Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860

Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860

Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860

Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860

Synopsis

In this provocative book, Jane Tompkins seeks to move the study of literature away from the small group of critically approved texts that have dominated literary discussion over the decades, to allow inclusion of texts ignored or denigrated by the literary academy. Sensational Designschallenges comfortable assumptions about what makes a literary work a "classic."

Excerpt

This book is the beginning of an attempt to move the study of American literature away from the small group of master texts that have dominated critical discussion for the last thirty years and into a more varied and fruitful area of investigation. It involves, in its most ambitious form, a redefinition of literature and literary study, for it sees literary texts not as works of art embodying enduring themes in complex forms, but as attempts to redefine the social order. In this view, novels and stories should be studied not because they manage to escape the limitations of their particular time and place, but because they offer powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself, articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment. I believe that the works of fiction that this book examines were written not so that they could be enshrined in any literary hall of fame, but in order to win the belief and influence the behavior of the widest possible audience. These novelists have designs upon their audiences, in the sense of wanting to make people think and act in a particular way.

Consequently this book focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on works whose obvious impact on their readers has made them suspect from a modernist point of view, which tends to classify work that affects people's lives, or tries to, as merely sensational or propagandistic. Uncle Tom's Cabin, perhaps the most famous work of American fiction, has not until very recently drawn the attention of modern critics; Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, second only to Stowe's novel in its popular and critical success in the nineteenth century, has since dropped from sight completely; The Last of the Mohicans, also a best-seller in its own time, has retained critical visibility, but, like the novels by Warner . . .

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