That Hawthorne pretended to be using a distinction known to all his readers (“When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel”) has permitted later students to believe—as Hawthorne no doubt intended—that a fixed definition was in use at the time, and that people knew that some novels were romances and some were novels and also knew which were which. If, indeed, the romance was thought to be more popular, we have an explanation for his strategy, as well as for Simms’s attempt to renew his reputation by affixing the term to an early book.

To complicate matters still further, the literary discourse on romance and novels, though at one extreme characterized by total interchangeability of the terms and at the other by total definitional anarchy, also contains two “mainstream” definitions. That is, in a preponderance of essays and reviews where one can see an operative distinction, one or the other of these usages obtains. One of these definitions incorporates a history of fiction (is diachronic) while the other schematizes existing fiction (is synchronic). In the diachronic mode of writing, the novel is seen as a modern form of romance, which is the overform, the generic name for narrative fiction over time. In the synchronic mode, the generic name for narrative fiction is the novel, and the romance is one type of the genre. If we put these two modes together we come up with a discourse where romance is a type of novel, which is in turn a modern type of romance. No doubt a great deal of confusion can be attributed to this merging of two different approaches to fiction.

Authority for both these typifying schemes stems from a single source, Walter Scott’s long essay on romance in volume 6 of the 1824 supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Scott began his survey by deconstructing a prior authority, Samuel Johnson, who had defined romance as “a military fable of the middle ages; a tale of wild adventures in love and chivalry.” Scott wrote that “the ‘wild adventures’ is almost the only absolutely essential ingredient in Johnson’s definition. We would be rather inclined to describe a Romance as ‘a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents.’” Scott’s purpose in making this new definition, he openly allowed, was to facilitate a contrast “to the kindred term Novel, which Johnson has described as ‘a smooth tale, generally of love’; but which we would rather define as ‘a fictitious narrative, differing from the romance, because accommodated to the ordinary train of human events, and the modern state of society.’” Scott then produced an elaborate history of the romance, not the novel—this edition of the encyclopedia has no separate entry for novel—and his essay shows that he regarded the novel as a modern form of the romance even though he had described them as contrasting modes. Thus Scott simultaneously posits romance as an overarching historical and generic term and as one term in an atemporal opposition. To confuse matters further, the eighth edition of the Britannica, published in America in 1859, used Scott’s essay (in volume 19), and added a postscript on “modern romance and novel,” identifying the novel as a modern form that superceded not the old romance, but the drama.

Following Scott, when reviewers before 1860 laid out a history of prose fiction, they generally used the term romance to refer to the form throughout the ages and the term novel to imply a modern type distinguished by its concentration on the ordinary and the contemporary. Then they slid into using the term romance to mean premodern types of novel, those produced in the past century that had depended on supernatural and marvelous events to resolve their plots and to achieve their effects. What they did not do in this approach was use the term romance to refer to any contemporary work at all; inevitably, the word was associated with older works. As a Harper’s critic observed in a notice in July 1857, “Derby and Jackson have tempted the throng of novel-readers to fall back on the ancient favorites of their grandmothers by the publication of a neat edition of the world-famous romances of Mrs. Radcliffe, and Jane Porter’s Thaddeus of Warsaw and Scottish Chiefs. It is a curious experiment to try the effect of these high-spiced productions of a past age on readers who have been trained in the school of nature and reality, as successfully illustrated by Scott and Cooper.”

