The Magazine

Our Stories Begin

The forgotten growing pains of American fiction.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
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For all of the just wars that have been fought over the cultural canon, one genuine benefit of the (still somewhat undulating) critical consensus is that it’s a pretty genuine aid for determining what you really needn’t bother reading right away. Or, as a professor once said while wielding Samuel Richardson’s 1,534-page doorstop Clarissa, “I’ve read it. You don’t have to.” So it is with most longitudinal surveys of literature. Which isn’t to say that the original material isn’t worth hearing about: Clarissa would still appear late on my when-eventually-marooned reading list, but the Clarissa lecture was excellent. 

N. C. Wyeth illustration from ‘The Last of the Mohicans’

everett collection

Truth’s Ragged Edge offers exactly such a fascinating survey of the nascence of the American novel, in an account of a literary era that has been done a unique injustice by the traditional best-of approach. Most of the obscure works profiled (that I’ve read) surely aren’t worth your time, but there’s plenty of middle ground between prim epistolary novels and early American classics worth learning about and, in some cases, plunging into. Hawthorne and Melville didn’t simply germinate out of imported English soil; the American background out of which they sprang is a rich one. 

Early American novels, like their counterparts across the Atlantic, were largely morality tales of individual virtue triumphant over, or quashed by, malicious circumstance—although peppered with distinctive American circumstances. Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791), one of the earliest of American novels, offered a rote message against capitulation to feeling. Not long after, we dig into some more substantive American-ness. Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1798) drew inspiration from the story of a prominent woman’s death shortly after a stillbirth: Accusations soon emerged that the father, her second cousin, was none other than Jonathan Edwards’s youngest son. Foster’s heroine, however, is independent-minded. She doesn’t wish to marry and is repeatedly duped by the men around her. Her misfortune is less a straightforward result of waywardness than of an unenviable shortage of opportunity. The heroine argues that her behavior is not “coquettish” and “deserves a softer appellation,” springing, as it has, from “an innocent heart.” 

Charles Brockden Brown, who fashioned one of the first American literary careers, probably offered the first iteration of the American Gothic, in a surreal melding of emotive spirituality and hallucination-inspired murders, complete with a dose of ventriloquism. James Fenimore Cooper naturally crops up, and with good reason—although his moment in the sun may have peaked with his inclusion in D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature in 1923. More colorful contemporaries remain unknown: There’s John Neal, whose Logan: A Family History (1822) is in fact a family history about a white man wed to a Native-American woman and living with her tribe, thus addressing directly topics that Cooper only elided. 

As Gura describes it: 

For Neal, however, interracial relationships could be the very basis of a novel’s plot. After settlers kill his wife and family, Logan runs amok against whites. The handsome raven-haired Harold, who lives among the Native Americans and thinks he is one, is actually the sole surviving child of the Logan family massacre. In an act that borders on rape, Harold impregnates Elvira, the colonial governor’s wife, while she is half-asleep. The reader subsequently learns that she has long been infatuated with Logan [the father] and views the striking, dark Harold as a comely surrogate. Learning of this strange nighttime tryst, the governor banishes Harold to the wilderness, where he meets his father, Logan, and discovers his true heritage.

Neal’s other work remains reliably bizarre. In Errata; or, The Works of Will Adams (1823), the protagonist, facing the bared breast of a Quaker girl, kisses it, falls into a faint, and awakens “three months later in an insane asylum, in a room next to Caroline’s, his story told in the voice of Hammond the Dwarf.” Edgar Allan Poe noted of Neal, “I should be inclined to rank John Neal first, or at all events second among our men of indisputable genius.”  

William Gillmore Simms of Charleston journeyed in a similar vein with his Martin Faber: A Story of a Criminal (1833), a first-person narrative of perverse impulse as the title character murders the woman he has seduced and impregnated, and awaits his eventual journey to the gallows.