The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture

The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture

The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture

The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture

Synopsis

Literary histories typically celebrate the antebellum period as marking the triumphant emergence of American literature. But the period's readers and writers tell a different story: they derided literature as a fraud, an imposture, and a humbug, and they likened it to inflated currency, land bubbles, and quack medicine.

Excavating a rich archive of magazine fiction, verse satires, comic almanacs, false slave narratives, minstrel song sheets, and early literary criticism, and revisiting such familiar figures as Edgar Allan Poe, Davy Crockett, Fanny Fern, and Herman Melville, Lara Langer Cohen uncovers the controversies over literary fraudulence that plagued these years and uses them to offer an ambitious rethinking of the antebellum print explosion. She traces the checkered fortunes of American literature from the rise of literary nationalism, which was beset by accusations of puffery, to the conversion of fraudulence from a national dilemma into a sorting mechanism that produced new racial, regional, and gender identities. Yet she also shows that even as fraudulence became a sign of marginality, some authors managed to turn their dubious reputations to account, making a virtue of their counterfeit status. This forgotten history, Cohen argues, presents a dramatically altered picture of American literature's role in antebellum culture, one in which its authority is far from assured, and its failures matter as much as its achievements.

Excerpt

The Fabrication of American Literature investigates a paradox at the heart of American literary history: at the very moment when a national literature began to take shape, many observers worried that it amounted to nothing more than what Edgar Allan Poe described as “one vast perambulating humbug.” Scholarly accounts of nineteenth-century American literature tend to emphasize its authority, particularly its role in converting sociopolitical conflict into cultural coherence. But the period’s readers and writers tell a different story—one of subterfuge, impostures, and plagiarism, in which they likened literature to inflated currency, land bubbles, and quack medicine. This book accordingly recovers the controversies over literary fraud that plagued the period in order to gain new understanding of how antebellum literature worked, or failed to do so. It examines American literature as a “fabrication” in two senses of the word—in the most benign sense, as a project under active construction and, more ominously, one that struck many as fundamentally false. While the notion of fabrication in the former sense has long undergirded the study of antebellum American literature, we have tended to overlook the latter sense, but I contend that the two prove to be historically inseparable from one another. “Formerly every Thing printed was believed, because it was in Print,” Benjamin Franklin observed in 1765, but he sensed the beginnings of a change: “Now Things seem to be disbelieved for just the very same Reason.” The Fabrication of American Literature takes Franklin’s complaint as a prescient glimpse of a new era of print culture in which fraudulence came to be indissociable from American literature, and even definitive of it.

Historians have long noted the ubiquity of hoaxes, confidence games, and other forms of “humbug” during these years. From Richard Adams . . .

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