Origins and Development of the Novel, 1740-1890

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The novel, held to be the first genre to reflect on the development of the individual and the establishment of a common morality, raises an age-old axiological question: Are moral ideas inherent in this world? If so, why do they sometimes seem far removed from human behavior? And if not, then why is the idea of a common morality significant to all societies? The novel asks these questions by exploring the inner world of individuals and how they resist or defend moral order. The development of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw remarkable shifts regarding this fundamental question.

The eighteenth century is widely considered to be the point of origin of the modern novel. The premodern period of the novel was marked by the belief that moral norms originated from outside the human domain, in a realm both eternal and divine. This therefore left individuals with two choices—to give in to their weak nature or aspire towards the divine higher ideal. The eighteenth century novel shifted away from this view and subscribed to the idea of the interiorization of the ideal.

The interiorization of the ideal or the enchantment of interiority (borne partly out of Jean Jacques Rosseau’s moral philosophy, which was popular at the time) was the idea that all individuals had within their souls the capacity to attain inner perfection. Thus, the notion of the beautiful soul—as the one who actually succeeds in this endeavor—was also born. Instead of moral norms that came from and were prescribed by an eternal, transcendent realm, morality was now seen as something that came from inside the individual. This inner nobility meant that, for the first time, novels delved deep into the subjective world of their protagonists—their thoughts and emotions as well as their social and physical surroundings. This was exemplified excellently in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Unrewarded (1741). Richardson’s first-person narrative and descriptive realism are the stylistic earmarks of the time and allow him to demonstrate the inner richness of a beautiful soul through a complex psychological reveal.

This new idealism, however, did not go unopposed. This opposition led to a renewal of a skeptic and comic view of human imperfection. Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749) defy Richardson’s views of human inner perfection and instead offer a parodying, mock-heroic portrait of human life. In contrast to Richardson’s first-person perspective and psychological intensity, Fielding develops multiple plots under an omniscient, judging narrator. This narrative voice not only serves as storyteller and commentator but also proves to be the organizer and creator of the narrative. This promotion of the author was held to be the beginning of a long rivalry between author and character, which ultimately spanned the next century and a half.

The debate between these two visions—interiorization of the ideal and moral skepticism—subsequently led to the creation of other new narrative formulas, including the ludic and gothic novels, the sentimental novel, and the novel of manners.

In the nineteenth century, probing the links between an individual and his society—the networks of social and historical dependencies—proved to be the dominant mode of the novel. This did not mean, however, that the debate between moral idealism and moral skepticism was dead. Proponents of moral idealism took advantage of the dominant mode of historiography to establish their notions of inner nobility. Led by Walter Scott’s Waverly (1814), novels such as Alessandro Manzoni’s Betrothed (1827), Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1846), and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) portray the lives of beautiful souls—their believability established through proper sociohistorical justifications.

The anti-idealist tradition, meanwhile, turned to the school of empathy. These authors also gave respect to historic and descriptive realism but held to the constancy of historical determinism and the human heart. The works of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola allow their readers to become immersed in the minds and senses of their characters, and so the empathic technique works to expose basic moral depravity and the frailty of the subjective voice. In a remarkable reversal from the eighteenth century, these authors held the universality of virtue to actually be quite the opposite: despite varying sociohistorical backgrounds, the individual remains inescapably morally corrupt.


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No primary genre of literature has been so often defined and redefined as the novel, and still, no consensus has been reached. Several scholars have suggested that the only valid definition of the novel is the history of the genre itself. The origins of the modern novel, however—the novel as it appears in the early years of the twenty-first century, encompassing both serious fiction and best sellers—are more easily traced. The modern novel in the eighteenth century and its rise in the nineteenth coincided with the rise of the middle class. In consequence, as Ian Watt observes in The Rise of the Novel (1957), one of the paramount features of the novel has been its focus on a detailed re-creation of the bourgeois interior: the clothes, the furnishings, the belongings of the middle class. The novel is also distinguished, Watt points out, by its emphasis on individual characterization, an emphasis that can be related to the social and political movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These movements recognized the dignity of the individual and the equality of all people. Despite all its transmutations and variations, the novel today performs the same function it has served since the eighteenth century: It offers reports on (to borrow a title from Anthony Trollope) “the way we live now.”

Since American literature was, in its early stages, merely an outgrowth of English literature, this survey will treat the development of the English novel before turning to the history of the form in America. It is well to note at the outset, however, that there are several notable differences between the English novel and the American novel. While generalizations about “the novel” in a given nation must always be hedged, it is true that, as Richard Chase observes in The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience,” while “the English novel has followed the middle way.” Frederick R. Karl, in A Reader’s Guide to the Nineteenth Century British Novel (1972), argues that “unlike the American novel, the English novel principally takes place in time, not space.” He then maintains that the temporal emphasis of the English novel, as opposed to the spatial aspect of the American novel, is related to the greater “blandness” of English fiction, since people who live in a restricted space must pay closer attention to time and also must modify their behavior more rigorously than those who occupy large areas, feel no sense of crowding, and need give much less heed to the passage of time and the markings of its flow.

More important than such dissimilarities, however, are the general likenesses, one of the most significant of which is the tendency traced in Erich Kahler’s study The Inward Turn of Narrative (1973). Kahler’s thesis is that throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the consciousness of Westerners turned more toward an inner vision of reality, and the novel reflects this slow but momentous shift in human attention. As Watt indicates, the “realism of the novel allows a more immediate imitation of individual experience” than do other literary forms, and “this surely explains why the majority of readers in the last two hundred years have found in the novel the literary form which most closely satisfies their wishes for a close correspondence between life and art.”

The narrative element of the novel can be traced back to preliterate eras when storytellers recounted long narratives, such as the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, which dates to about 2000 b.c.e. In some ways, Gilgamesh is not so different from the protagonist of a contemporary novel. During the course of the epic, he changes: He grows, then declines. Initially, he is a bad, oppressive king. Then, under the beneficent influence of his dear friend, Enkidu, he grows into a good king whose reign is marked by great deeds. At Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh is overcome by grief and despair. He undertakes an arduous journey in search of the secret of everlasting life. When he finds and then loses the secret, he returns to Uruk, sickens, and dies.

Such narratives, however, were in the form of verse, which facilitated memorization; narrative prose fiction was a much later development. Precursors of the modern novel can be found in every literate culture, ranging from Greek romances such as Chariton’s Peri Chairean kai Kalliron (c. second century c.e.; The Loves of Chareas and Callirrhoe, 1764) to Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933), written by Murasaki Shikibu in eleventh century Japan. Like a novelist of the nineteenth or twentieth century, Murasaki portrays her society in exquisite detail. It is not, however, a bourgeois society; it is the society of the imperial court. The novel as it is now known began in the eighteenth century, following related but distinct lines of development in England, in Spain, and on the Continent.

