Early American Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Early American Novel

Leonard Tennenhouse

Most accounts of the American novel show it serving to shape the nation or what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community.” These accounts scour early American novels for self-conscious signs of national aspiration, nominate characters as early versions of the ideal citizen-subject, analyze plots for what they may say about a national politics, study landscapes for their uniquely American topography, and explain the sheer number of gothic and sentimental texts in terms of how they sought to unite a disparate readership around those aspirations, ideals, and political goals. While a few novels reward the stalwart critic with evidence to justify one or more of these procedures, most do not, especially those written before the 1820s. Critics consequently skip over most early examples of American fiction and settle on James Fenimore Cooper's frontier fiction—particularly The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and The Prairie (1827)—as the first to create a uniquely American hero to mediate the struggle among the different groups—French, British, American, and Native American—which gave shape and coherence to the new nation.

American novels written between the 1780s and 1820s tell a different story. Novels by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Leonora Sansay, Charles Brockden Brown, Royal Tyler, Isaac Mitchell, Susannah Rowson, and other writers of the early republic are modeled on a cosmopolitan view of America. These novels pull off the amazing feat of detailing both the peculiar practices and idiosyncratic kinship rules of local communities and situating those people and their practices within an Atlantic circuit of people, goods, services, and information that cross regional and national boundaries. It was arguably against this cosmopolitan form that the nineteenth-century novel struggled to create a narrative form that corresponded to the nation as a whole and, at the same time, was internally coherent and clearly defined.

To date, we have no literary critical study of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American novel comparable to Ian Watt's Rise of the English Novel, which shows how certain narratives of individual development both accompanied and reflected the emergence and development of the genre, the readership, and ultimately Great Britain. A surplus of British fiction, both imported and reprinted in America, coupled with a number of novels written in America that do not confine their plots solely to an American geography, and the lack of any pretense at representing a unified American identity, make it difficult to say what is distinctively American about the early American novel. While a number of authors felt the need for a specifically American novel—most famously Brockden Brown and his literary cohort—their call for such a novel strongly suggests that in actuality, there was no such thing. The facts suggest a cosmopolitan form had far more appeal to an early American readership. Let us consider what the field of the early American novel might look like were it to develop around this other model of community.

Long considered the “first” American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy was published in 1789, the same year as Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative. To consider both Equiano's autobiographical narrative, which draws on a variety of novelistic materials, and Hill Brown's more traditional epistolary novel in these terms, we need Paul Gilroy's insight that a group's ability to maintain a semblance of autonomy and collective identity over time is based on its cultural practices—rather than its ability to trace its genealogy back to some point of origin. Instead of formulating a continuous tradition that aims at retrieving a lost past, an intellectual process he identifies with the chronotope of the road, Gilroy prefers to think within the chronotope of the crossroad (see BAKHTIN).

The putative author of The Interesting Narrative crisscrosses the Atlantic world—in the manner of a pícaro—from Africa, to the West Indies, Virginia, England, Canada, the Mediterranean and back again to the West Indies (see PICARESQUE). What happens if we regard the key exchange that takes place in England (when Equiano comes under the tutelage of the Guerin sisters) as the prototype for Hill Brown's narrative? This allows us to cast his protagonist as a man at the crossroads. While Hill Brown's Mr. Worthy does not undergo a conversion experience comparable to Equiano's, in the small section of New England where most of The Power of Sympathy is staged, the model of “the crossroads” nevertheless applies. Indeed, it directs us to a scene in a New England library where similar exchanges occur (see LIBRARIES). A young woman who reads “methodically” and with “judgment” a variety of texts including history, novels, and poetry will be able, according to an old gentleman also present in the library, “to form an estimate of the various topicks discussed in company, and to bear a part in all those conversations” (6). Any less rigorous course of reading will fail to give her what he calls “a true knowledge of the world.” When we factor the information that flows through print into the conversation taking place in a New England library, the exchange of views suddenly expands from a provincial gathering at a country estate into a cosmopolitan debate.

