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Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novelby Philip F. Gura
Synopses & Reviews
From the acclaimed cultural historian Philip F. Gura comes Truths Ragged Edge, a comprehensive and original history of the American novels first century. Grounded in Guras extensive consideration of the diverse range of important early novels, not just those that remain widely read today, this book recovers many long-neglected but influential writers—such as the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs, the free black Philadelphian Frank J. Webb, and the irrepressible John Neal—to paint a complete and authoritative portrait of the era. Gura also gives us the key to understanding what sets the early novel apart, arguing that it is distinguished by its roots in “the fundamental religiosity of American life.” Our nations pioneering novelists, it turns out, wrote less in the service of art than of morality.
This history begins with a series of firsts: the very first American novel, William Hill Browns The Power of Sympathy, published in 1789; the first bestsellers, Susanna Rowsons Charlotte Temple and Hannah Webster Fosters The Coquette, novels that were, like Browns, cautionary tales of seduction and betrayal; and the first native genre, religious tracts, which were parables intended to instruct the Christian reader. Gura shows that the novel did not leave behind its proselytizing purpose, even as it evolved. We see Catharine Maria Sedgwick in the 1820s conceiving of A New-England Tale as a critique of Puritanisms harsh strictures, as well as novelists pushing secular causes: George Lippards The Quaker City, from 1844, was a dark warning about growing social inequality. In the next decade certain writers—Hawthorne and Melville most famously—began to depict interiority and doubt, and in doing so nurtured a broader cultural shift, from social concern to individualism, from faith in a distant god to faith in the self.
Rich in subplots and detail, Guras narrative includes enlightening discussions of the technologies that modernized publishing and allowed for the printing of novels on a mass scale, and of the lively cultural journals and literary salons of early nineteenth-century New York and Boston. A book for the reader of history no less than the reader of fiction, Truths Ragged Edge—the title drawn from a phrase in Melville, about the ambiguity of truth—is an indispensable guide to the fascinating, unexpected origins of the American novel.
"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. UNC — Chapel Hill literature professor Gura (American Transcendentalism) shows that this tradition consisted of far more than just Uncle Tom, Captain Ahab, Leatherstocking, and Hester Prynne. The book's main thread is a liberated sense of self that Gura traces back to Jonathan Edwards's passionate sermonizing. A Christian tract-writing tradition found renewed vitality transplanted into something resembling everyday American life, as in the first known American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, published in 1789. Other authors directed a sense of moral purpose away from individual virtue to wider social issues, as in Sarah Savage's The Factory Girl, or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Gura also ventures outside this main vein of sentimental, enlightened concern, finding African-American self-advocates, such as Harriet Jacobs, with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and those who tested taboos, including John Neal, author of Logan: A Family History, which features interracial relationships, and in 1822. 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 Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
An authoritative history of the early American novel from one of our foremost cultural historians
Philip F. Guras Truths Ragged Edge is perhaps the first comprehensive study of the early American novel since Richard Chases 1957 classic, The American Novel and Its Tradition. Gura opens with the first truly homegrown genre of fiction: religious tracts, which were parables intended to instruct the Christian reader. He then turns to the city novels of the 1840s, which depicted with mixed feelings the rapid growth and modernization of American society. He concludes with fresh interpretations of the introspective novels that appeared before the Civil War, such as those by Hawthorne and by Melville, from whom Gura takes his title. The grand narrative sweep of the book is balanced by Guras great insight that the early novel never fully left its origins behind, even as it evolved—it remained a means of theological and philosophical dispute, and reflected the oldest and deepest divisions in American Christianity, politics, and culture.
In addition to discussing novels that are considered classics, Gura recovers many novels—by authors as diverse as the evangelical writer Susan Warner, the African American novelist Frank J. Webb, and the early feminist novelist Elizabeth Stoddard—that will be revelations to the contemporary reader. Panoramic and original, Truths Ragged Edge is an indispensable guide to the origins and development of the American novel and will become a standard book on its subject.
About the Author
Philip F. Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 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.
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