Eighteenth century background

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Many factors contributed to the birth of the English novel in the eighteenth century. An important social phenomenon was the growing trend of country people gravitating to the cities, especially London. Although no reliable figures are available, the population of London appears to have at least doubled, from around 350,000 to 700,000, between 1650 and 1750. With the growth of the city came attendant blessings and curses: more rapid and wider spread of ideas, easier dissemination of reading material, and the development of a more commercial society (although England’s economy remained primarily agrarian until the Industrial Revolution) as well as the miseries of urban crime (which had been flourishing since the Elizabethan era, but never so widely), unhealthy living conditions, insufficient housing, disease, and what has been called the greatest social curse of the period, the high incidence of drunkenness. As late as 1780, infant and child mortality was still at a shockingly high level; it was rare for a family to have more than half of its children reach adulthood.

Such a lively and perilous time was, in a sense, made for Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), regarded by many critics as the first significant English novelist. As a small businessman (often a failed one), occasional spy, prolific writer under various names in a number of genres, Dissenter (one who refused to accept the established Church of England, though still a Protestant), and generally energetic citizen (who was accused of being a Trimmer, a person who switched from Whig to Tory, or vice versa), Defoe seems to represent nearly all the conditions that prepared the way for the appearance and popular acceptance of the English novel. These conditions include an emphasis on the individual, both as a social entity and as a being with a soul, and an interest in the individual’s daily affairs (Defoe displays this emphasis clearly in The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums, 1722; commonly known as Moll Flanders) as well as the treatment of narrative in measured time rather than in eternal time (thus the novel deals with events in a more specific temporal frame than that of the heroic romance; Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 1749—commonly known as Tom Jones—is perhaps the quintessential example of such a careful temporal treatment). Other conditions in Defoe’s works that prepared readers for the novel are as follows: depictions of people acting in real settings, including earning a living, eating, drinking, and making love; an interest in improving one’s social and economic status, usually by legal means, but not exclusively so (Moll Flanders tries to live honestly, but circumstances force her into thievery); a growing independence, of children from parents, citizens from their government, parishioners from the Church, and everyone from traditional ideas and beliefs, especially those received from the past and from authoritative sources; an emphasis on interior scenes and urban experiences (though the countryside was to figure prominently in the English novel for two centuries, much of the most important action takes place indoors, with the most detailed description being saved for interiors—the classic later example of this accent is the work of Charles Dickens, 1812-1870); and, finally, an unprecedented attention to the interests and aspirations of women.

Defoe represents as well as anyone that most significant fact about the English novel: It is the ultimate expression of the middle class. No literary form was written and read by the ever-growing middle class as much as the novel. By the time Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) published Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741), the reading public was rapidly expanding, though it was still very small by modern standards. Again, no reliable numbers are available, but scholarly estimates indicate a figure of about seventy or eighty thousand, which was only 1 or 2 percent of the total population. The figure increased as the century waned, but even by 1800, only a small fraction of the population, perhaps some 100,000 people, was capable of reading a novel.

The same process was under way in the East, though probably at a somewhat lesser rate. Between 1740 and 1750,Cao Xueqin (or Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’in; 1715[?]-1763), born in China into a once-prominent family then in decline, wrote the first eighty chapters of Hongloumeng (1792; also known as Hung-lou meng; Dream of the Red Chamber, 1958; also translated as The Story of the Stone, 1973-1982, and as A Dream of Red Mansions, 1978-1980). The manuscript circulated for several years after the author’s death, and later writers added chapters until the first published version appeared in 1792. This classic novel embodies the cultural identity of China at the middle of the eighteenth century.

1740 to 1764

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In 1740, potential novel readers were chiefly interested in family life, the details of everyday living, and the problems of morality on an individual basis. Wide generalizations concerning what constituted ethical conduct, as were found in Alexander Pope’s poetry, may have been widely quoted, but they were not taken much to heart; also, the novel could do what no verse essay—even one by so skilled a versifier as Pope—could do: It could show morality being lived. Richardson’s Pamela satisfied these interests, and the book was extremely popular. The fact that Richardson tells most of the story by way of letters is an indication of the particularity of detail and expression and the interest in the individual that engaged the attention of readers near the middle of the century.

As to the economy and the stability of the government, the nation was in reasonably good condition. At this point, England was enjoying a rewarding trade relationship with its colonies in the New World and was in the initial stages of taking over India. The wars in which it engaged took place on foreign soil. George II (r. 1727-1760) was not a skilled ruler, but the country was controlled chiefly by ministers who were intent on keeping or increasing their power, always with an eye, however, to avoiding open conflict with the people. The most notable civil disorders of the era (not counting the abortive attempts to restore the Stuarts to the throne, which had little effect on the lives of ordinary citizens) were the Gordon Riots, an anti-Catholic outburst, which did not take place until 1780 and were confined to small sections of London, lasting but a few days.

Although the period was called the Age of Reason, and although the official philosophy was one of rationalism, the actual lives of most people were not lived according to such theories; this fact is more clearly reflected in the novel than in any other form of literature. The best-known heroes of the early novel are either criminals, such as Moll Flanders, or rebels against a hostile society, such as Clarissa Harlowe from Richardson’s Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) and Sophia Western from Tom Jones (the former running away from home and being drugged and seduced, the latter escaping from her father and nearly being raped). Tom Jones is turned out of his benefactor’s house on very slender evidence of wrongdoing; he is then beaten, robbed, and almost hanged, and it takes almost eight hundred pages for him to establish his innocence. (Typical of the increasingly middle-class morality of the time, one of the chief themes of Tom Jones is that virtue is what a person owes to others, while prudence is what one owes to oneself.) These works deal primarily with the lives of one or two central characters, further evidence of the eighteenth century emphasis on the individual.

Individuality, as a concern and thematic focus, is most strikingly advanced in the entertaining but often nearly surrealistic Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), by Laurence Sterne (1713-1768). Some critics believe that Sterne’s book did more than any other to open the way for the later psychological novel. A concern for individuality was also indicated by the spread of Methodism, whose first meetings were held in 1729. In its early stages, before it hardened into an established denomination, it was an emotional movement that went back to the individualistic roots of Protestantism. The focus on the life of the individual is also reflected in the earlier, and continuing, enthusiasm for biography. Defoe augmented this tradition by basing Robinson Crusoe (1719) largely on the experience of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an island for some four and a half years. Typically, Defoe transforms Crusoe into a resourceful, God-fearing middle-class man who hardly changes at all during more than twenty-five years on the fictional island—unlike Selkirk, who emerged from his experience in a half-bestial state.

Along with an increasing emphasis on the particulars of people’s lives, the early novel depended heavily on a flexible, readable prose style that was far from the inflated expression of the romances of earlier times. Much of the brevity and liveliness of this new style was the product of journalists and “hack” writers who were compelled to produce considerable quantities of material for a general audience in short periods. Defoe is again a classic example. He did not start writing long fiction until he was sixty years old, by which time he had produced hundreds of expository works of a very readable nature, most of them published in periodicals. On a more lofty plane, but still of a vigorous composition, were the widely admired informal essays of Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729), published chiefly in the popular periodicals The Tatler (1709-1711) and The Spectator (1711-1712). The styles of Richardson and Fielding (1707-1754) are also somewhat more elevated, as befits the stories of more socially eminent characters (Fielding was the more literary, having had a superior education and an admirable career in the law, along with previous experience as a successful dramatist), but Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) wrote in a very plain style, displaying the “common touch” to a high degree and attaining a much-enjoyed earthy humor.

