The Early American Novel
Literary Criticism / American / General
500 pp. 6x9
$39.95 paper 978-0-8142-5346-5
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This descriptive and critical survey of the American novel up to the year 1820 seems certain to gain recognition as the definitive work on its subject. Prompted by an awareness of how unevenly the predecessors of James Fenimore Cooper have been studied and made accessible to the modern reader, Mr. Petter has completed a work of literary historiography that lucidly and systematically deals with an astonishing amount of information.
The novels published in America in the three decades preceding 1821 are marked, above all, by the limited range of their authors, who tamely and unimaginatively copied English and Continental models. At first sight their plots strike one as inventive—even wildly so—but it soon becomes evident, in Mr. Petter’s analysis, that they merely achieve new combinations of old and familiar elements. The underlying patterns—lovers’ trials, young girls’ vicissitudes, young men’s adventures—depend on, and reveal the passivity of, the heroes and heroines. The active elements are unsympathetic parents, jealous rivals, petty surroundings, agents of pure evil, and providential interventions. The plots hinge on strained conicidences and contrived misunderstandings combined with apparent infringements of the social barriers and conventions that puzzle the protagonists and the reader untila more or less fortuitous and spectacular revelation restores the certainties. The characters are subordinated to the events and remain undeveloped and static. There are few moods and tones. The emphasis is on the didactic confrontation of good and evil.
But although the poverty of early American fiction—and, indeed, of early American literature generally—argues for a dearth of individual talents, and for the power of influence of the foreign models from which the authors were trying to learn, it must be remembered that what these early indigenous practitioners of the novelist’s craft wanted to create was an American literature—a literature independent of, but equal to, the European models they worked to emulate. They strove to fulfill a nationalistic program voiced in many solemn statements: literature by Americans, for Americans, using American settings and characters who were the expression of the principles underlying the new nation and its institutions.
Henri Petter is professor of English and American literature at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.