At the same time, when the term was used to refer to a contemporary work in a way that singled that work out from the overclass of novels, then it referred to works of fiction that were especially exciting, stirring, dramatic, action-packed, thrilling. The highly wrought modern fiction, the sensation novel, and the painfully exciting story were described as romances to suggest that the reader would find passion, intensity, and thrilling interest. (This synchronic distinction may be thought of as derived from the diachronic one, but there is no evidence that it actually was.) For example, in a review of The Heirs of Derwentwater by E. L. Blanchard, a critic for the Literary World said, “the book possesses much of the materiel of a true romance. An intricate plot skillfully developed; an unflagging interest pervading every chapter, from the initial to the final; characters and incidents, far removed from the common-place, challenge our attention, if not our admiration. It is a tale of the dark and fearful school of Sue and Reynolds; a picture of life in which the foreground figures are blackened with crime or shrouded in gloom” (May 24, 1851). “Strictly speaking, the work is a romance, not a novel. As a romance it will be generally more acceptable than if it was a novel” (Peterson’s on Maria Cummins’s El Fureidis, a highly rhetorical oriental tale, July 1960). “As a romance, or rather rhapsody, this volume can claim some rare attractions. It is strange, wild, wonderful, and fantastic” (Godey’s on The Lone Dove, November 1850).

Given this general association of the romance, when it was distinguishable from the novel, with the highly wrought, the heavily plotted, the ornately rhetorical, and the tremendously exciting, one has to conclude that the work Hawthorne offered as a romance rather than a novel—The House of the Seven Gables—was particularly ill suited for the current distinction. And, in fact, Hawthorne’s habit of labeling his works romances called out reviewer commentary on just this matter, a commentary that shows the critics saw his definition as idiosyncratic and did not necessarily accept it as properly descriptive of his practice. “In the preface to this work … Mr. Hawthorne establishes a separation between the demands of the novel and the romance, and under the privilege of the latter, sets up his claim to a certain degree of license in the treatment of the characters and incidents of his coming story. This license, those acquainted with the writer’s previous works will readily understand to be in the direction of the spiritualities of the piece, in favor of a process semi-allegorical, by which an acute analysis may be wrought out and the truth of feeling be minutely elaborated; an apology, in fact, for the preference of character to action” (Literary World, April 26, 1851). This review shows that to know what Hawthorne meant by his distinction, you had to know his previous works; it did not mesh with any current distinction.

Knickerbocker for May 1850 called The Scarlet Letter a psychological romance, by which it meant to indicate a unique literary product rather than one belonging to a common form. And the Christian Examiner, reviewing The Marble Faun in May 1860, wrote, “we doubt if Romance be the fit title of the story. … Here, where, as we are carried along in the order of external circumstances, we follow still more closely the course of moral struggles and exigencies, and find, in the playing out of the drama, our interest engaged, more than in any outward bearing and action, in the passionate strife, with its catastrophes of evil or issues of good, which marks the temptation and the developing of human spirits, we question whether the addition of ‘The Romance of Monte Beni’ belongs to the name. … The query, however, must not be thought the mere criticism of the title, but as put in the interest of a profound admiration for the thoughtful and serious spirit, and the skillful subtlety in the treatment.”

In brief, insofar as Hawthorne used the term romance to signal something to his readers, he seems to have confused them; to the extent that they could make sense of his definition, it struck them as wrong. Readers would expect a romance to contain intensity, passion, excitement, and thrills resulting from ornate rhetorical treatment and from a focus on action. Hawthorne did not deliver these.

The main general discussions of the term romance in this era developed idiosyncratic definitions with no necessary application to the actual practice of fiction writers of the time; the idea of American romance that now controls so much American literary history is equally idiosyncratic and “theoretical.” Discussions of the term as though it were historically given, or as though its examples are fixed and known, quickly become arguments for granting romance status to one or another work. These arguments would be beside the point were it not now generally agreed that the most important works of American fiction are romances. This is a position that would have made no sense in 1850.

Historical Novels

Reviewers, especially before 1850, thought of the historical novel as a promising mode for the American novelist but did not suppose that the American historical novel would be essentially different from historical novels more generally. They did not, therefore, discuss American historical novels in terms different from those applied to other historical novels. In the era, an active discussion of the historical novel as a particular subgenre focused on its peculiar formal requirements, both as they were (or were not) satisfied in individual instances and as they distinguished the historical novel from the main variety of modern novel. The only type of historical novel calling for special treatment was the “classical novel,” a novel dealing with ancient Greece or Rome and providing particular difficulties because of the remoteness of the subject matter from the knowledge (and perhaps interests) of contemporary readers.

