In the decades after U.S. independence, American novelists carried on an argument that pitted direct democracy against the representative liberalism they attributed to their British counterparts. The result was an American novel distinguished by its use of narrative tropes that generated a social system resembling today's distributed network.
Dec 2017 | 264 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Argumentum ad Populum
Chapter 1. Style in the Time of Epidemic Writing
Chapter 2. Refiguring the Social Contract
Chapter 3. Novels as a Form of Democratic Writing
Chapter 4. Dispersal
Chapter 5. Population
Chapter 6. Conversion
Chapter 7. Hubs
Chapter 8. Anamorphosis
Chapter 9. Becoming National Literature
Introduction. Argumentum ad Populum
We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, the epoch of the side-by-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 network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.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.
—Michel Foucault, 1967
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 North America asserted their sovereignty and seized control from Britain of the circulation of resources, people, goods, and information through their segments of the North Atlantic trade routes. We find it fascinating that although the former colonies managed to establish a government through Articles of Confederation, the government so established, for all its remarkable characteristics, failed to develop a single set of rules enabling the various state governments to conduct trade, share a form of currency, mete out justice, and educate their respective populations. Nor could any of the novels born of this paradox imagine anything like a single bounded community to which members of a national readership might belong. Quite the opposite was true. The novels written by and for Americans during the first thirty years of the new republic carved out systems of social relationships from the same international networks that once linked the colonies to Europe in a subordinate relationship. These novels reworked the novel form to establish protocols that regulated not only who and what came in and went out of their respective sectors of that network but also the forms of social interaction that took place in between these comings and goings.
Our reason for focusing on this peculiar body of fiction is twofold. To the degree that one thinks of the novel as a media technology and the printing and marketing of books as infrastructure, early American novels demonstrate that to see themselves as a national community in the modern sense, novel readers had to feel that they were subject to international forces capable of disrupting the established practices of daily life by setting their people, resources, goods, and information into circulation. In thus suggesting that modern nationhood was primarily a defensive maneuver, we do not presume to describe what actually happened to the geopolitical contours of the Atlantic world as modern nation-states began to establish themselves. Rather, we want to explain how, in this case, novels made it possible for the literate populations of various local communities and regions to think of themselves as belonging to the same national community. But if, as the substantial body of fiction that emerged in North America after 1789 seems to indicate, an international flow of people, goods, and information preceded and probably provoked the need to feel part of a community beyond one's household, village, or region, then would it not follow that imagining a national community—at once limited and sovereign—might in any case presuppose a system of international networks, just as those networks in turn presupposed nations as the sites of international exchange?
Though obviously in tension with each other, nation and network can thus be seen in this sense as mutually dependent components of a single political formation. That is indeed how novels that accompanied the rise of modern nations sized up their position in the Atlantic world. Another reason followed from the first and prompted us to focus on this particular moment in the history of the novel. To put it simply, we have always been perplexed by unwillingness on the part of literary scholars and critics to factor this first chapter in its history into accounts of the tradition of the American novel. In our view, these early novels offer privileged access to the novel's double role in nation making: how novels in general subjected what they take to be the prevailing system of social interaction to the force of the networks in which novels traveled but how, at the same time, novels made it possible for the formal variations that result to be recognized as novels in new places and appeal to the sense of belonging on the part of different groups. Hence the book you have in hand.
This book emerged over several years from a rather heated argument in which the two of us addressed the same problem from the fields of critical theory and early American literary studies, respectively. Given that the one field contained so many elements of the other—novels, writing, and democracy among them—how could the perspective from which each of us approached that problem make so little sense from the other? The answer came from our primary material, whose uniform resistance to what novels do according to theories of the novel, as well as to what form novels took from one moment of history to the next, suggested that ours were not two independent ways of thinking about a largely ignored body of early American fiction but quite the contrary. Each of us had been carrying on half of the same argument responsible for the disconnection between European political theory and the novels written in the decades following ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In itself, neither way of thinking could explain why a body of fiction that obviously spoke to that readership had been virtually expunged from the literary tradition: what was it about the American novel's contribution to the early United States that made it convenient, if not necessary, for literary critics to ignore? Armed with theory that defined novels as a literary form and trained us to read them accordingly, we were at a complete loss when it came to accounting for the novels produced in the early national period.
