The American Historical Romance Analysis

George Dekker

The American Historical Romance

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The American Historical Romance offers an ambitious approach to a kind of novel that seldom receives sustained, systematic, or comprehensive attention, in spite of its importance and popularity. There is good reason for the neglect. Coherence is difficult to discover in the sprawling category known as the historical romance. Even so, George Dekker has undertaken not only to identify the origins of the American branch of this genre in the works of Sir Walter Scott, but also to explore in interdisciplinary fashion a broad range of cultural issues very much at the heart of the historical romance—prevailing theories of social progress, the scope and limits of history qua fiction, the political implications of regionalism, and gender roles. The text and notes are rich in references to excellent secondary materials.

The first chapter constitutes a preview in which the trifocal nature of the study is explained, with particular emphasis laid on each word of the title—American, historical, and romance. Limiting the discussion to a few major works by authors who could be termed “elite” is justified on the grounds that these works are representative of all, and that these writers possessed insights into historiography that lesser writers lacked. As for the word historical, the intention is to consider both “the history of historical romance and the history in historical romances,” but not the conventional questions about what makes a novel historical (must it contain historical personages, and how far in the past must it be set?). It is the third term, romance, that introduces the spirit of clashing energies so important to the genre, for while “historical” implies reality, “romance” implies exactly the opposite, particularly in literary studies. It is just such a combination of “irreconcilable forms,” according to Dekker, quoting Henry James, that produces the “extraordinarily rich, mixed, and even contradictory character” of the historical romance.

The second chapter begins with a discussion of the scope of the influence of Scott’s Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), a story of the uprising of the Scottish highland clans, and ends with an analysis of The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish: A Tale (1829), Cooper’s story of Indian wars on the Connecticut frontier. Dekker argues persuasively that what made Waverley so influential a book, inspiring dozens of writers to chronicle the traumatic transitions of their own national struggles, was not simply that its subject was revolution in the Age of Revolution, but also that the conflict was universalized. It is the principles of progress and reaction that are at war when the Hanoverian Whigs meet the Scottish Jacobite supporters of Prince Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden. Scott’s merit, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw it, lay in his powerful portrayal of the conflict generated by two interdependent forces: the adherence to the past, the ancient, the permanent versus the passionate drive for progress and “free-agency.” Dekker identifies this polarity in Scott’s novels more specifically as the “overthrow of a heroic society by the modern post-feudal state,” which is the theme of the “Waverley-model” and of the thousands of historical romances that follow its pattern. Considerable attention is given to these two features, the bipolar structure and the heroic, indeed, epic dimensions of the historical romance. This Romantic tendency to polarize sometimes took the form of parallel lists, which Dekker introduces in this chapter, and which becomes a unifying method in the ensuing chapters. The following list, drawn up by the respected leader of the Romantic Revival, Edward Young, could serve, according to Dekker, as a description of the imperialistic conflict of the Waverley-model:

natural artificialspontaneous laborednatural graces studied gracesliberty/wildness order/boundariespoetry/mystery prose/reasonindividuality masssublimity correctness

On one side are values often associated with an older culture, declining aristocrats, or primitive folk, and on the other some of the values of the new, progressive conquerors.

In looking, finally, at the test-case of Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, the parallels, while meaningful, seem less than consistent. If the novel tells a story of “a heroic culture overthrown by...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, April, 1988, p. 1242.