In following the terms of reviewer commentary, it is important to see that the historical novel was thought of as a modern form developing simultaneously with the novel proper, the fiction brought home to everyday life. The North American, in a July 1822 review of The Spy, spoke of “that commodious structure, the modern historical romance,” and a review in the Christian Examiner for January 1847 also noted that “the historical novel is a comparatively recent invention.” It is again important to note how, in these two instances, the terms novel and romance interchange; it would be false to this discourse to differentiate the historical fiction from the novel proper by defining it as a romance over against a novel. “A new historical romance, and founded on the scenes of Indian warfare which … present rich materials to the novelist” (Harper’s, April 1851).

There was no doubt at all in any reviewer’s mind about whether a work at hand was or was not a historical novel, because the distinction was so easy to make. Whereas the main form of novel was set in the present, the historical novel was set in the past and made use of the historical record, to which it had to be faithful. At the same time, it displayed the leading formal principle of the novel: it featured a narrated and invented plot. Because the novel proper was an invention in its most important aspect, its plot, and because the “plots” of history could not be invented—because, perhaps, history had no plots—some reviewers thought the historical novel a formal impossibility, a hybrid that betrayed either the form of fiction or the form of history. Most reviewers, however, though separating the historical from the fictional elements in the novel, saw the historical novel as a valid form whose achievement consisted precisely in the successful merging of two different modes, the successful carrying out of two unlike responsibilities.

Thus reviews of historical novels were apt to take one or more of three lines: to discuss the fidelity, or lack of it, to historical fact (the reviewers never thought of written history as substantially different from real history); to discuss the success or failure of the work as a plotted fiction; or to discuss the work’s merging or failing to merge these two separate requirements into a unity. To write, as did the Tribune, that “the story is carried forward with great skill and in its historical portions with strict adherence to the recorded annals” (April 16, 1841) was to produce praise specific to the historical novel. In Joseph Holt Ingraham’s Lafitte, “the professor has vigorously adhered to the historical truth of the naval and military proceedings connected with the investment and battle of New Orleans. … A beautiful love story is gracefully interwoven” (Mirror, June 11, 1836); in Grayslaer, “many of the characters and incidents are historical and Mr. Hoffman has connected them skillfully with the fictitious narrative” (Mirror, July 11, 1840).

Reviewing Bulwer’s Rienzi, Knickerbocker faulted its history. “Mr. Bulwer has been obliged, for the sake of effect, to do violence to history, and to concentrate in his narrative many events which, in the true records of the times, occupy a much wider space, and are scattered here and there without any connection. … Though each individual deflexion from the straight line of historical truth may be small, yet the sum of all is considerable; and the whole … is calculated to produce decidedly injurious impressions. … These experiments ought not to be tried upon so important a subject as history” (February 1836). Yet though many historical novels were seen as defective in their fidelity to specific historical incidents, they were more commonly criticized for weakness of plot. Though “many characters, well-known to history, are introduced to our notice, and managed with considerable tact and discretion,” still “the domestic incidents, and indeed those parts of the work which are purely fictitious, do not strike us so favorably. … It is to be regretted, that a more attractive plot could not have been devised by the authoress, wherewith to interweave the striking events which the records of the times have presented to our hand” (Knickerbocker on The Outlaw, March 1836). Graham’s found Cooper’s Mercedes of Castille invaluable as history but “well-nigh worthless as a novel”; the “necessity of adhering closely to fact in his romance, is the true secret of its want of interest” (January 1841). “We rank Mr. James higher as a historian than a novelist. His romances [note again the synonyms novel and romance] indeed seem to be produced chiefly from his desire to display his historical learning, and his characters are generally little more than puppets set up to show off the effects of his researches” (Tribune, August 2, 1842). “Notwithstanding the vividness and value of the work as a curious, elaborate, and varied illustration of history, [Bulwer’s Harold] is, when viewed as a mere romance, one of the most tedious we ever encountered. Indeed, if regarded in this light solely it is inferior in continuity of interest to the flimsiest of Mr. James’s tales” (Literary World, July 15, 1848).