We first took up this problem about the time that Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983) appeared in print. In an excerpt from his memoir published in an issue of the London Review of Books (LRB 2016), Anderson called attention to the radically nonlinear process of reasoning he had pursued in what quickly became a classic study of modern nationalism. He had evidently come to understand his unorthodox approach to the relationship between novels and nationalism as a way to circumvent the intellectual divide within the discipline of political science at Cornell University, which had trained him in "the grand tradition of European political theory," while relegating the study of American government to a separate department. To avoid the Eurocentrism of the one and the exceptionalism of the other, Anderson decided to look at the co-emergence of novels and modern nationalism from a postcolonial perspective. "My first target," he writes of his method, "was the Eurocentrism I saw in the assumption that nationalism was born in Europe and then spread as it was emulated in other parts of the world. It was plain to me that nationalist movements had their historical origins in North and South America, and that these movements could not be explained on any 'ethnic' or 'linguistic' basis" (LRB 6). Convinced that previous accounts of the rise and spread of modern nationalism hewed to the genealogical thinking of European political theory, Anderson lifted Hugh Seton-Watson's claim to the effect that "nations have no consistent scientific definition but nevertheless exist" as the basis for his own definition of the nation as "an imagined political community—both limited and sovereign" (Imagined Communities 3). He was convinced at the time, as were we, that in making this move, he had untethered his theoretical argument along with his subject matter from the traditional European origin story.
Transplanting the central insight of Raymond Williams's The Long Revolution to an account of how colonies across Southeast Asia became postcolonial nations, Anderson made it possible for us to abandon genealogical accounts of novels and nations and assume that both emerged wherever authors and readers of the reigning print vernacular were so positioned as to imagine belonging to the same bounded and self-sovereign community. But as we tried out Anderson's explanation of why the rise of novels coincided with modern nations in eighteenth-century Britain and her North American colonies, we confronted an additional set of questions key to understanding our material, which he had not addressed: How did novels persuade the diverse readerships of the former colonies, themselves internally fraught, to imagine belonging to a single community within but not coextensive with a print vernacular? Assuming the nation did exercise some form of sovereignty over its citizens, what form of government would those affiliations have authorized? How open to change was the form of community that produced such feelings of belonging? Did those novels inspire devotion to an already constituted nation, or was it more important to imagine such a community as something to wish for, believe in, strive toward, or even dread? Finally, Anderson's exclusive focus on novels then considered "foundational fictions" left us wondering why—by contrast to preboom Latin American novels—those written in the early United States never acquired the same status.
Looking back on the study that made him a household name well beyond the field of political science, Anderson came to see why the recent rise of nationalism across Southeast Asia had taken the form of a story that, by his own admission, reads "more like a novel serialized in a newspaper than the ordinary type of scholarly historical work," a story that forced his reader to "hop back and forth" from one major location to another, wherever novels had materialized along with nations (LRB 7). To detach his investigation of the relationship between novels and nations from the genealogical thinking in which he had been trained, Anderson devised what he considered a process more suited to tracking the metonymic spread of a pop cultural movement or a rash of sit-ins or political assassinations. But when he came to write his memoir three decades after Imagined Communities, he could see that the nations now yielding to the globalizing forces of late capitalism had not been all that independent or self-contained thirty years earlier. By his own admission, Anderson had to acknowledge that by designating "nations and the nation states as the basic units of analysis," he had "completely ignored the obvious fact that in reality these units were tied together and crosscut by global political-intellectual currents such as liberalism, fascism, communism and socialism, as well as by vast religious networks and economic and technical forces" (LRB 6). When he decided to focus on "nations and the nation states," Anderson had, in other words, inadvertently allowed his "units of analysis" to obscure the "global political-intellectual currents" that coursed through and connected them. Of equal importance to our own argument was the implication that if "nations and nation states" had to be rethought in relation to global "currents," then novels had to be rethought in those terms as well. Since historical research had confirmed that novels had indeed traveled along international political-intellectual trade routes with the rise of nationalism during the late eighteenth century, how could we ignore the strong possibility that novels provided a vehicle for spreading nationalism then as they later would in the time of postcolonialism?
