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Arac, Jonathan. The Emergence of American Literary Narrative 1820-1860

Arac, Jonathan. The Emergence of American Literary Narrative 1820-1860. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. 267. ISBN 067401869-9.

With an effective exploration of the multifaceted social, historical, and political conditions of the mid-19th century America, Jonathan Arac’s book investigates a variety of interconnected narrative forms. Stating his intention to build an “internal history” of literature, Arac looks closely at writers who “helped to form a definition of literature that still exerts power now.”

The first chapter “Establishing National Narrative” presents Arac’s argument that the production of narratives in a culture can be seen as “an institution that has a history and structure of its own” independent of other institutions and structures. Acknowledging the problem of defining distinctive kinds of writing, Arac uses the term “national narrative” to describe the dominant narrative type that told the story of America’s colonial beginnings and anticipated its great future. National narrative preceded literary narrative and prepared the ground for the other major narrative types, the “local narratives” and the “personal narratives,” which grew parallel to the national.

James Fenimore Cooper is the first author of “truly ‘American’ writing” whose work is valued not merely for its historical significance but also for its relation to many of today’s concerns in American culture. Arac admires Cooper’s genius in his historical romances although he remarks that Cooper’s major failure is found in his imaginative formal techniques and his management of language, which indicate the author’s struggle with social issues of his time. Alexis de Tocqueville is another writer whose critical ability to address and anticipate social and political problems, such as slavery and urbanization, makes his work a part of the American national narrative that is still read. In his book Democracy in America, the French writer claims that the lack of poetic inspiration which may come from individual minds is due to the fundamental equality of all U.S. citizens. Instead, imagination is triggered by the nation itself. Finally, George Bancroft’s work as “a history of ideas and institutions” is considered as an example of the relationship between writing and political power. With information about his life and career, Arac gives the background of the History of the United States, focusing on its narrative principles and its discourse of freedom and unity for the American people, while noting Bancroft’s production of an American “myth” of optimism and nationalism that is manifested in the national expansionism of the U.S.

In the second chapter entitled “Local Narratives,” Arac gives a brief overview of the writings of Washington Irving, before discussing Southwestern humor at greater length. What is most significant for Arac is the “complex participation of southwestern humor in levels of cultural activity including the local, the regional, and the national.” Paying special attention to the journal The Spirit of the Times as well as the political dynamics of the time, Arac offers examples of the narrative techniques and themes of writers such as Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson Jones Hooper, Joseph G. Baldwin, and George Washington Harris.

In the detailed section on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s career and critics as well as his political affinities and influences, Arac defines Hawthorne as a Massachusetts local writer because of “his historical resurrection of the colonial past” and his “notorious” use of allegory as a means of criticism. Using ample examples, Arac considers Hawthorne’s thematic choices and stylistic devices, particularly his employment of an unseen, sensitive narrator, and his practice of ellipsis. The political implications of his work can be seen through an examination of Hawthorne’s characteristic situation of an isolated figure with heightened subjectivity set against a crowd. Unlike Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe tried hard to “make his art a world of its own, a place beyond locality or even nationality.” Reflecting the cultural fragmentation in the U.S., Poe’s work presents problems for his readers, primarily regarding tone and genre. Calling him “an engineer of sensations” whose art was neither pure nor literary, Arac centers on Poe’s aesthetic principles and his first-person narrators as “focuses of disturbance and overstimulation.” Poe’s characteristic form of writing reveals “the making of modern individual” by raising questions of self-identity and the ability of the mind to restore.

Providing a useful introduction about the content and aim of personal narratives, the third chapter begins by discussing the book Two Years before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., which tried to expose the brutalities of shipboard life. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself is equally a “strange” book, according to Arac, because this book like Dana’s was read nostalgically in the decades after its publication despite the lack of liberty that is raised by its contents. Notwithstanding its problematic standing as “literature,” the Narrative is admirably extraordinary because it tells of “taking on the powers of white culture in order to oppose that culture.” The migration to the west along the Oregon Trail is the background of Francis Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail: Being Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life. With details about Parkman’s preparation and study for his work, Arac focuses on the characteristic moments where Parkman expressed revulsion and even aggression to the wild life, including the Indians. The theme of the “encounter with savagism” is also dealt with in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which establishes the claim to truth as an important criterion of personal narratives.