Failure of balance was a third flaw in historical fiction, as this excerpt from Knickerbocker on Simms’s The Partisan makes evident: “an apparent duplicity of plot strikes us as a prominent defect, dividing, as it does, the interest of the reader between the fictitious and the strictly historical portions of the work” (January 1836). This was, in fact, the most common observed defect of historical fiction. Graham’s thought Bulwer’s Harold, though the author’s “most successful attempt at writing an historical novel,” still “rather an attempt than a performance. … Fact and fiction are tied rather than fused together. … The work is not homogeneous. At times it appears like history, but after the mind of the reader has settled down to a historical mood, the impression is broken by a violent intrusion of fable, or an introduction of modern sentiment or thought” (September 1848).

The Literary World, in a review of Lydia Maria Child’s The Rebel, expatiated on the historical form. “The great defect of this, as of most historical novels, is that the historical events which are brought before the reader’s attention are not connected with those of a domestic nature to which he is expected to give his attention. … To combine these elements, the historical and the domestic interest, by not solving the difficulty by merging the one in the other, and presenting an amplified historical incident in lieu of the imaginative creation of which the novel should consist, is no easy task” (July 27, 1850). The implication of the Literary World’s rather obscure syntax here is that the historical novelist tended to sacrifice the fictional story to the historical narrative rather than accepting the artistic responsibility of a novelist to make up an original fiction, and thereby “really” wrote history rather than a historical novel. A Godey’s reviewer disagreed with the Literary World on this aspect of Child’s book but affirmed the same criterion for judging: the author “has been very successful in connecting an interesting domestic tale with the thrilling political events which preceded the American Revolution” (September 1850). The Home Journal said G. P. R. James’s “fidelity to historical fact and local scenery is unimpeachable; and the interest of his stories is well-sustained” (September 6, 1851). As late as July 1857, in a decade when the historical novel had apparently dropped out of fashion, the North American saw in J. G. Holland’s The Bay Path proof “that the gifts of the novelist and the historian are not incompatible. The characters of his tale are well conceived and well sustained, and the story … is interesting from beginning to end.”

The particular historical matter of the novel under review was routinely noted, but only in the case of the “classical novel” did a specific subject seem to imply particular formal or technical demands. “Classical fiction is a dangerous field. … The writer must not only be a thorough scholar, but possess that fine power of the imagination, which can withdraw him, bodily, so far into the distance of the antique, as to make him lose all vision of the present with its utterly new forms and customs” (American Review, February 1847). To write a good classical novel, the novelist had to be a learned person, far more so than the normal education of the day provided. The audience with learning sufficient to judge the historical faithfulness of the representation would be very small. In that the classical era was unimaginably unlike the nineteenth century, the common ground between the reader and the classical novel was thought to be virtually nonexistent.

“It is a difficult undertaking to produce a fiction the scenes of which are laid in times so long past, while the whole tone of the action, the sentiments, and habits of thought of the characters, and the details of private life, have so little analogy with existing circumstances” (Literary World, April 14, 1848). “It is a difficult task to infuse life into times so remote, and when manners and modes of thought were so different from what they are now” (Peterson’s, February 1858). The very storytelling gifts that the classical novel required to make it live for a contemporary reader were those that the learned classicist probably lacked, since accuracy rather than imagination was his strength. The particular difficulty of the enterprise led reviewers to single out examples of the genre that succeeded. William Ware’s Zenobia was one that “has taken its place beside the standard fictions which scholars have written to illustrate the periods of classical and oriental civilization. … Zenobia, from the authenticity of its details, the interest of its narrative, and the singular purity of its style, has been recognized as an entirely successful contribution to this noble department of literature” (Sartain’s, April 1848).