Convinced that the recent production of novels for global circulation that imagine life beyond the nation would actually provide a more appropriate way of approaching the sudden outburst of American fiction during the period of the early republic, we abandoned the explanatory logic of traditional origin stories—a decision that brought the questions raised by Anderson's Imagined Communities into much sharper focus. It took only passing familiarity with the novels of the new republic to see that they'd done very little to persuade a diverse and scattered but highly literate population to imagine belonging to a limited and sovereign nation. Moreover, they had done nothing to persuade readers to affiliate with one another on the basis of their common relationship to the new central government. But neither did these novels offer any way for readers to see themselves as so many points of exchange in one or more of the trade routes circulating goods, people, and information throughout the Atlantic world. At the time, these routes were cutting across state lines and overwhelming the boundaries established by the Northwest Ordinances with the Indian nations. Despite their extraordinary range of subject matter, the sheer number and formal consistency of these novels indicated that they offered readers something else instead. To make sense to multiple readerships convinced that their identities, along with their existence, depended on unfettered movement, these novels had offered another basis of affiliation. Anderson had imported his "units of analysis" not only from European political theory but also from his education in classical and European literature. These novels told us that we, like Anderson, had imported our "units of analysis" not only from European theory but from an education in classical and British literature as well.
Armed with this awareness, we could see how conspicuously the novels of the new republic disregarded the conventional signs confirming principles of modern nationhood. Across the board, these novels failed to specify what relationships their households could tolerate, the boundaries that had to be maintained, or the rules its members must observe, much less the form of security they hoped to earn in exchange. From 1789 to the 1820s, so many novels displayed their antagonism to these same principles by launching a deliberate assault on the form perfected by Jane Austen that it was easy to see what American novelists thought they were supposed to do. But what could American novels have offered instead to readers who had not only been brought up on British fiction but also maintained their appetite for reading it during the very period when American novels first appeared in print? We were at a loss to explain the obvious: somehow this disruptive rhetorical behavior struck a chord of recognition, if not affiliation, among readers thrown together by the same forces that had detached them from their respective homelands and divided them from one another. Though scattered and wary of any form of central government, a significant number were, at least for a thirty-year period, evidently willing and able to acknowledge that in reading these anomalous narratives, what they were reading was indeed a novel. We turned to novel theory for help.
Mikhail Bakhtin usefully describes the novel as a form of engagement with the congested field of vernacular writing he labels "heteroglossia" ("Discourse in the Novel"). To write a novel, an author had to engage the tangled skein that encircled a conceptual object as various writers vied to define them. To distinguish his or her writing as that of a novel, according to Bakhtin's definition of the form, that author used recognizable formal maneuvers that simultaneously engaged other writing in dialogue and removed that dialogue from the field of other writing. This "dialogic" maneuver restaged the novelist's disagreement with that writing on cultural turf that gave his or her novel revisionary power over other writing. As soon as we began to think of the novel form as such an engagement with other writing, we noticed the remarkable consistency with which early American novelists took issue with narrative fiction that imagined the nation as late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe had once described North America, namely, as a world waiting to become private property. It stood to reason, then, that the first American novelists were restaging this fantasy to show that it had failed to provide the means of distributing food, labor, wealth, and information to the population. As they dismantled anything that resembled the English country house writ large or small, these early novelists went right to the heart of a political debate that surfaced with the formulation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution and raged unabated during the period that saw the publication of the first American novels. To write about property during this period was to produce fractures rather than connections among potentially antagonist groups.
Property, as Alan Taylor describes this turbulent period, was the source of often violent conflict: "Radicals insisted that a public good trumped private property rights; indeed property was illegitimate if it derived from exploiting others." Northern merchants and southern landowners felt entitled to use their property, which included slaves, as they saw fit. As late as the 1780s, the nation's leaders "worried that great property needed a king's protection," and those who "possessed great property" considered themselves entitled to a greater share of political authority than those destitute of it (American Revolutions 370-71). This was the conflict that three years of wrangling by a Constitutional Convention had attempted to resolve. Add to this the waves of would-be settlers that poured over the Appalachians heedless of national boundaries and treaties with the Indian nations, believing land was theirs to seize, as well as speculators who did "land office business" in that territory, and you have a debate over the nature and use of property that could easily erupt into unspeakable violence. This was not a conflict that could be politically resolved. As one European traveler said of the United States, "Here, all is circulation, motion, and boiling agitation" (Taylor 438).
