Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example

Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example

Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example

Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example


During the thirty years following ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the first American novelists carried on an argument with their British counterparts that pitted direct democracy against representative liberalism. Such writers as Hannah Foster, Isaac Mitchell, Royall Tyler, Leonore Sansay, and Charles Brockden Brown developed a set of formal tropes that countered, move for move, those gestures and conventions by which Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, and others created their closed worlds of self, private property, and respectable society. The result was a distinctively American novel that generated a system of social relations resembling today's distributed network. Such a network operated counter to the formal protocols that later distinguished the great tradition of the American novel.

In Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing, Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse show how these first U.S. novels developed multiple paths to connect an extremely diverse field of characters, redefining private property as fundamentally antisocial and setting their protagonists to the task of dispersing that property--its goods and people--throughout the field of characters. The populations so reorganized proved suddenly capable of thinking and acting as one. Despite the diverse local character of their subject matter and community of readers, the first U.S. novels delivered this argument in a vernacular style open and available to all. Although it differed markedly from the style we attribute to literary authors, Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue, such democratic writing lives on in the novels of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James.


We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxta
position, the epoch of the near and far, the epoch of the side
We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is
less that of a long life developing through time than that of a net
work that connects points and intersects with its own skein.

— Michel Foucault, 1967

Foucault’s reading of the cultural environment in which he found himself in 1967 anticipates the very system of social relations in which the most interesting twenty-first-century novels invite a global readership to take part. If this passage did not exactly leap off the page on our first reading, it has certainly captured our attention now, at a time when traditional households and national governments are conspicuously failing to distribute natural resources, goods, services, and information to the populations they are meant to serve. Where Foucault’s shift in perspective registers a definitive break from the past, we have come to understand that his sense that something unprecedented has happened is not a new one, even though the infrastructure in which our lives are now caught up is of greater magnitude than ever before. We are convinced that so long as there have been novels, there have also been readers who can imagine human experience from either near or far, either “as a long life developing in time” or as “a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.” As novel readers, we have always been both local and global, because we can only be either in relation to the other.

The very break from the past that Foucault experienced in 1967 was in the making as early as the late eighteenth century when the colonies in British . . .

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