One reason that prose fiction sold so well during this era was the Licensing Act of 1737, directed at the theater, which amounted to a form of censorship enforced by a sensitive government under the leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, who had been the butt of several satirical passages in popular plays. In effect, this law forced Fielding to turn from drama to the novel; it also encouraged bland theater, thus winning a greater readership for contentious periodicals such as the famous Spectator Papers by Addison and Steele, which led a growing list of well-written and topical journals. The emphasis on individualism during this period was further reflected in the new esteem for portraiture, leading to illustrious careers for such great portrait painters as Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), a popular member of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated Club, and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Johnson’s group, which met more or less regularly in the 1760’s and 1770’s, was a culmination of another eighteenth century tendency that exhibits the desire of people to come to know others on a quasi-individual basis: the popularity of the coffeehouses, establishments where upper-middle-class men gathered to discuss events of the day, the latest articles in the current periodicals, and one another. One of Johnson’s salient criticisms of men he did not like was that they were “unclubbable.”

Since the novel was written chiefly for the middle class and selected most of its characters from the ranks of this group, it reflects the lamentable fact that nearly all the truly charitable work that was done during this midcentury period (and there was an unfortunate paucity of it, by modern standards) was accomplished by the middle class. It was this stratum of society that instituted the parish groups that gave to the poor and looked after unwed mothers and orphaned offspring (although, as Moll Flanders clearly demonstrates, the care was woefully inadequate for many). The two institutions that would be expected to take the lead in such endeavors—the government and the church—simply failed to do so in any meaningful fashion until the next century; both were more determined to promulgate their primacy and power than to form any effective organized assistance for the unfortunate. Foreign wars and economic shifts created a large body of needy people; indeed, former military people who become idlers appear as minor characters in decades of British fiction.

Perhaps the chief cultural irony of this period is that the novel protested against the conditions of society and yet depended on them for its existence. The cosmic concerns expressed by earlier writers (John Milton, 1608-1674, is perhaps the most obvious example) no longer attracted the interest of readers. People were more interested in how to get along, live successfully and morally, and come to terms with the rapidly changing times. For such guidance, it was not the philosophers or great poets to whom most readers turned but the novelists, for these middle-class authors spoke to the real needs and concerns of their readers. Addressing this issue, Johnson’s moral strictures against licentious material in the newly popular novels were severe but were based on a genuine concern for the virtue of the readership, many of whom were “the young, the ignorant, and the idle.” Apart from the ethical aspect of this influential declaration of concern, Johnson’s remarks, in an essay published in The Rambler in 1750, also reveal the great effect that fiction was having on a number of its readers, who, Johnson notes, “regulate their own practice” on the models of the leading characters in novels.

Two of the major historical events that captured the imagination of the everyday reader were the voyage around the world from 1740 to 1744 of Lord Anson (1697-1762) and, later, the Pacific explorations from 1768 to 1779 of James Cook (1728-1779). The passages in Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748; commonly known as Roderick Random) dealing with the hero’s experience on a naval vessel were thus of considerable relevance to the novel reader. As the feats of explorers and colonizers became known, a greater sense of empire, as well as the recognition of ever-increasing opportunities for trade, began to be felt in the populace. England’s navy, strong for centuries, was now the guardian of a lively British maritime commerce around the world, with the colonies providing invaluable raw materials and opening areas for further colonization and economic development for enterprising adventurers.

1764 to 1800

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The date 1764 is of special significance in the history of long fiction because it clearly marks the beginning of a distinct change in the direction of English culture, especially as reflected in the novel. The first genuine gothic novel (the novel of suspense, terror, exotic setting, and effects) was published in that year. The Castle of Otranto (1765), by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), enjoyed enormous success and signaled a shift in public taste toward the exotic, the extraordinary, and violent passions—toward the Romantic movement, adumbrations of which can be found this early.

Another early sign of Romanticism is a different sort of novel, also the first of its kind: The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), by Oliver Goldsmith (1728 or 1730-1774), regarded as the harbinger of the novel of sensibility, another signal of the Romantic “temperament.” These two impulses, the gothic and the sentimental, were to gain an even greater hold on the interests and reading habits of the late eighteenth century English. Further evidence of this shift in enthusiasm can be found in the seemingly unrelated art of architecture. The early eighteenth century had seen the construction of practically designed and constructed buildings, with symmetrical proportions and even measurements (the double cube was a popular design)—a kind of “proper” organization also found in the well-trimmed and geometrically planned formal gardens of the time (the topiary art reached its highest point in this era). The later age preferred wild countrysides spotted with ruined or half-ruined castles or rude country dwellings, charming in their quaint rusticity. These “wild” settings became increasingly common in novels and were a staple feature of the Romantic novel to come.

Another important strand of Romanticism was anticipated by the publication of Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), which brought to its clearest exposure an interest in the medieval past that had been growing since early in the century. The enormous popularity of the volume by Percy (1729-1811) testified also to the wider interest in ancient and exotic poetry that came to characterize Romanticism. Further, nature, which was to play so large a part in later novels—notably those of the Romantic Sir Walter Scott—is secondary to the concern for human welfare, especially in terms of emotional states.

Such pre-Romantic tendencies were not confined to England. One of the most popular novels of sensibility was Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a pathetic tale of unrequited love and sad but eloquent protestations of passion and self-pity. It has been claimed that the suicide rate among young readers rose sharply soon after this novel was published. Goethe’s novel reveals a typical connection between the novels of sensibility and gothicism, in that much of the scenery in his tale is wild and natural. The pre-Romantic tendencies revealed in these novels can also be discovered in the often socially critical, homespun Scottish poetry of Robert Burns (1759-1796) and the mystic verses of William Blake (1757-1827).

Probably the most extreme manifestation of sensibility is to be found in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771); in this short novel, the hero falls to weeping more than fifty times. This sentimentality (which was, in later novels, to be the basis of some extremely humorous satire, as in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, 1818) was in part an expression of the flowering social consciousness of the age. This imperative to develop sensitivities to the needs and concerns of others allied itself with the perennial didactic element in the novel and in the national consciousness. Just as the early novelists often claimed a morally elevating purpose in order to have their works accepted by the public and not roundly condemned from the pulpit, so the writers of this era genuinely believed that their novels were stimulating readers to loftier sentiments and more generous acts. In Parliament, the moving and eloquent speeches by the liberal Edmund Burke (1729-1797), many of which were devoted to opposing the government’s narrow-minded policy of taxation in the American colonies, officially ratified the growing belief that people had a right to be helped by others and that the willingness to help was a sacred duty for any who were able. A popular idea in the novel of sensibility asserted that the true gentleman was never an indifferent spectator of misery in others. This attitude assumed, of course, that human nature is essentially benevolent, a notion that did not take hold in popular fiction until this period.