Bakhtin's account of "the discourse in the novel" took us a ways toward explaining why an author with the literary ambitions of a Charles Brockden Brown went to such lengths to dismantle the novel as established by his British counterparts ("Discourse in the Novel"). But Bakhtin's explanation of the novel's dialogic engagement with the field of vernacular writing could not tell us what someone like Brockden Brown offered in place of the community based on a landed estate that took shape in such novels as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Austen's Pride and Prejudice . Nor could Bakhtin help us figure out why the modern literary institution either ignored or simply failed to recognize the form of community that early American novels formulated instead. Jacques Rancière's essay on "The Politics of Literature" provided the next piece of the puzzle. Here, Rancière defines "literature" as a recent phenomenon and offers a rationale for its establishment in nineteenth-century France, one that holds true, give or take a few decades, for the emergence of national literatures in England and the United States as well. He provides a stunning reading to show that Flaubert carried out new "rules of appropriateness" that distinguished his work as "literature" from the heteroglossia of written speech that Rancière suggestively names "democratic writing."
Resembling Friedrich Kittler's "discourse network of 1800" in this respect, the metastatic spread of such writing in France and England during the very period that saw publication of the first U.S. novels made it possible for anyone who could read to address virtually anyone else in the vernacular. As authors developed the formal maneuvers, or what is conventionally meant by "style," to remove their work from the field of vernacular writing, sophisticated readers began to recognize "rules of appropriateness" that distinguished literary works from writing that anyone could use to address anyone else. These rules put a literary experience outside the purview of common reading competence. Rancière makes this point by explaining, as he puts it in the title of his essay, "Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed." When Flaubert condemned his heroine to death for fetishizing beauty and attempting to install it in her daily life, he not only cordoned off the proto-Proustian sensations in his work for those willing to observe literary protocols but also saw to it that the common reader would understand Emma's effort to beautify her life as a cautionary tale of seduction. But when Rancière then distinguished such literary writing from its readerly counterpart, he made the task of determining the politics of early American fiction far more complicated than we have just made it sound.
If a literary experience is indeed the product and means of restricting the redistribution of sensibility that exponentially expanded the reading public during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then there can be no basis for attributing the considerable appeal of early American novels to their literary quality. Nor can we blame their lack of literary quality for the fact that only specialists read these novels now. These novels simply must have observed a different formal standard than their British counterparts. An explanation as to how novels written during the early republic had engaged what we can assume was a much more diverse and scattered readership than Flaubert's would require us to adjust Rancière's concept of "democratic writing," just as we had used that concept to supplement Bakhtin's model of "heteroglossia."
It was easy to see that early American novels had indeed developed a rather consistent set of rhetorical moves to challenge the assumption that "property" could provide a stable basis of society. It was also pretty clear that by challenging the form of British fiction and the political philosophical tradition that underwrote it, novels of the early republic had challenged avant la lettre the "rules of appropriateness" that later on prompted critics and readers to establish James Fenimore Cooper as the inaugurator of a national tradition of the novel. But knowing that these rules restricted literature to a small and self-contained subset of vernacular writing answered one question only to raise another: on what basis had early American readers recognized fiction that consistently violated those rules as novels? The clear and consistent disagreement these novels carried on with their British counterparts did not strike us as, in itself, sufficient to identify this body of writing as novels in their own right. Indeed, it would have taken an alternative means of managing the field of information, including people, their property, and ways of life bound to property, to do that.
