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Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the…

Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel

by Philip F. Gura

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A roughly chronological/thematic treatment of American novels from the late eighteenth century through the early 1870s, with much of the focus on the period after the 1830s. Gura offers capsule biographies of selected authors, then fairly lengthy plot summaries of their novels (some well-known, most pretty much forgotten). Particular and intentional attention is paid to books by female authors and to novels about slavery.

I expected I would find a few here that I wanted to hunt up and read after Gura's discussion of them, but that didn't end up happening very much in the end. I wanted more discussion of the earlier titles that don't get much shrift from Gura, and it would have been very useful, I think, for him to have positioned the American novels he discusses against their British and European counterparts. ( )
  JBD1 | Dec 29, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809094452, Hardcover)

From the acclaimed cultural historian Philip F. Gura comes Truth’s Ragged Edge, a comprehensive and original history of the American novel’s first century. Grounded in Gura’s 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 nation’s 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 Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, published in 1789; the first bestsellers, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, novels that were, like Brown’s, 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 Puritanism’s harsh strictures, as well as novelists pushing secular causes: George Lippard’s 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, Gura’s 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, Truth’s 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:13 -0400)

"An authoritative new history of the early American novel from a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Philip F. Gura's Truth's Ragged Edge is perhaps the first comprehensive study of the early American novel since Richard Chase's 1957 classic, The American Novel and Its Tradition. Gura opens with the first truly homegrown genre of fiction: religious tracts, short parables intended to instruct the Christian reader. He then turns to the city novels of the 1830s, 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 Gura's 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, Truth's Ragged Edge is an indispensable guide to the origins and development of the American novel and will become a standard book on its subject"-- "A history of the early American novel, focusing on its origins in and relationship with American religion"--… (more)

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