If the early American novel asks its reader to position her or himself within a cluster of such intersections, then Benedict Anderson's model of the novel as a national form simply will not work. The novel, according to Anderson, encourages the reader to imagine his or her community as “a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time [which] is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation” (chap. 2). Such early novels as Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry (1792—1815), Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798) and Edgar Huntly (1799) Sansay's Secret History (1808), and Mitchell's The Asylum (1811) refuse to yield anything like a single geographically bounded organism, its various parts moving simultaneously in time. Following characters as they travel from one city to another, these early American novels say little or nothing about the landscape they traverse, save for the forms of interruption it presents—hazards and digressions that force the narrative to go around an obstacle and pursue another route, often to a different destination. Instead of mapping the nation as a territory, these narratives consequently produce nodal points where characters meet, change directions, take on certain features, and leave others behind.

In such a world, it matters little where one comes from or goes to. More important is what a character brings to and takes away from an exchange. Like Hill Brown's Mr. Worthy, so do Crèvecoeur's Farmer James and Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly and Clara Wieland learn that such exchanges require one to bring something like a cultural literacy to the exchange before he or she can gain information from it. Every crossroad, town, or city, is different, and generalizing from one place never entirely prepares one for the next; there is always new knowledge to acquire. In sharing the information he acquired in visits to Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and Charleston with his British correspondent, Farmer James emphasizes what is unique to each place, whether it is the fact that the whalers of Martha's Vineyard do not engage in debauchery when they return from the sea, or that the women of Nantucket are responsible for overseeing the economic life of the island. To indicate what makes Charleston part of the slave-owning South, Farmer James describes the horrific scene of the slave left to die in a hanging cage. Similarly, the narrator of Secret History reveals that the real scandal of Saint-Domingue is the amatory cruelty of the colonial elites more than the bloody business of slavery. Each place, in other words, has its own history. To unearth its history is to understand that place.

Brockden Brown's protagonists are known for undergoing a sequence of bad exchanges that finally reveal the secret history of the person whom they have mistakenly chosen to instruct, as Arthur Mervyn does with Welbeck and Edgar Huntly, paradoxically, with himself. “The Secret History of Boston” could easily be an alternative title for The Power of Sympathy, which turns on the fact that the scion of one of that city's most prominent families fathered an illegitimate daughter with whom his only son has fallen in love. Harrington the younger commits suicide on learning that his beloved Harriot is actually his half-sister, and the family line is threatened with extinction. Through his successful courtship of Harrington's legitimate daughter, young Harrington's friend, aptly named Mr. Worthy, provides a suitable substitute. In exchange, the elder Harrington gives Worthy both the family's sole surviving daughter and the social prestige that makes Worthy's literacy equivalent to Myra's wealth and prominence. The community that comes into being through this exchange is not based on common origins or local customs but on the medium of the exchange—a high degree of literacy.

Its sense of TIME also distinguishes the novel of the early republic from later nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels. In the early novel, time rarely moves “forward” in a manner that mirrors history, and when it does, it inevitably encounters a cause for digression. Clithero Edny bursts into Edgar Huntly's life and halts the progress of the narrative in order to provide an account of his own life in some detail from birth until the present moment, and his is just one of several narratives that similarly loop around and rejoin Huntly's. Like the geographical detours that set them off, these temporal loops bring together conflicting perspectives. Often on the same event, the point of which is not to determine the “truth” but to make connections by exchanging information. By circulating in and through what appears to be an arbitrary number of points of exchange, sometimes folding back, sometimes digressing to bring in another character's history, the narrative links these points to form something like a network (see NARRATIVE STRUCTURE).

