The forgotten growing pains of American fiction. Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
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.
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.
A debut novel probes the soul of New York. Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By ANN MARLOWE
And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, your carefully crafted persona begins to slip away. The superego dissolves as your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into an ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades. It happens to all of us. It’s just a question of how many stops it takes.
The use and abuse of words that pack a punch12:00 AM, Oct 13, 2010 • By BARTON SWAIM
Recently I watched a 10-minute YouTube video purporting to be the “100 Greatest Movie Insults.” It’s a pretty diverse collection, though as you’d expect it favors American films from the 1980s and later.
Conspiracy theories told the hard-boiled way.Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
Blood’s a Rover
by James Ellroy
Knopf, 656 pp., $28.95
The rise of the bestselling novel.Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Popular Fiction Since 1900
by Clive Bloom
Palgrave Macmillan, 292 pp., $60
I'M NOT SURE who started the rumor--it may have been Sam Goldwyn or, more probably, Marshall McLuhan--but somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, people came to believe that books were doomed. The future belonged to film and television, it was assumed, the prevailing media in an increasingly visual age: Queen Victoria read books, but we will watch video screens.
It didn't exactly turn out that way. The book lives: Just visit your local Waterstone's or Borders or Barnes & Noble.
Our holiday gift to you: We offer our choices for books to enjoy over the holidays or to consider as last-minute gift ideas.11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2002 • By
Editor's Note: We'll be on hiatus for the holidays, so next week, we'll be posting some of our favorite recent pieces from both The Weekly Standard and The Daily Standard--some holiday-related, some not. Enjoy, and have a terrific and safe holiday season!
William Kristol, editor
READ ANYTHING by the greatest living American comic writer (besides Andy Ferguson), Donald E. Westlake.
Man and automata.Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By HUGH ORMSBY-LENNON
Flesh and Machines
How Robots Will Change Us
by Rodney A. Brooks
Parthenon, 260 pp., $26
by Michael Crichton
HarperCollins, 384 pp., $26.95
A Cultural History of Ventriloquism
by Steven Connor
Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $35
Designing and Building Warrior Robots
by William Gurstelle
Chicago Review Press, 256 pp., $19.95
Behind Deep Blue
Building the Computer that Defeated the
World Chess Champion
by Feng-Hsiung Hsu
Princeton University Press, 298 pp., $27.95
Are We Spiritual Machines?
Ray Kurzweil vs.
Crime fiction for Christmas.Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By JON L. BREEN
A Crossworder's Holiday
by Nero Blanc
Prime Crime, 224 pp., $22.95
A Puzzle in a Pear Tree
by Parnell Hall
Bantam, 308 pp., $23.95
The Christmas Garden Affair
by Ann Ripley
Kensington, 293 pp., $22
THE TRADITION of telling ghost stories at Christmas has a venerable lineage, reaching back well into the Middle Ages. Christmas detective stories have a shorter history.
Marvel Comics resurrects the Rawhide Kid, with one little twist.11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
MARVEL COMICS IS ON A ROLL. First there was the blockbuster "X-Men" movie that generated almost $300 million worldwide. Then came "Spider-Man," which grossed more than $800 million. Coming in February, Ben Affleck will star in "Daredevil." In that same month, Marvel will be bringing back to comic book stores a cowboy hero known as the Rawhide Kid. From 1955 to 1979, Rawhide Kid battled the outlaws of the Wild West as part of a Western-themed series that included other heroes like the Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt.
Michael Connelly's mysterious Los Angeles.Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
"Chasing the Dime"
by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown, 400 pp., $25.95
WILLIAM J. BRATTON, having won his crime-fighting laurels in the first Giuliani administration, was recently inducted as the new chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. There was something discordant about the erstwhile top cop of New York City taking over in Los Angeles. The two cities are just so different.
It's not a question of statistics, though in L.A. violent crime is rising at an alarming rate, murders having vaulted upward by 27 percent since 2000.
In brief: Novels by Joel Rosenberg and Richard Dooling and Bill Wyman's Rolling Stones tome.Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By
BOOKS IN BRIEF
The Last Jihad
by Joel C. Rosenberg
Forge, 304 pp., $24.95
AMID THE HEMMING AND HAWING about how to confront Saddam Hussein, Joel Rosenberg, former aide to Steve Forbes and Benjamin Netanyahu, uses fiction to convey the threat Iraq poses to international security. Though the picture painted by Rosenberg is disconcerting, the possibilities he raises are real.
Several years after Bush completes his second term and his successful war on terror, another popular Republican president is surfing a surging economy and unprecedented domestic security.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" after a century and a half.Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
THE CLOSE OF 2002 brings with it the close of the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But you would hardly have known it from America's premier journals and magazines, which showed little interest in giving "Uncle Tom's Cabin" its due in the course of the year. No other book before or since has had so dramatic an effect on American consciousness--or American history--as Harriet Beecher Stowe's epoch-making novel.
William F. Buckley's historical fiction.Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By VICTORINO MATUS
by William F. Buckley Jr.
Harcourt, 366 pp., $25
William F. Buckley Jr.
edited by William F. Meehan III
ISI, 250 pp., $29.95
EVEN THE NAME of Nuremberg has a frightening ring. The medieval city was home to princes, painters, and the Meistersingers. But in the 1930s it was also home to the notorious Nuremberg rallies, where Adolf Hitler gathered his minions and extolled the greatness of his thousand-year Reich.