History, Sociology and the American Romance

By Desai, R W | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

History, Sociology and the American Romance


Desai, R W, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


History, Sociology and the American Romance. A.N. Kaul. Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1994. vi +40 pp. 25.00 Rupees

This publication is a collection of four lectures given at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla, in 1990. In these lectures Professor Kaul continues the investigation he undertook nearly thirty years earlier in The American Vision: Actual and Ideal Society in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), but narrows the focus by looking primarily at four texts: Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, Cooper's The Pioneers, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Apparently "romances" but--and this is the argument developed progressively in each lecture--they are in actuality engaging "precisely those very historical and social realities" (Preface) that might seem to lie outside of the domain of the "romance."

The American Vision was an examination of the ways in which Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain confronted the society of their time, evaluating it by contrasting it with an ideal social order that their novels project. The present work carries forward the inquiry giving rise to several fresh insights. If the earlier work was oppositional in that it went against the grain of contemporary settled critical orthodoxy-- as seen, for example, in the viewpoints of Matthiessen, Trilling, Chase, and others--and opened up a new way of looking at art and politics in the nineteenth-century American context, the present work consolidates those gains by focusing on what constitutes the making of a sociological and historical critical consciousness. Is this merely the recording of factual observation, or, what may seem less likely, a movement away from realism in order to subject that very realism to critical scrutiny form a different perspective?

Obviously, the positions taken by the author in the earlier and then in the later work are closely related, but there is also present a not so obvious difference. The chief concern of The American Vision was the nineteenth-century American scene, whereas that of History, Sociology and the American Romance is the America of the post-Vietnam period, a period that has witnessed on the one hand "a greater freedom of choice for women, and a more equal relation between the sexes, and the primacy of the personal over the public or the social" (22), but, at the same time, as we shall see, has featured some negative developments as well. In other words, the later work seeks to demonstrate the ways in which these nineteenthcentury novelists encapsulated within their fictions a view of existing society that was at once contemporary and futuristic, that adumbrated a blueprint, so to speak, of what was yet to come. Taken together, the 1963 publication and the present one encompass what is today a well-established field for historiography, but when the earlier work appeared in 1963 it was breaking new ground and opening up the way for what later came to be called the new historicism.

The pioneering nature of its achievement was at the time welcomed by specialists in the field like Tony Tanner (The Spectator, 6 December 1963), Allen Guttmann (The Nation, 27 July 1963) and the reviewer in TLS (20 February 1964), while the continuing relevance of that breakthrough has been recognized as recently as 1989 which saw the publication of William Ellis's The Theory of the American Romance: An Ideology in American Intellectual History (Ann Arbor: U.M.I. Research Press, 1989) which has a whole chapter entitled "A.N. Kaul: The Theory Revised, Consensus Abandoned" (91-105). Reviewing critical attitudes toward the nineteenth-century American novel during the latter half of the present century, Ellis points out that up to the appearance of A.N. Kaul's The American Vision (1963) the generally prevailing belief was that

the European novel was absorbed with society, and by studying manners, told truths about social life. …

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