Gura dusts off defining 19th-century novels

TRUTH’S RAGGED EDGE: THE RISE OF THE AMERICAN NOVEL

By Philip F. Gura

Farrar, Straus & Giroux Press, $30

There is a lot we don’t know about our nation’s literary tradition and a lot of 19th-century writers who defined their age but are read no longer. Professor Philip Gura of the University of North Carolina breathes new life into old and largely forgotten novels.

From The Algerine Captive (1797), the story of an American prisoner of the Barbary States who found his way back home, to George Lippard’s grisly tale, The Quaker City (1844), to Susan Warner’s bestseller, The Wide, Wide World (1852), there’s lots to chew on.

Some of the better-known authors covered in the book include James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Cooper, best known for historical adventures like The Pioneers (1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826) shadows the equally compelling Catharine Maria Sedgwick, whose novel Hope Leslie (1827) concerned the emotional ties between a young white woman and a misjudged Indian in 17th-century New England. Contemporary reviewers, writes Gura, regarded Sedgwick’s characterization of the natives to be “richer” than Cooper’s.

William Gilmore Simms was the “southern Cooper,” whose historical novels were set in the South Carolina of the Revolutionary period. Robert Montgomery Bird, a Delaware-born Philadelphian, took aim at America’s race and class conflicts in Sheppard Lee (1836), while tapping into readers’ interest in “metempsychosis,” an exchange of souls that permits one to transform into another body after death. (We should bear in mind that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published way back in 1819.)

As matters of personal identity absorbed writers, George Lippard burst onto the scene, writing about subliminal wishes, seductions and perversions. He desired that readers encounter the “irrational core” of their humanity, that they would realize how easy it was for a seemingly civilized city to descend into moral confusion. Part of Lippard’s purpose was, Gura explains, to condemn all dehumanization amid industrialization.

Henry David Thoreau would write of the railroad, echoing Lippard: “What a magnificent impersonation of power; of brute force chained to the mind of man!”

Mid-century brought to the public’s attention authors such as Fanny Fern, whose Ruth Hall (1854) sold an impressive 70,000 copies. The book starts out “genial and facetious” and grows dark as it proceeds. The main character’s child succumbs to the croup; the baby’s grandfather, a doctor, gives her no chance and calls it a waste of money and effort to try to save her. The same scenario repeats as Ruth’s husband dies of typhus and father/physician presides again over the easy surrender. Life is a downward spiral, and Ruth, with her surviving offspring, ends up in a New York City that presents the same lurid environment and low-class characters that populate Lippard’s city. As well as the novel sold, it had its share of malignant reviewers. The controversial author, as it happens, was the wife of James Parton; 10 years her junior, he was a New York-trained journalist who penned top-selling biographies of American political leaders.

Gura has made some odd omissions, relegating Washington Irving to a few lines when no early American had so great an impact on publishing or created characters with as enduring a cultural significance. Nor is Irving’s buddy, the successful satirist James Kirke Paulding, really considered. Donald G. Mitchell, who was , in Gura’s words, “the talk of the literary world,” dedicated a book to his hero Irving. Writing as “Ik Marvel,” Mitchell produced the sentimental Reveries of a Bachelor (1850), and then – appropriately, one supposes — got married and settled down on a bucolic spread where he ruminated and wrote some more. His works lived on into the 20th century, though no one reads them today because they lack both the grit and pessimism (for lack of a better expression) that addresses modern discontent.

That said, this book creatively revives the age of ecstatic religion, the steam locomotive, and the daguerreotype. It charts the steady rise of female authorship and of a book-hungry American middle class. It captures the movement, as one later chapter heading reads, “from a theology of the feelings to an ethic of love.”

And it contrasts with the thoughtless dependence of generations reared on soap operas and video games, recovering the unfamiliar contours of a stricter society that somehow gave birth to a thoughtful individualism.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU, and author, most recently, of Lincoln Dreamt He Died, scheduled for release in May. His website is http://www.andburstein.com.