The most extended section on personal narratives addresses Melville’s Typee, which may have challenged the moral values of American society, but is judged as “incoherent” in the interrelation of the different episodes and in the narrator’s contradictory wish to escape the Typee world in order to return to a life that “disfigures those who live it.” With thorough examination of its narrative style and narrative persona, Melville’s Redburn: His First Voyage is read as a “complicated and bitter social comedy” whose problem is that “in training readers to make democratic judgments, [it] exercises a troubling exclusiveness.” On the other hand, the more ambitious in its scope White Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War exposes the contrast between the modern social rules prevailing in the world of the ship and its tyrannical politics, a sign of the total lack of equal rights in American society. Remarking that neither Henry David Thoreau nor Melville could separate literature from life, going against the prevailing tendency of the time, Arac briefly looks at Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods, which exemplifies the process by which personal narrative turns into literary narrative.

The fourth chapter “Literary Narrative” begins by analyzing the term “literary narrative,” which was closely associated to “romance” in Hawthorne’s time. Arac claims that from the inception of the USA until the mid-19th century, “changes occurred in the nation’s political culture that provoked the emergence of a literature surprisingly like that which elsewhere had grown from the frustration of democratic hopes.” As national narratives seemed too sectional, local narratives too disruptive and personal narratives too ideological, literature turned to matters of psychology. The distinction that Hawthorne, as well as other writers, felt that there was between the inferior world of business and the superior one of home, love, and imagination is discussed in the next section of the chapter on Hawthorne’s romances. In The Scarlet Letter, the imagined romance is kept separate from and thus supports fragmented everyday reality, corresponding to the American politics of 19th century. Hawthorne’s rejection of slavery, his use of domesticated nature, and his dependence on character to replace all action is illustrated in The House of the Seven Gables, while Hawthorne’s tension between principle and passion is considered with reference to the Life of Pierce and The Scarlet Letter. Literary narrative enabled the dream of the separation of art from life but in fact depended on economic and political conditions. However, as literature was gaining greater autonomy, it became “more powerful than it feared and more responsible than it wished.”

The final section of the fourth chapter is dedicated to Melville’s Moby-Dick, whose “voracious capacity to swallow many other forms and kinds” assigns it to a special place in world history. The book combines local sketch narrative, national narrative, and literary narrative. It is a “romantic” book with a problematic hero, showing the uncertainties of agency, which make individuality “a puzzling possibility.” Related to the political crisis of the time and the Compromise of 1850, the novels of Melville and Hawthorne produced a literary narrative as a sphere separate from politics, recognizing literature as fiction that did not bear on the world as the national, local, and personal narratives had done. Literary narrative managed to create an alternative world without imagining action. Inevitably, under the impact of political and economic pressures, literary narrative began losing its effect on readers and so prepared the ground for the return of national narrative.

The last chapter “Crisis of Literary Narrative and Consolidation of National Narrative” demonstrates the similarities and differences in the national narratives in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and The History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac by Francis Parkman. Stowe challenged the Union’s silence about slavery while Parkman questioned the idealization of Indians in Cooper’s national narrative. Commending Parkman’s ability to foresee the future of the American forest and the American Indian, Arac examines Parkman’s work in terms of its interesting and fresh subject, its imagery and setting, the author’s mixed stance towards the Indians, the inconsistencies in the book’s structures and values, as well as its ironic ending. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on the contrary, is not as closed as Parkman’s book but looks toward the future by relying on the potential of Christianity. However, both books claim to be true rather than imaginative and both engage in national concerns.

The section “Uncle Tom’s Echoes” investigates the influences of Stowe’s book on the local, personal, and literary narratives of the following decade, presenting a close reading and comparison among Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities by Melville. The final section entitled “Dead Ends for Literary Narrative” deals with the reasons behind Melville’s final troubling stages of his writing career. The six pieces of Melville’s Piazza Tales and their narrative techniques are discussed together with The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter. Although Arac wonders about the seriousness of Melville’s intention to provoke thought on important matters, he praises the latter book’s variety of voices, noting its incommensurability with itself as a “virtuoso performance of literary narrative that reveals how marginal and improvisatory that literary narrative remained.” The Civil War renewed the power of the national narrative at the same time that realism was beginning to emerge as the password for literary narrative.

Arac’s generic approach engages the reader’s interest by dwelling on the socio-historical and political conditions which grew parallel to the literary developments of mid-19th century America and which necessarily affected the authors’ lives and careers as well as the critical response to their works. Arac shows that there is a reciprocal and unavoidable relationship between the cultural space which enables the production of narratives and the ways with which literature participates in the world.&xnbsp; A reprint from The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 2, 1820-1865, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch and published in 1995, Arac’s book remains a significant and valuable contribution to the history of antebellum prose writing in America.

Anastasia Stefanidou

University of Thrace

 

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