The Roman Traitor, by Henry William Herbert, was another widely reviewed success. “This novel of Mr. Herbert’s is very highly commended by scholars as well as common readers; its classical accuracy being as striking as its story is interesting” (Sartain’s, January 1848). “A successful specimen of perhaps the most difficult species of fictitious composition, that of a romance founded on fact in the annals of classical antiquity. For accuracy of delineation, splendor of diction, and the dramatic use of historical personages, this novel is not surpassed by any modern production of its kind” (Harper’s, November 1853). “The truthfulness of this novel to the age it describes, is not less than its merit as a fiction,” a Peterson’s review agreed in the same month; “from first to last the most intense interest is felt by the reader. Few novelists have been successful in their efforts to recall the classic age. … But Mr. Herbert, triumphing over every difficulty, has reproduced the days of Cicero as vividly as Scott did those of Feudal times.” But one Southern Literary Messenger reviewer dismissed the book along with the genre: “it is from no want of dramatic ability that this failure proceeds but from the evident impossibility of interesting us in the men of antiquity by the familiar agency of fiction. We must have something in common with the dramatis personae or we will care nothing about them” (October 1853).

Since the historical novel was formally different from other novels, its effect was also different. A successful historical novel could recreate the past so vividly as to give the reader an authentic experience of a different time and place. “Herein lies the usefulness of this kind of novel,” a Mirror review explained (July 7, 1839). “People will not read history with sufficient attention to make it familiar, but when the naked truth is clothed in ‘a coat of many colors,’ all are ready to admire.” “Historical novels are not only the most instructive, but the most thrilling” (Southern Literary Messenger, December 1843). “We own to a predilection for the historical novel, because, if honestly and capably written, it not only affords intellectual pleasure to the reader, but gives us, as in a mirror, the very spirit of the past” (Peterson’s, January 1856).

The Literary World in a December 25, 1847, review referred to a “deluge of historical romance,” but by July 1855 Putnam’s would observe that historical fiction had gone out of date. After 1836 Knickerbocker, which had regularly reviewed historical novels, noticed no more of them, and in the North American there is a hiatus between April 1838 and July 1857. The generation of American historical novelists, including Simms, Child, Sedgwick, Cooper, and others, did their major work before the 1840s. Hawthorne was not thought of as a historical novelist. (Of course, his work was considered sui generis, and in any case his historical fictions were almost all written in the short form.) The Christian Examiner complained about Hawthorne’s “gross and slanderous imputation that the colleague pastor of the First Church in Boston, who preached the Election Sermon the year after the death of Governor Winthrop, was a mean and hypocritical adulterer, and went from the pulpit to the pillory to confess to that character in presence of those who had just been hanging reverently upon his lips. How would this outrageous fiction, which is utterly without foundation, deceive a reader who had no exact knowledge of our history! … We cannot admit the license of a novelist to go the length of a vile and infamous imputation upon a Boston minister of a spotless character” (September 1852). Nobody else seemed to think that The Scarlet Letter was a historical novel about the Puritans, though many other Puritan novels were labeled and reviewed as such.

American Novels

As the references to French novels in chapter 9 will have shown, American reviewers assumed that nationality entered into the creation of a literary work in a variety of ways mostly beyond the author’s control. As products of a particular nation, writers inevitably reflected the attitudes of the society that had acculturated them. In the case of the novel, too, writers were likely to set their fictions in their own time and place; hence the “pictures of life” their works reflected were in fact pictures of their own society. Many examples could be cited in which reviewers grouped novels together by national origin; in doing so they were less interested in analyzing the culture than in identifying, for reader benefit, aspects of the form that might strike them as “foreign,” though in the case of French fiction the effort was rather to make certain aspects of the novels seem foreign—to distance the reader from an unacceptable morality rather than to close a cultural gap.