The notion that human nature is, when uncorrupted by evil forces, naturally good was urged upon the English nation by the influential French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whose asseveration that humans in their natural state are moral gave rise to a widespread discussion of the doctrine of the “noble savage.” This theory relates to the whole atmosphere of primitivism that is found in the ballad revival (intensified by Percy’s volume) and associated phenomena, such as the novel of ideas, a genre that usually endorsed liberal educational and social concepts. Typical of the genre was Thomas Day’s The History of Sandford and Merton (1783-1789), a humorless tract in the form of a novel that tries to prove that a “natural” education is better than an excessively structured one and that morality is always rewarded. Many novels of ideas dealt with education in Rousseauistic terms, but the most striking novel of liberal tendencies wasWilliam Godwin’s Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794; also known as The Adventures of Caleb Williams: Or, Things as They Are; best known as Caleb Williams), which has the distinction of being one of the earliest novels of propaganda and also perhaps the first novel of crime and detection.

These novels of social concern illustrate an important phenomenon: The novel was beginning to occupy a position formerly held by the drama. While a few excellent satires can be found near the close of the century—such as Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night (pr., pb. 1773) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (pr., pb. 1775) and The School for Scandal (pr. 1777)—generally, the burgeoning concern for human rights and social reform is to be found most fully developed in the novel, though a number of poems also reveal such concerns. In English Literature from Dryden to Burns (1948), Alan D. McKillop argues that the novel “entails a critical or analytical attitude toward characters represented under actual or conceivable social conditions” and that the “critical attitude is directed toward both individual character and the social situation.” He suggests that the novel was coming ever closer to the real lives of its readers as the eighteenth century came to a close. Despite the excesses of the sentimental novel and the novel of terror, the central trend of prose fiction was an attempt to grasp and come to terms with the world as it had to be dealt with every day.

Perhaps the best example of this tendency is the work of Fanny Burney (1752-1840), whose moralistic but readable novels of domestic life contain a great deal of sensible advice—either by demonstration or by declaration—for their readers, especially young women. The extensive readership attained by her novels illustrates another aspect of the times: More women were beginning to read and write novels. Burney had a great many followers in the field of domestic fiction. This trend helped to prepare the way for the woman who is, in the view of numerous critics, the best female novelist in the language, Jane Austen (1775-1817).

In 1759 the fierce French satirist Voltaire (1694-1778), Rousseau’s philosophical and literary archenemy, had published his masterpiece of dark comedy, Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759; also known as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762). This fast-moving combination of farce and biting satire sweeps its naïve hero along from one disaster to another and evokes from the reader laughter rather than horror. One character is hanged, a second has a sword thrust into his belly up to the hilt, and a third is repeatedly raped and stabbed. All reappear later in the novel, still alive. The plot races from Europe to South America, back to Europe, and finally to the Middle East. Voltaire’s influence on the English novel extended well into the twentieth century. Candide-like comic novels about rootless and irreverent young people—Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930) by Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), Afternoon Men (1931) by Anthony Powell (1905-2000), and Highland Fling (1931) by Nancy Mitford (1904-1973)—flourished for a time and constituted almost a “school” of the period.

It could be argued that, for common people, the Industrial Revolution was more important than any political unrest. For intellectuals, however, among them many novelists, the disappointment over the Reign of Terror, which was seen as a betrayal of the worthy liberal sentiments that had inspired the revolution, was deep and long. The youthful William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was among the most grimly unsettled of the poets, shocked by the bloody course that the insurrection took; the young Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), though not as morbidly struck as the poet, was deeply disappointed. The reason for the perhaps greater significance of the industrial advance among the lower and middle classes was that individual lives were more directly affected. This fact is of signal importance in the development of the English novel, because this genre, like no other, concentrates on the inner lives of people. Whether the author achieves a detailed delineation of the thoughts and emotions of a character (as does Richardson) or a clear demonstration of a character’s motives by action (as does Fielding), the novel depends on single people, both in their relationships with others and in their interpretations of the meaning of their own lives, for most of its interest and value. This dependency was to increase in the ages following the eighteenth century. That the trend was to be informed by what could be considered a semirevolutionary bent (the single person pitted against society or a tradition) was only the predictable result of the tenor of the times.

1800 to 1832

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The first decades of the nineteenth century were the peak of Romanticism in English literature, its chief exemplars being the five great Romantic poets John Keats (1795-1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), William Wordsworth (1770-1850),Lord Byron (1788-1824), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). These artists wrote verse that emphasized the imaginative intuition of the individual as the way to achieve truth.

Scott was a powerful force in the popularization of both Romantic poetry and the Romantic novel. His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803) capitalized on the widening interest in old ballads and folktales, especially of the rural type. Scott turned to the novel as an act of self-defense when Byron became so popular that the verse of other poets could no longer command an adequate market. At the time, Scott had no idea of what a favor was being accorded him. The publication of Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), the first of the so-called Waverley novels—all set in the past and many providing insightful, if not fully accurate, visions of historical events and people—marked the commencement of a groundswell of enthusiasm among readers for depictions of wild Scottish scenery and vigorous actions performed by impossibly virtuous and somewhat leaden heroes in the defense of improbably sweet and chaste heroines. Scott’s talent for characterization was never highly praised, except in his portraits of lower-class characters such as thieves, pirates, and gypsies, but his powers of description were unequaled in his day. In his better works, such as The Heart of Midlothian (1818) and The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), he attained gothic effects that rival those in any of the novels in the genre, even the works of Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824).

While verse was the prevailing form during the Romantic period, the novel was still popular; the growth of the population, especially in cities, and the proliferation of lending libraries permitted a wider dissemination of fiction and thus greater economic rewards for writing and publishing novels. There was, however, still a stigma attached to both the writing and the reading of fiction. Scott published his first several novels anonymously, and Jane Austen took considerable pains to conceal from all but members of her family that she was writing novels. A period that can boast the wide sweep and narrative drive of Scott’s historical fiction and the elegant but barbed domestic vignettes of Austen is rich indeed.

An additional aspect of the novel in this era was the fairly new emphasis on regional fiction. Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) dealt with the problems, charms, and complexities of life in Ireland with sensitivity and perception. Relations between Ireland and England had been strained since the time of Elizabeth I. In response, Edgeworth offered some penetrating arguments in favor of the Irish side of the question, most notably on the injustice of the English practice of absentee landlordism. Although satire was not the predominant tone of the fiction of the period, the novels of Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) provide an entertaining vision of the romance as seen through more modern eyes, with lively touches of humor. The very titles of some of his most popular works indicate the nature of his approach: Headlong Hall (1816),Nightmare Abbey (1818), andCrotchet Castle (1831).

