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Philip F. Gura

Truth's Ragged Edge

Philip F. Gura Truth's Ragged Edge The Rise Of The American Novel
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Biographical note:

Philip F. Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he holds appointments in English, American studies, and religious studies. He is the author of American Transcendentalism: A History, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction, as well as many other books of American cultural history.

Excerpt from book:

1  Beginnings
 


Historians of the English novel point to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) as a progenitor of the form. The American version of this tale is Joseph Morgan’s History of the Kingdom of Basaruah (1715), a minister’s allegory of the Calvinist view of man’s fall and redemption.1 Though uninspired, the book is a testament to the centrality of Christian allegories in eighteenth-century British North America.2 But with the circulation in the newly independent United States of popular English novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747–48), Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), novelists began to revise and sometimes challenge allegorical narratives of the pious Christian life. Rather than provide road maps through the Delectable Mountains, they heralded the triumph of individual virtue and urged the cultivation of sentiment in contemporary settings readers would recognize. They often based their novels on the kinds of stories heard from neighbors or read in the weekly newspapers—tales, in other words, populated not by pasteboard archetypes but by real people. Appropriate for earlier times, accounts of a pilgrim’s progress lacked the texture and complexity of everyday experience in the late-eighteenth-century United States and particularly its moral ambiguity.
Fictional works that directed an individual through this sinful world emerged first as handmaidens and then as rivals to the sermons, religious allegories, and wonder tales that hitherto had dominated native literature. In his Algerine Captive (1797), one of the earliest American novels, Royall Tyler, Vermont superior court judge, playwright, poet, and novelist, noted this shift. His character Updike Underhill, following six years of captivity in the Barbary States, remarks how on his return from his forced absence from the United States he “found a surprising alteration in public taste,” for now everyone read novels. “The worthy farmer no longer fatigued himself with Bunyan’s Pilgrim up the ‘hill of difficulty,’ or through the ‘slough of despond,’” and “Dolly, the dairy maid, and Jonathan, the hired man, threw aside the ballad of the cruel stepmother, over which they had so often wept.”3 A character in another early American work commented on the same shift in reading habits. “We fly from the laboured precepts of the essayists,” he observed, “to the sprightly narrative of the novelist.”4
This comment appears in what is widely recognized as the first bona fide American novel, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy.5 Brown (1765–1793) was born in Boston, the son of a prominent clockmaker.6 Educated locally, he displayed a penchant for classical and English literature and by his early twenties was publishing patriotic poetry, thereby contributing to the city’s nascent cultural nationalism. In one poem, “Shays to Shattuck: An Epistle,” Brown imagines a conversation in prison between a despondent Daniel Shays, fomenter of Shays’s Rebellion, and one of his foot soldiers, in which the former tries to justify his rebellion. In another, “Yankee Song,

“An enthralling work of literary recovery . . . If you think that academics now only write for each other, this book will come as a revelation . . . In his acknowledgments, Gura writes that his book was partly inspired by Edmund Wilson’s magisterial Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. Future scholars will be comparably inspired by Truth’s Ragged Edge.”
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“Comprehensive and fresh . . . spirited . . . [Truth’s Ragged Edge is] driven by a desire to encourage a new generation to read a forgotten trove of writing.”
The Times Literary Supplement

“Lucid . . . a rewarding and reliable guide.”
—Michael Gorra, The Wall Street Journal

“Fascinating . . . a nimble synthesis of a vital period in literary history, tracing our homegrown novel’s evolution from morality tale to self-aware interiority, traversing and incorporating the countless currents of regionalism, faith, urbanization, and exploration that swept across the nation’s early decades.”
The Weekly Standard

“Certain to become a new classic . . . a masterful examination of the origins of the distinctive American novel . . . a must read for the serious book lover who wishes to understand how the novel became so manifestly American, to understand how strikingly American thought evolved and created a form widely divergent from its European origins . . . Truth’s Ragged Edge is a major contribution to literary criticism and will be read and appreciated in American studies classes for years to come.”
—About.com

“[Gura] breathes new life into old and largely forgotten novels . . . this book creatively revives the age of ecstatic religion, the steam locomotive, and the daguerreotype. It charts the steady rise of female authorship and of a book-hungry American middle class. It captures the movement, as one later chapter heading reads, ‘from a theology of the feelings to an ethic of love.’ And it contrasts with the thoughtless dependence of generations reared on soap operas and video games, recovering the unfamiliar contours of a stricter society that somehow gave birth to a thoughtful individualism.”
The Advocate (Baton Rouge)

“Gura provides a long-awaited new map of American fiction.”
The American Scholar

“Literary criticism on a grand scale.”
Harvard Magazine

“Nostalgic, inclusive, and a lot of fun. Packed with information about all the weird and wonderful 19th-century novels Americans have never read . . . provides a uniquely retro (19th century) summer reading list . . . [Gura’s] principle of selection is expansive, giving pride of place to a sprawling archive of popular domestic and sentimental novels.”
Los Angeles Review of Books

“Those who agree with Hemingway’s claim that Huckleberry Finn created all modern American fiction will find this study of our pre-Twain literary tradition illuminating . . . Gura tempers this book’s thrill of discovery over forgotten voices and stories with a still-relevant warning that the fearless individualism of American fiction can come dangerously close to solipsism.”
Publishers Weekly

“An outstanding book.”
Library Journal

“Philip F. Gura has written the most ambitious, most comprehensive study ever attempted of American fiction from its beginnings to 1868. You will find here some novelists you’ve never heard of alongside old friends such as Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. By looking at novels the


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