Such a network cannot be confined within one national boundary and is necessarily cosmopolitan in character. Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer fulfills a cosmopolitan vision by means of an epistolary framework that puts an American farmer in correspondence with a British gentleman. Sansay's Secret History guides its reader through circuits of exchange between Philadelphia and Haiti, Haiti and France, back to Philadelphia, then to Haiti and on to Cuba. Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791) sends its heroine from England to America where she is seduced and abandoned. The dying Charlotte hands her daughter over to her father to be reared back in England. The narrator of Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn (1799—1800) reports by novel's end that he is writing from Europe; Clara Wieland writes that she is living with her uncle in Montpellier; and Brockden Brown's Ormond (1799) ends as Constantia Dudley arrives in England. In every case, characters either gather information from places in Europe, the Caribbean, and the Transcaucasus or carry information to such locations after it has circulated in the U.S.

Written to tap into the popularity of the Barbary narrative, Tyler's The Algerine Captive (1797) takes us, in the first volume, from New England to the American South. Updike Underhill recounts his experiences as a schoolteacher and later a doctor as he moves from north to south. Each stop provides an occasion to describe the different practices of the various regions. As a result, there is no consistency, no national character. As an educated New Englander, Underhill is frequently at odds with locals wherever he pauses on his quest and tries to settle down. Unsuccessful in every attempt to be at home in America, he signs on as a doctor to serve aboard a slave ship, only to be captured and enslaved by Barbary pirates. What had been in the first volume an account of the difficulty Underhill encountered in his quest to find community within the geographical boundaries of the new U.S. gives way in the second volume to a cosmopolitan narrative. Taken captive by Barbary pirates, Underhill is placed in a boat with “a Negro slave, five Portuguese, two Spanish sailors, an Italian fiddler, a Dutchman” and his Hottentot servant (vol. 2, chap. 1). Here and throughout the second volume, one's nationality is of little consequence until or unless the captive's government is willing to purchase his freedom. The point is clear. Our hero has to be seized by pirates, taken to the Barbary Coast, and there enslaved before he understands that he is part of an international exchange of people and commodities.

It is telling that the single most popular gothic novel in nineteenth-century America, Mitchell's The Asylum; or, Alonzo and Melissa contains a gothic castle on Long Island Sound. If we don't have to go to Europe to find a gothic castle, then we might well expect such a novel to locate its characters within the geographical boundaries of the nation. Such is not the case, however. The economic disparity between the protagonist, Alonzo, and his intended, Melissa, poses an obstacle to their union. They are torn apart when Alonzo's father loses his fortune; it subsequently takes nothing less than the intervention of Benjamin Franklin (1706—90), an old friend and business partner of his father, to recover the investment and restore the economic equity between the lovers' families, enabling Alonzo to marry Melissa. To meet Franklin, however, the narrative has to transport Alonzo to Paris. To get to Paris, he enlists in the Revolutionary army, is captured, sent to London in chains, and only after his escape from a British prison ship makes his way to the Continent. Going by this example, the early American novel assumes that citizens of the U.S. travel widely, that the boundaries of the new nation are extremely porous, and that its networks intersect or overlap those of Western Europe.

What can we conclude about the early American novel from these examples? No author writing fiction in English from North America could write outside a transatlantic system of exchange, even if he or she wanted to do so. By the same token, more British novels of the period than not acknowledged this same kind of network as the conditions of their own production, including the novels of Daniel Defoe, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, out of which Ian Watt abstracts the roots, trunk, and branches comprising his Rise of the Novel. As a result of his retroactive reconstruction, the cosmopolitan nature and diversity of the eighteenth-century British novel tend to drop from sight. We might find it more than a little ironic that James Fenimore Cooper, one of the first successful American novelists recognized on both sides of the Atlantic, wrote many of his novels while he was living in England, France, and Italy and reading the works of Walter Scott.

SEE ALSO: Comparativism, History of the Novel, Intertextuality, Life Writing.


1. Anderson, B. (1983), Imagined Communities.

2. Davidson, C. (1986), Revolution and the Word.

3. Gilroy, P. (1993), Black Atlantic.

4. Tennenhouse, L. (2007), Importance of Feeling English.

5. Watt, I. (1957), Rise of the Novel.