1832 to 1870: The early Victorian age

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Although Victoria did not gain the throne until 1837, several events suggest the year 1832 as a suitable date to designate the opening of the era that bears her name. The designation indicates the complexity of the cultural and historical period. It followed epochs that have been labeled according to their obvious characteristics: the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the age of Pope, the age of Johnson, the Romantic age. A seventy-year period named after the reigning monarch is something of an evasion, but the era was so complicated and contradictory that the choice is understandable. As Walter Houghton notes in The Victorian Frame of Mind (1957), “Studies in this area have emphasized only a few characteristics, notably moral earnestness and optimism, to the obscuring of others, equally important, like enthusiasm and anxiety.” He goes on to explain how difficult it is to capture the spirit of the period because it is composed of so many divergent and, at times, contradictory elements.

Indeed, anxiety underlay a great deal of the surface optimism for which Victorian England is famous. Thus the celebrated response byMatthew Arnold (1822-1888) to an English industrialist’s ignorant remark about the era’s wonderful condition makes a great deal of sense. Another indication of the anxiety and conflict that pervaded the period can be found in the Oxford, or Tractarian, movement, which started in 1833 and persevered until 1841. This movement was an attempt to elevate the position of the Church of England in the lives of the people. There were complicated theological and even political reasons for the zeal of the reformers, but one can perceive in this intense conviction that there was a need for such a radical change, an aura of uncertainty and even anxiety about the cultural substance of the life of the time.

The novelist who epitomizes the Victorian era, Charles Dickens (1812-1870), published his first major work beginning in 1836. Pickwick Papers (1836-1837, serial; 1837, book) demonstrates an additional aspect of the Victorian personality: a delightful sense of humor, chiefly based on charming eccentricity of character. It is typical of the age, however, that the tone of Dickens’s novels almost steadily darkened throughout his lifetime. Indeed, one can trace an increasing tendency toward grimness as the century passed in novelists from Dickens through Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

In part, the increasing pessimism of the Victorian age reflected a growing awareness of urban blight, of the complex consequences of the Industrial Revolution. There were few novels specifically about industry, but Dickens’s impassioned plea for more humanity and less materialism, as found in Hard Times (1854; originally published as Hard Times for These Times), was echoed in the works of lesser writers who were popular in their day. Dickens protested against a variety of social abuses, from inhuman schools for poor children, as in Oliver Twist (1837-1839, serial; 1838, book), to the corruption and inefficiency of the courts of chancery, as in Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book); particularly intense was his resistance to the cruel working conditions created by the factory system, presented most sharply in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841, serial; 1841, book), a work whose excessive emotional stress causes it to cross the border into bathos, a common failing of the era’s novels. Despite these social concerns, the central thrust of the novel in the Victorian period remained toward a revelation of the ways by which more or less common people attempt to meet the challenges of life.

The spiritual crises that afflicted many of the artists and thinkers of the Victorian era—particularly the conflicts with Charles Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis, but also with other challenges to orthodox Christianity, such as higher criticism of biblical texts—lent the later novels of this period a philosophical depth and seriousness unprecedented in English fiction. The most impressive novelist who wrote in this vein was George Eliot (1819-1880), in whose works one of the most iterated principles of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) is demonstrated repeatedly: the assertion that life can take on its true meaning only when the individual is willing to renounce earthly glory and material possessions. The theme of renunciation that resounds through Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1871-1872) is an echo of the same stress placed by Carlyle on this human recognition of limited claims and the virtue of humility. These two philosophers of the period, Carlyle being the earlier, reveal two diverging tendencies in the Victorian attitude toward prominent people. While Carlyle, in his famous essay On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), praises the hero in history as the kind of person who makes historical events happen, Eliot presents her leading characters as simple people who demonstrate the Victorian trend away from the usual vision of the lofty, noble, aristocratic hero of the past, as in Scott’s historical novels. As Mario Praz establishes in The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction (1956), the romantic hero gave way to the middle-class man or woman who exhibited worthy moral traits, some bravery, and a lack of egotism. Such central characters allowed Eliot and a host of other writers to explore the intellectual and emotional depths of people who appear common (they certainly occupy common places in society) but display profound levels of sensitivity and spiritual resources. Eliot’s often-noted remark that she found God inconceivable but duty indispensable illustrates an attitude typical of many of the respected authors of the middle and later Victorian period.

1870 to 1890: The late Victorian age

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The era referred to as the late Victorian age is often said to include the last decade of the nineteenth century; it is also known as the realistic period. The generation opened with the death of Dickens in 1870 and the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. In the same year appeared one of Hardy’s early novels, Desperate Remedies. This gloomy title not only indicates the grim philosophy that Hardy revealed in nearly all of his novels but also suggests the plight of many of the inhabitants of Great Britain, who had encountered several political and cultural realities: the repressive policies of Lord Palmerston, prime minister in 1855-1858 and 1859-1865; the positivistic interpretation of history in the works of Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), whose four-volume Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863-1864) was translated as History of English Literature in 1871; and the naturalism ofÉmile Zola (1840-1902). The potato famine that had struck Ireland in 1846 was a harbinger of the hard times to strike the rest of the British Isles. As the previously burgeoning economy began to slow down and settle into less expansive patterns, the competition from other industrial nations, especially the United States and Germany, began to take a severe toll. The near monopoly in international trade that England had enjoyed for decades was irrevocably broken. For the laboring classes, the results were catastrophic. There were extended periods of unemployment, and the rate of emigration, before but a trickle, rapidly rose. It is estimated that some twenty thousand English citizens emigrated to the United States in 1886 and that an even greater number left in the following two-year period.

An inevitable result of the ruptures in the previously booming economy was an increased interest in socialistic projects and leaders. In 1880 three Labor Party candidates won seats in Parliament; soon afterward, several socialistic organizations were founded, the most remarkable being the Fabian Society, started in 1884, which was later to count H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) among its members. The disorder in society that this sort of expedient implies was indeed present. Faith in a number of institutions, such as the church, the monarchy, Parliament, the economic system, religion, and even science, began to wane.

By an odd quirk of psychology, the novels of Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) found their popularity largely on the basis of their calm tone, the certitude of a pleasant outcome (now and then, Trollope stops the story to inform the reader that there is no cause for anxiety, as he has arranged it so that all will be well), and the relatively trivial concerns of the characters, many of whom are country parsons with very little of serious import in their actions and conversation. This phenomenon was repeated during the anxious days of World War II, when Trollope was again popular. This impulse to escape was to be expressed in a much different manner in the 1890’s by the Decadents, who championed the notion of art for art’s sake on the theory that art is far above life and therefore should not soil its hands trying to deal with it. The most famous of the Decadents was Oscar Wilde (1856-1900), whose semigothic supernatural novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) was a sort of fictional announcement of the bizarre extremes of this movement.

Thus, while the empire was expanding abroad, life at home for the lower classes—the upper middle class was not harmed much by the unemployment and the emigration—was a struggle. Writers strenuously resisted the principles of expansion of the empire and the heartless exploitation of foreign and domestic laborers. In the novel, one finds such impassioned propagandistic works as Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and George Gissing’s Workers in the Dawn (1880).