The “novel proper” was, to a considerable degree, itself a particular national product, the creation of the British nation. Why, the North American asked in July 1827, is “this species of elegant literature so peculiarly suited to English genius?” It answered: “the most ample materials for popular fiction will undoubtedly be found in a country whose political institutions allow an entire freedom of social intercourse, and consequently a perfect display of character; where an equal security of personal and civil rights encourages, in every individual, the entire development of his intellectual and moral energies, in the career best suited to his genius, of ambition or of wealth; and where this entire freedom of selection and action in the commerce of life, has distributed society into a multitude of classes, each independent of the others and set in distinct relief by its own peculiar habits of thought and occupation. … Whatever advantages may be presented to the novelist in the condition of the nation, they will all be ineffectual, if the free expression of his own sentiments be controlled by any other power than public opinion.” To a very large but hardly surprising degree, reviewers assumed that American culture and British culture were closely related, versions of the same tradition and therefore not calling for the same familiarization that other national novels required; yet, given observable social differences, it was always possible that the “American novel,” when it emerged, might turn out to have its own distinct qualities.

An interest in locating and identifying such a class of American novels, conceived as a purely descriptive task, sometimes coincided with but as often ran athwart frequent manifestos demanding the creation of a national literature. This is because nationality, as reviewers conceived of it, was inherently and unconsciously marked in all literary products, and it thus made little sense to ask writers to try to produce what they could not help creating. To “demand” a national literature was “absurd,” as the Home Journal for June 3, 1854, pointed out. “Whatever is naturally peculiar in our character, views, and modes of life, does and always will exhibit itself without any assistance from us. … The complaint of a want of nationality in American literature is borrowed from the ill-founded judgments of English criticism. Even in this, our professed abettors of originality are not original.”

The Home Journal makes clear that the call for national literature, whether originating in England or in answer to England, was an oddly unoriginal (and hence perhaps unamerican) phenomenon; and it also makes clear that, as a result of its origins, the call for literary nationalism was bound to an idea of literature that was English. Thus, even while reviewers identified the particular characteristics of the French, English, or Italian novel, it was always and only in its differences from the English work that an “American” literature was defined. The most powerful modern statements of the nature of American literature—Lionel Trilling’s in “Reality in America,” for example, or Richard Chase’s in The American Novel and Its Tradition—incorporate precisely this same dualism: the American “romance” is distinguished only from the British “novel,” not from the literary forms of any other nation.

The call for a national literature, though audible throughout our history, has been louder at some times than others and more likely to find expression in some contexts than others. Although two novelists active in the 1820s had been accepted as worthy representatives of an American literature—Catharine Sedgwick and James Fenimore Cooper—the first wave of American literary nationalism, at its height during the 1820s and 1830s, occurred before the novel emerged as the predominant literary genre, one that could be advanced as the potential vehicle of a nation’s best literary efforts. And, in any case, literary nationalist manifestos were always far more common in commencement addresses, Fourth of July orations, and other set patriotic or occasional essays than in practical criticism. Thus, reviews of specific novels do not constitute a rich source of material on literary nationalism even though they are full of references to “American novels,” and in turn the issue of literary nationalism is seldom developed with exclusive reference to the novel or novelists. Rather, on this issue theory and practice seem to be operating at a great distance from each other, because though hundreds of American novels were reviewed and identified as American, critics kept calling for truly American novels and bewailing their failure to appear.

The explanation of the suitability of the novel form to English life provided by the North American enables us to understand a conundrum that reviewers might face when trying to think, in the abstract, about what an American novel might be. It was not the absence of historical tradition or romantic association that might make the form difficult to produce; after all, the novel was a story of everyday modern life. It was, rather, the absence of the class structure, which gave the British novelist a way of cataloging his individual human beings and relating them one to another. If the novel depended profoundly on the class structure for its effects, then American novels could not, or ought not to be, written unless American society was also divided into classes.

This dilemma is not as acute as it might at first appear, however, and as subsequent American literary history has made it appear. First, it was entirely compatible with patriotism to assert that the United States did have a class structure, so long as one made clear that it was neither hereditary nor fixed, but rather one sensitive to individual traits, hospitable to honest ambition, ability, and merit. In fact America might, even more than England, be congenial to stories of “the development of his intellectual and moral energies, in the career best suited to his genius, of ambition or of wealth.”

