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. 

Not all early American literature was pioneering grotesquery, of course; politics were frequently near to the sphere of fictional concern. Simms soon took up historical romances glorifying the Southern cause. Susan Rowson’s work had echoed Federalist fears about Jeffersonian tumult. James Fenimore Cooper’s work expressed an increasing horror at the Jacksonian rabble’s corruption of American ideals: His The Crater; or Vulcan’s Peak (1847) is an anti-egalitarian parable about an island settlement inspired by New York’s anti-rent wars. 

Early American literary publishing arose hand-in-hand with political affiliations, as the Whig journal Knickerbocker published Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Cooper; and the Democratic Democratic Review and Arcturus ran works by Catherine Sedgwick, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau, in an era when artists identified with different parties. The Knickerbocker was staunchly Anglophile, publishing works by Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth; the Democratic Review embraced German and French literature, publishing Honoré de Balzac and George Sand.

Such outlets also publicized uniquely urban, emerging literature. Cornelius Matthews, an Arcturus contributor, wrote a number of early novels about New York urban corruption: The euphoniously titled The Career of Puffer Hopkins (1842), according to Gura, was the “first American novel to examine the local ward politicians of New York as they oiled their patronage machine, the dupes who worked for them, and a whole American system, from the city slums to the highest reaches of the government, that reeked of corruption and was poisoning American democracy.” George Lippard, a Philadelphia crime reporter, left journalism to write The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1844), a novel in which the city’s social elite gather in Monk Hall for “seduction, rape, incest, cannibalism, murder, counterfeiting, robbery, drunkenness, [and] opium use.”

More prosaic, if still real, dangers cropped up in an evolving breed of factory-girl novels by a wide range of (frequently female) authors. Some offered straightforward messages of Christian duty; others featured developing notions of female independence and individual spirituality. Martha W. Tyler’s A Book Without a Title: or, Thrilling Events in the Life of Mira Dana (1855) offered the first novelistic portrait of a labor strike. Mary Gove Nichols’s Mary Lyndon; or, Revelations of a Life: An Autobiography (1855) offered a portrait of a Fourierian experiment sunnier than Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852), complete with “vegetarianism, water cure, and calisthenics.” Sara Payson Willis Parton channeled her own successful literary career into her most notable work, Ruth Hall (1855), in which, after a succession of misfortunes, a woman forges a writing career in 1850s New York: 

In a dark narrow street, in one of those heterogeneous boarding-houses abounding in the city, where clerks, market-boys, apprentices, and sewing girls, bolt their meals with railroad velocity; where the maid-of-all-work, with red arms, frowzy head, and leathern lungs, screams in the entry for any boarder who happens to be inquired for at the door; where one plate suffices for fish, flesh, fowl, and desserts; where soiled table-cloths, sticky crockery, oily cookery, and bad grammar, predominate; where greasy cards are shuffled, and bad cigars smoked of an evening. 

Hawthorne noted of Parton, “This woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman writes anything worth reading.” He asked his publisher to “let her know how much I admire her book.” 

Hawthorne, of course, is here, too, as is Herman Melville, with particular attention to Melville’s neglected Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) and The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857). And yet, you’ve probably heard of them. Not so, I imagine, William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), the first novel by an African American. (The topic? Thomas Jefferson’s illegitimate children.) Or The Garies and Their Friends (1857), a novel written by a free black author, Frank J. Webb, and published in Great Britain, featuring a mixed-race couple who move to Philadelphia and face rejection from both blacks and whites—and get caught up in a neighbor’s scheme to incite riots in black neighborhoods to drive down property prices. 

Truth’s Ragged Edge is more than a collection of colorful plot synopses—although it would be worth reading even if it were only that. It’s a nimble synthesis of a vital period in literary history, tracing our homegrown novel’s evolution from morality tale to self-aware interiority, traversing and incorporating the countless currents of regionalism, faith, urbanization, and exploration that swept across the nation’s early decades. You won’t want to read all of these books, but you’ll be glad that Gura did. 

Anthony Paletta is a writer in Brooklyn.