From a more purely literary standpoint, however, the age was a rich one, as the novel achieved a wider scope and a greater depth than it had yet known. Though George Eliot is best known for her novels of domestic life, such as Middlemarch, she also took up social causes with an intensity and thoughtfulness not found before in the English novel—the prime example is Daniel Deronda (1876), which deals with “the Jewish question.” Although England had a skilled Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), in office for several long periods in the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism was still widespread and often institutionally sanctioned. Eliot, along with Hardy andGeorge Meredith (1828-1909) in particular, also helped create what was to become known as the psychological novel. Certainly, writers of the realistic school—most notably the French realists Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle, 1783-1842), and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)—had assisted in opening the paths to psychological realism, but the English novelists of the late nineteenth century carried this tendency to a lofty height. British literary historians occasionally claim that the American-born Henry James (1843-1916), who could be classified as the most insightful of all psychological realists, was more of an English novelist than an American one, since he lived the last thirty-five years of his life in England and wrote a great deal more about English society than he did about that of his native land. The claim is hotly contested, however, by students of the novel in the United States, and there is much in James’s work that proclaims its author as essentially American, wherever he chose to reside.

The period ended with the death of Robert Browning (1812-1889). This most Victorian of writers, whose optimistic poems are so well known as to mislead casual readers, is a fitting representative of the era. The way was already prepared for the more modern writings of later poets such as Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), a severe critic of the empire-building practices of the government, and William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). The novelists to follow included Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930). The works of these authors, and of the other imposing figures who were to carry this magnificent genre down to the present, would not, however, have been possible without the efforts of the countless writers of long fiction who opened the avenues of what F. R. Leavis has aptly called the great tradition.

Background of the American novel

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By general consent, the first American novel was The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Triumph of Nature (1789; also known as The Triumph of Nature Founded in Truth), attributed to William Hill Brown. Numerous literary achievements had been seen in America since the founding of the settlements at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, but no memorable fiction was produced until late in the next century. Most of the earliest works were practical, semihistorical pieces, such as Captain John Smith’s A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of That Collony (1608) and A Description of New England: Or, Observations and Discoveries of Captain John Smith (1616). A substantial body of religious literature began to appear, including the famous Bay Psalm Book (1640), which had the distinction of being the first book to be printed in America, Roger Williams’s Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed (1644), the poetry of Edward Taylor (c. 1645-1729), and the fiery sermons and tracts of Increase Mather (1639-1723) and Cotton Mather (1663-1728). These and similar works, well into the eighteenth century, provided information, attitudes, some impressive poetic imagery, and much moralizing; what they lacked was any recognizable belletristic quality. This was especially true of the prose. Fiction did not begin to find a general readership until the second half of the eighteenth century, and most of the fiction published at that time in the colonies was either British (no international copyright law existed, and much importing and pirating of novels from the mother country occurred) or closely based on British models, chiefly novels by Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.

The delay in the appearance of native fiction of high quality is attributed to a variety of causes, both cultural (a heavy dependence by the colonies on Britain for literary forms and techniques, which endured until long after the American Revolution, 1776-1781) and natural (the enormous land mass of the “new” continent and the regionalism it stimulated). Many scholars believe that the primary reason for the delayed and tentative beginning of American long fiction, apart from the influence of British examples, was simply the absence of an indigenous culture rich in tradition; in Henry James’s formulation (Hawthorne, 1879), it requires “an accumulation of history and customto form a suggestion for the novelist.”

It has been noted that this paucity of social and historical substance compelled American novelists to discover or create other bases for their themes, founded on more abstract material. The result, claim scholars who are favorably impressed by this phenomenon, was a fiction rich in symbolism and allegory, a literature abundant in metaphysical significance and elevated by a textual density. Of special interest in this connection is the massive achievement of Moby Dick (1851), in which Herman Melville (1819-1891) created a symbol of evil (or of something far more complex) that may represent the highest attainment in the English language of a thematic expression. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) “romances,” as he wished his fictions to be designated, are almost by definition apart from the British genre of the realistic novel of social life. It is inviting to speculate about what Mark Twain (1835-1910) would think, given his preliminary instructions to readers to eschew a search for any motive, moral, or plot, of the scholarly attention given to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which discovers in the novel archetypal characters such as Jim (interpreted as a surrogate, spiritual father to Huck) and events such as the journey down the Mississippi River (elucidated as a recapitulation of the quest motif found in primitive myth). In Form and Fable in American Fiction (1961), Daniel Hoffman makes a persuasive case for the enormous reliance of American novelists on folklore and their extensive utilization of allegorical and symbolic modes of signification.

Because the United States comprises such a vast expanse of territory, and this area includes regions settled by peoples with diverse backgrounds and ambitions, it has been customary to divide the country into several regions. A measure of the linguistic importance of this regional aspect of America may be seen in the fact that, at the First Continental Congress in 1774, many of the delegates were frustrated because they found themselves nearly unable to comprehend the speech of other members. The differences among these regions demonstrate the rich variety of American literature. For a considerable time, the cultural life of America was synonymous with the cultural life of New England, and Boston was judged the cultural capital of the country as well as its publishing center—the first printing press in America was established in Cambridge in 1639—until well into the nineteenth century, when it relinquished that distinction to New York City. More isolated by topographical features than any other major division of the nation, New England was marked by an often-overstated Puritan fervor and a moralistic emphasis. The middle states—usually regarded as including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and perhaps Maryland and Delaware—were distinguished by the great diversity of their settlers and the resulting manifold qualities of thought and concerns. By contrast, the South developed a more homogeneous culture, a sort of feudal society based on the establishment of slavery. From a literary standpoint, the chief cultural benefit of the plantation system was that it allowed the growth of a leisured class of aristocrats who had the time and the education to read widely and write articulately.

The last general division in the national consciousness, which was soon to be broken into constituent regions, was the West, an area that was unknown and untraveled, and thus possessed, for the first settlers and many later immigrants, an awesome charm. As the frontier moved west, more and more was learned that removed the mystery from the land, but until late in the nineteenth century, the image of the West held by many Americans and foreign visitors was still marked by a sense of romance, unreality, freedom, and unlimited opportunity.

In establishing the periods of American literature, great variance is found, and quarrels continue regarding delineation of the periods. The wisest deduction would appear to be that American literature is so complex, despite the evident relative simplicity of the nation’s history and culture, that clear separations are just not possible or legitimate. The person who most historians agree was the first American professional author, Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), did not publish until near the end of the eighteenth century, and then he was only moderately successful.

As in England, the novel in America was chiefly the product of middle-class authors and the reading material of middle-class citizens. These middle-class writers, however, were not as close to social and political subjects as were their British counterparts. There existed a severe tension between opposing impulses and enthusiasms: between the intense desire for freedom and the fact of slavery, between the opposing attractions of Romanticism and rationalism, and between the desire for economic power and what Leslie Fiedler calls “the need for cultural autonomy.” One result of these tensions and the difficulty of obtaining a unified vision of American society was that the most important authors tended to resort to forms of escape, distancing them from the people. James Fenimore Cooper escaped to the frontier, Hawthorne fled to the past with his insightful studies of the Puritan ethos, Melville found liberation in distant settings and on the sea, Twain escaped to the near past and the West, and James went to Europe to find suitable subject matter for his art.