Second, one could perceive in the regions of the nation another way, analogous to but different from the class structure, of organizing and discriminating customs and individual differences. One could then claim—and did—that a truly national American literature would emerge from careful treatment of the regions. We have seen how the North American denied that Charles Brockden Brown could be said “to have produced an American novel” because his works did not exhibit “any thing of our native character and manners,” creating rather “those dark monsters of the imagination, which the will of the master may conjure up with an equal horror in the shadows of an American forest, or amidst the gloom of long galleries and vaulted aisles.” The essay then elaborated its idea of the mission of the American novel: to present “fac similies of the peculiarities of the country, and consist in strong graphic delineations of its bold and beautiful scenery, and of its men and manners, as they really exist.” It approved accordingly of Sedgwick’s Redwood, finding it “a conclusive argument, that the writers of works of fiction, of which the scene is laid in familiar and domestic life, have a rich and varied field before them in the United States” (April 1825).

In brief, literary critics handled the question whether there could be an “American novel” by asserting that America was a better place to write the English novel than England itself, because it possessed those aspects of English culture that enabled the novel to come into being in a more decisive form than in England. Since, as we have seen, the historical novel was itself a special class of novel, the question of the American historical novel was generally subsumed under the discussion of historical fiction. Many reviewers, especially before 1840, thought it might be particularly suited to nationalist literary purposes, for every nation had a unique history. The North American said so in July 1822, in a long review of Cooper’s The Spy, where it wrote of looking forward to “the day, when that more commodious structure, the modern historical romance, shall be erected in all its native elegance and strength on American soil, and of materials exclusively our own.” The 1820s were years when many American historical novels were written, and then reviewers—never satisfied—complained about a surplus of “Indian novels.” As the form went out of vogue internationally, it lapsed in the United States as well.

But what would be difficult to write in America and could not represent national character and culture was the old-fashioned romance. “Not that we would speak disparagingly of the wildest creations of romance, or have it thought that we are less affected than others, by those masterly efforts of a bold imagination, left to luxuriate in its own ideal world,” the North American critic explained. “But we are not ambitious that scenes so purely imaginary, should be located on this side of the Atlantic.” In any case it was not clear why anybody, and especially an American, should want to write such a work in modern times. The modern novel was a much more artistic form, as the Christian Examiner ironically pointed out: “the historical novel is a comparatively recent invention. … The purely imaginative romance greatly needed this resource to diversify its topics, to extend its range, and to give its airy fabrications substantial value. The style of Anne Radcliffe could not last. The age of supernatural machinery passed away … and nothing would have been left for many a modern novel-writer but to drivel in nauseating repetitions of an inane sentimentality. For the power of drawing the materials for an absorbing and elevating fiction out of the common and familiar scenes of daily observation is reserved for only a few superior spirits. … So that the alternative before a host of romancers has been reduced to this,—the historical romance, or nonsense” (January 1847). In mid-nineteenth-century America the work seen by the London Leader as particularly American would not have been accepted as worthy of the up-and-coming nation, and indeed in allotting work reminiscent of the European Dark Ages to the American mind, the British journal was patronizing.

National novels fell, for reviewing purposes, into four categories. First, novels of everyday life in which the particularly American version of the class system—a system adapted to upward (or downward) mobility according to individual talent and ambition—formed the basis for character presentation. Second, regional novels in which the manners and customs of the people, especially as they were controlled by features of the region, were displayed. Third, historical novels. Fourth, feminine novels only when the feminine is connected with a purer moral tone—in brief, the domestic novel was thought to have a particular affinity for America. Difficult as it may be to accept, in the early 1850s the two “national” novels were seen to be Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Wide, Wide World; and the addition of Susan Warner’s Queechy to the list enabled the North American for January 1853 to write “lo and behold, an American literature!” But the reviewing record shows plenty of highly wrought American fiction as well as American examples of every other subgenre that critics recognized. Then as now, the attempt to identify a particularly “American” fiction was crosscut by the desire to make that fiction “superior”; the desire for American novels was subsumed under the campaign for better novels.

Not all journals in the 1850s by any means shared the North American’s certainty that a national literature had at last emerged. Indeed, only four years previously, in October 1849, a reviewer in that journal had lamented: “we cannot refrain from expressing a regret that we have not a class of novels illustrative of American life and character, which does some justice to both. Novelists we have in perilous abundance. … But a series of national novels, illustrative of the national life, the production of men penetrated with an American spirit without being Americanisms, we can hardly plume ourselves on possessing.” The most skeptical opinion was expressed in Putnam’s. “We make it a point to read all the new American novels that come out, with the hope of by-and-by lighting upon one which deserves to be called American. But, the coming novel has not yet appeared; and we almost fear, that, like the American drama, which we have been looking for, it will not come at all. … We may always be dependent upon the old world for these luxuries, as we are for olives and claret” (March 1854). “Have we, as yet, besides Uncle Tom, a geniune novel of American life? Has anything like justice yet been done to the peculiarities of the several parts of the nation? Are not the experiences of the emigrant and the settler full of tragic incident, full of pathos, full of stirring adventure, and not without their humorous side?” (May 1856). Harper’s, too, remarked in May 1856 that “there is, as yet, no American novel.”

How did those who felt that no American novels had emerged explain it? Putnam’s in its May 1856 review decided that the reason was haste: “as the general life of the nation, so the literary life, is hurried.” In April 1857 it suggested that the problem was pure bad luck—the emergence of American fiction just happened to occur in a period that saw the rise of remarkable geniuses in England. “The cisatlantic muse was abashed.” But if the artist was in part the product of his society, then the emergence of genius (or its failure to emerge) could not be purely fortuitous. Harper’s (October 1857) maintained that for American artists “the national life is not so much their inspiration as it is the object they would inspire. … They have not risen genially out of the national mind. … Surrounding influences were hostile rather than sustaining to their genius.” The rich field of American life had one great inadequacy—it was hostile to literature.

Here is a rare statement of the idea on which much American literary history now depends. It is well, then, to note that the theory emerged as a means of accounting for the absence of genius among American authors rather than explaining a characteristic American genius in literature. Given the demand—which I have noted earlier—for geniality as an aspect of the greatest literary spirits, the fact that American authors could not “rise genially out of the national mind” meant that there could not be a truly American literature. That is what the Harper’s reviewer was really saying. This position (no doubt in part adopted because Harper’s was a major publisher of British books) could not provide much comfort to American authors striving for literary eminence. Later critics, of course, were bored with geniality and were able to find in hostility—a hostility they explained as the legitimate and inevitable response to an uncongenial environment—the source of American literary genius rather than an explanation for its failure to develop.

Nevertheless, the allegation that the nation was hostile to fiction as such is manifestly untrue, however convenient or attractive it has come to seem. The sheer number of novels published and reviewed makes this clear (“novelists we have in perilous abundance”), as do the innumerable references throughout the reviews to the incredible appetite of readers for any and all novels. It has, indeed, been part of my findings that Americans were more attached to novels than to any other literary form; and they were a reading people (as, perhaps, they are no longer). Therefore novelists above all other writers might have been expected to have only the most genial relations with the surrounding mind. Given that so many of the novels reviewed were written by Americans and were American in their subject matter (more than half of the eight hundred or so individual titles in my sample were American in origin), no claim that Americans preferred foreign works can be defended. But why, after all, should the fiction-loving public prefer, as novels, the grim fantasies of The Scarlet Letter or The Blithedale Romance to the thrilling stories of female triumph written by E. D. E. N. Southworth? Why should they be interested in works that sought to scold, guide, or otherwise patronize them and assert authorial superiority? Why take any special pleasure in works embodying self-conscious decisions to be “national”? Why, on the other hand, did reviewers in the presence of so many American books with American settings continue to insist that there were no novels that “deserved” to be called American? When Hawthorne complained about scribbling women, he was not complaining about absence of novels, but about superfluity—superfluity of what he deemed bad novels. Again, the normative and the descriptive have merged. The kinds of book Americans were producing were not, apparently, the kinds of book critics wanted. But what they wanted, what Hawthorne wanted, and what readers wanted, were three different things.

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.