1789 to 1820

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Several conditions prevailed prior to that period in England that hindered the development of the novel there. These conditions also existed, but with greater impact, in the colonies until the time of the American Revolution and afterward, lessening as the decades passed; they are important in understanding why the American novel did not develop as quickly as its European model. Apart from the problem of colonial, then state, loyalties (Alexander Cowie, in The Rise of the American Novel, 1948, points out that most citizens, even after a national identity had been established, would identify their “country” as the state from which they came), the conditions included a scattered population, making the dissemination of books difficult and expensive; an uneven and low level of public education, an area in which America lagged sadly behind Europe; and, finally, a lack of publishers. Although more than fifty new magazines were published in the last decade of the eighteenth century, few had any chance of persisting, and almost all were content either to print fiction from abroad or to focus on practical, expository material. This emphasis on the pragmatic had a further dampening effect on the production of worthy native fiction.

The early American novels that were set in America and dealt with distinctively American concerns were almost entirely of a moralistic nature, since the moral strictures that had militated against lively, imaginative novels in England were felt in America as well; in some regions, mainly New England, they were felt with even more force than in Britain. As a consequence, the fiction that was turned out well into the nineteenth century tended to be both didactic and imitative of English forms, such as the novel of domestic life, the sentimental novel (these categories often overlapped), the gothic romance, and the historical novel.

William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy fits into the category of the novel of domestic life with more than a suggestion of the qualities of the sentimental novel, and it has a heavily moralistic dedication; yet it is replete with sensational elements such as near incest, seduction, abduction, and violence. The influence both of the story of Moll Flanders—the lowborn protagonist of Defoe’s tale of suffering, thievery, and intrigue—and of Richardson’s account of the grim adventures of the upper-middle-class Clarissa Harlowe is seen here. Equally lively but better written—Brown’s style is ponderous, in the vein of lesser-known English authors of the eighteenth century—is Susanna Rowson’s popular Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (1791; also known as Charlotte Temple, 1797), which also displays the effects of the pressure of a Puritan morality and probably a sympathetic reading by the author of the works of Fanny Burney. Other novels of this type, written chiefly by women, established this subgenre in American literature for decades to come.

The gothic romance, while presented in some impressive early examples, mostly those of Charles Brockden Brown, did not flourish as had the domestic and sentimental novels. The most apparent reason for this weakness was the lack of didactic themes. The gothic setting and plot did not encourage moralizing on the author’s part. There was often a touch of the picaresque in these productions, which tended to discourage moral lessons. Like the British models, such as William Beckford’s Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786; original French edition, 1787) and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance (1796; also published as Ambrosio: Or, The Monk), the American gothic novel developed a body of gothic machinery designed to terrify. As in England, the form stimulated a number of parodies of its most extreme features: unlikely plots, bizarre settings, and unwholesome characters whose actions often descend into the lunatic.

As a reaction against these types developed in the form of the early historical novel—marked by the introduction of American Indians as important characters—the quality of fiction in the New World began to rise, but at a slow pace. It is noteworthy that it was not until nearly fifty years after the American Revolution that American novelists dealt significantly and seriously with that event. The delay was once again largely the result of a powerful British cultural influence on the new nation. When that influence was overcome, and as the country became more unified (improved roads and modes of travel had a great deal to do with this advance), the ground was laid for important literary achievements.

1820 to 1865

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The unrest at the heart of the American novel, especially in the nineteenth century, is particularly evident in the work of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). It is not so evident in a lesser book, such as Satanstoe: Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts, a Tale of the Colony (1845), as in the more famous novels: The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826), The Prairie: A Tale (1827), The Pathfinder: Or, The Inland Sea (1840), and The Deerslayer: Or, The First War-Path (1841)—the central titles in his famous Leatherstocking Tales, which recount the adventures of one of the most influential characters in early American fiction, the redoubtable Natty Bumppo. Cooper’s presentation of this interesting personage’s experiences on the frontier could be said to have brought about the development of the Western genre, or at least to have brought it to the highest point to which it aspired (the culmination of the trend may perhaps be found in Owen Wister’s The Virginian, 1902, which, while a more sophisticated work, still emphasizes the virtues of Western heroes in contrast with the evils and corruption of the East). As Richard Chase declares in The American Novel and Its Tradition, Cooper is at his best when he can “accept without anxiety or thought the vivid contradictions of Natty Bumppo and his way of life.” Chase and many other literary historians point out that the unrest was the result of unresolved disunities in a nation that had been formed largely from disparate elements: progressive thinkers and conservative traditions, European influence and American innovation, and what would later be termed the “highbrow” versus the “lowbrow.”

Such oppositions might well be expected in a new country whose physical borders were still expanding, with new states being added every several years, and whose population was still being enlarged by immigration at a rapid pace (more than fifty million people traveled to the United States from Europe and Asia during the nineteenth century). The lack of serenity in American political and economic life was mirrored by the artistic sphere. A sort of inferiority complex in the arts persisted in the United States long after the insulting remark by the British writer Sidney Smith in 1820: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?” Many Americans were forced to agree that the artistic accomplishments of the new nation were slight. As late as the 1840’s, Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), the scholarly author and friend of most of the Transcendentalists (whose most illustrious member was Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882), asserted that for America to produce a literature of its own, “an original idea must animate this nation.” Few of these fresh concepts were to be found in a culture that was influenced by Europe and the chief concerns of which were advancing its political growth and consolidating its economy.

Into this wasteland of artistic sterility came the imposing figure of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who turned to his Puritan forebears for material for some of the finest short stories and at least two of the most impressive novels (The Scarlet Letter, 1850, and The House of the Seven Gables, 1851) of the nineteenth century. One of Hawthorne’s ancestors had been a judge at the Salem witch trials and had participated in the condemnation to ghastly torture of innocent women. The sensitive descendant of this old, honored, and guilty family could not rid himself of the sense of wrongdoing and, fortunately for his art, developed a haunting penetration into the nature of good and evil. Also of benefit to his writing was a distinctive and lofty prose style. Many scholars would concur with Irving Howe’s judgment in The Literature of America: Nineteenth Century (1970) that Hawthorne is “the first great American novelist.”

Writers as diverse as Herman Melville and Mark Twain not only produced American novels of high quality but also helped to legitimate American fiction in the United States. Their success was partially a result of nonartistic phenomena, such as the nation’s rapid increases in population and territory. Prosperity led people to take pride in their accomplishments and provided more leisure in which to read fiction. While the stress on personal advancement sometimes took the form of self-aggrandizement, Americans had a countervailing impulse toward endorsement of the leveling effects of democracy. This conflict, like so many others appearing in the United States toward the middle of the nineteenth century, can be discovered as an underlying theme in the better novels of Melville: Redburn: His First Voyage (1849), White-Jacket: Or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850), Moby Dick, and Billy Budd, Foretopman (a novella not published until 1924 but now considered one of his finest works).

The midcentury also saw the growth of “local color” fiction, which ranged in the following decades from the Western sketches of Bret Harte (1836-1902) to the poetic realism of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). To some extent, the local colorists were preserving or re-creating a simpler, preindustrial America in the nostalgic mood of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Though Twain produced only one generally accepted masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the influence of his stories, especially the early ones, was enormous. It is perhaps not too much to say that this emotionally troubled author (particularly in his later years) assisted America in realizing how much it had lost with the westward spread of civilization.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), a then little-known writer from the civilized East, fond of reading the romances of Sir Walter Scott, has been credited with awakening the conscience of the North to the horrors of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is hardly a great book, and its romantic elements are at times humorous, or would be were the subject of the novel not so serious. Abraham Lincoln was no doubt exaggerating when he remarked upon meeting Stowe that he was pleased to greet the “little lady” who had started the big war, but there is no question that this novel contributed greatly to the abolitionist movement. In so doing, it proved that a work of fiction could have profound social and political effects on the nation.

This period also saw the publication of the first novel by an African American, William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter (1853; as Miralda: Or, The Beautiful Quadroon, 1860-1861; Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States, 1864; and Clotelle: Or, The Colored Heroine, 1867). Brown, himself an escaped slave, wrote the novel to flesh out the now-confirmed rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman who was his slave. Perhaps unpublishable in the United States, Clotel was published in London. In 1859, the first novel by an African American woman, Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery’s Shadow Falls Even There, became also the first novel by an African American to be published in the United States.

The post-Civil War period, satirically named the Gilded Age by Twain and his collaborator, Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900), in their 1873 novel of that title, was also perceived, especially by later historians, as the age of realism. Novels with realistic elements had appeared before the war, but the forthright recognition by novelists of the harsh realities of the Reconstruction period justifies that designation. James emphasized psychological realism. While he did live mostly in Europe and often wrote about Europeans, he never lost his interest in the American personality; his novels are filled with fascinating American characters, often seen in conflict with, or corrupted by, the older society of Europe, such as the charming Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and the very American Christopher Newman of The American (1877). Even when James was writing chiefly about European characters who visit the United States, as in The Europeans (1878), the attentive reader gleans more information about the nature of American morals and attitudes, as with the Wentworth family in that story, than about those of the foreign characters. James’s psychological realism influenced his good friend and constant admirer William Dean Howells (1837-1920), most notably in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). However, Howells was more concerned with external reality and much cruder in his treatment of emotional nuances than was James.

Indeed, under the influence of naturalism, Howells went so far as to claim that art should be eliminated altogether and fiction turned into a sort of factual, semiscientific report of life as it is. He never attained this goal, but some of the naturalistic writers came close to doing so: Howells’s influence on Frank Norris (1870-1902), Stephen Crane (1871-1900), and Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was considerable. In a larger way, James and Twain affected the course of American long fiction for a longer time. As depth psychology came into vogue, the examinations of characters’ motives and states of mind so highly evolved in James’s novels—the later ones, such as The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903) are especially impressive for this achievement—became very influential. Although his popularity with readers has never equaled Twain’s, James had a powerful effect on later writers.

The spread of literacy, which accelerated sharply after the Civil War, helped create a market for fiction, and a great number of minor authors emerged. Some of them had superior credentials, such as the historical novelist Francis Marion Crawford (1854-1909), who, during his travels and studies, attained a reasonable fluency in more than fifteen languages. Most of these authors are, unfortunately, little read today. Stylistically, the most prominent influence on the period was Twain, to whom, much later, both William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway would admit a debt. In another way, Twain’s increasing pessimism encouraged the advance of the naturalist movement, which has been defined as realism with predilection for the nasty. This gloomy outlook, largely the result of business reverses (Twain was a poor businessman, and the expanding economy encouraged unwise investments), can readily be seen in the naturalistic writers.

The dejection in Twain’s later work, most sharply revealed in the posthumously published Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1969), was not without valid cause. The Gilded Age had followed the Civil War, which some experts consider the first truly modern war, characterized by the participation of large numbers of civilians, the massing and action of large bodies of troops, and the phenomenon of individual battles becoming massacres; also, it has been judged the first war in which victory was primarily the result of an industrial superiority. The epoch was modern in other ways as well, which, though not so bloody, were distressing: The growth of the economy created new industries and sudden fortunes at the same time it brought into being a new class of urban poor and the beginnings of extensive slum areas. These grim conditions inevitably led to clashes between corporations and nonorganized workers, impelling the rapid expansion of the labor movement.

By 1890 the United States was well on its way to becoming a modern country, with all the blessings and curses that such a development implies. Novelists tended to fix their attention on the curses, yet this penchant could be regarded as something of a duty for novelists, especially in the modern era. When the liberal educator and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) was asked how one could best learn about “American society in its formative process,” he recommended reading the novels of Howells. It might not be too much to say that Americans who desire to understand the most significant trends in the early development of their nation and their people would be well advised to peruse the novels produced by their own varied and energetic culture.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

Clayton, Jay. Romantic Vision and the Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Addresses the theme of transcendence in the English novel, with discussion of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Little Dorritt by Charles Dickens, Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence.

David, Dierdre, ed. Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection of eleven essays analyzes such issues as readership, publishing, aesthetics, gender, sexuality, economy, and science in the Victorian novel. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Expanded and revised edition of a classic study of the parallel rise of a new nation and the rise of the novel in America. Argues that the idea that early American fiction imitated European works is exaggerated.

Ellis, Markman. The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Offers a thoughtful examination of the sentimental novel, with consideration of politics, race, slavery, and the treatment of women in fiction.

Harris, Sharon M., ed. Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. Collection of nine essays discusses the contribution of women writers to the political novel. Two essays deal with the famous authors Louisa May Alcott and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, whereas the others examine the work of lesser-known female novelists.

Perosa, Sergio. American Theories of the Novel: 1793-1903. New York: New York University Press, 1983. Presents discussion of the colonial background of the American novel, followed by chapters titled “The Debate over Realism in the 1870’s and 1880’s,” “Henry James and the Art of Fiction,” “Genteel Realism and Regionalism,” “Naturalism, Veritism, and Impressionism,” and “The New Romance.”

Samuels, Shirley. A Companion to American Fiction, 1780-1865. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. Examines important American authors, including Cooper, Hannah Foster, Hawthorne, Melville, and Stowe, and explores such issues as race, gender, religion, and political identity in their works. Also devotes discussion to dime novels, Western novels, and novels for children.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. Study intended for the general reader examines the variety of fiction produced in eighteenth century England, including the novel Tristram Shandy and gothic fiction, the political novel, and the novel of manners. Discusses Tristram Shandy as an important step toward the development of the true novel.