For those, like ourselves, trained to read novels for plot, character, point of view, and an authorial perspective and the kind of story it oversees, the habit is deeply engrained to read those novels so classified in these terms, just as it is second nature to approach them as self-contained texts—if not as worlds unto themselves and the property of an author, then as an example of an equally discrete subgenre, say, a historical novel, a sensation novel, a city novel, a colonial adventure novel, or a detective novel. To read any novel in such terms is to read it as a world made of property, no matter how subtly that particular novel may coax and nudge the reader to assume that world is potentially sufficient to support the full roster of its characters. This way of reading presupposes a formal standard based on the means by which particular novelists, individual novels, or entire subgenres dispose us to imagine managing such a world, and no one, not even Flaubert, does this with more proficiency than Jane Austen. Over the course of the twentieth century, this fantasy served as both the foundation of a national tradition of the novel and a staple of literary education. Anticipating the traditions proposed by Ian Watt, F. R. Leavis, Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler, F. O. Matthiessen, and their counterparts in other countries, E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel explained how to read any novel that belonged to such a tradition in terms of formal machinery that at once detached it from the larger field of prose and set it in relation to other novels that redistributed property to provide the basis of a restored or reformed community. There was no question that this theory of the novel—in the guise of common sense and great erudition—obscured the very side of the political argument that classic novels countered by formulating seemingly self-sufficient communities. This gerrymandered concept of the novel helped us to identify the noncompliant aspects of the early American novel that had been ruled out by the literary institution.
The result is bound to strike our readers as an unusually eclectic critical vocabulary. The first three chapters sketch out the conditions that made it possible for novelists to come out independently but in force against the idea that a contractual agreement among men of property provided a basis for imagining a national community. We show how, in doing so, those novelists developed a set of countermoves, tropes, protocols, or what E. M. Forster dubbed "aspects of the novel" to formulate a basis of affiliation capable of addressing readerships of semiautonomous states who consequently understood the nation through the lens of regional, if not local, interests. Insofar as property removed such people, goods, and information from circulation and limited the extent of such circulation itself, property failed to provide the foundation of a social system that could expand and diversify and still cohere. Once we understood exactly how property failed, we could identify the components of a reading method that demonstrated how novelists produced a social system that succeeded in recruiting early American readers.
Our next five chapters bear out the fruits of this considerable labor in a sequence of five formal moves, or tropes, so consistently at work in those early novels that a reader, in picking up a book or reading a story serialized in a newspaper or magazine and noting that it performed some of these moves, must have known on the spot that he or she had picked up a novel. Each chapter develops a definition of one such trope that shows how a range of American novels use it to reverse a comparable move on the part of British novels of the period—an imperiled household, a protagonist who sets out on his or her own, an authorial perspective that assesses the hero's progress, a love object chosen for purposes of stabilizing an unstable community, and the personal style that we identified with the authorial source of this perspective.
Mounting an argument to the effect that property—whether inherited or acquired—was incorrigibly antisocial, the American novels we have in mind engineer a form of dispersal that puts persons and property that had cohered as a household back into circulation within a rapidly expanding and diversifying field of characters. Once so dispersed, the parts—both personal and material—of what had been self-contained individuals are released into new and seemingly random social relationships to become what appear, by literary standards, to be quite another field of characters. The result is a protagonist that can more accurately be called a population—a heterogeneous field of minor characters with an innate capacity, should their mobility be threatened, to feel and act as one. As its members independently and in various ways perform tactical maneuvers to detach themselves from a position within a world of property, the field of minor characters eventually reaches a tipping point where it begins to operate as something that could be construed as a community from a position within that field of information.
Along with dispersal, the narrative maneuvers responsible for forming this composite protagonist provided early American novelists with the means of scattering the component parts of a community based on property, thereby creating the demand, as well as the material, for something else. In order to mount a counterargument against the British novel, these novels had to challenge the tradition that figured nations as self-contained political bodies with a sovereign head and center. To produce what amounts to a popular political theory in their own right, however, these novels would have had to mine the affirmative potential of their argument and let it materialize; the onus was on them to do something more creative than simply oppose the British model, as if it were the only game in town. These novels took the turn from disruptive social behavior to community building by staging an improbable event—an event that converted the tactics for evading some form of captivity into a highly volatile network of horizontal affiliations that temporarily levels the regnant social hierarchy. We refer to this turn—without which no narrative would become a novel—as conversion. To put a political face on it, one might say that the machinery of conversion produces the infectious feeling of affiliation manifest in the forms of behavior characterized as popular democracy. While dangerous in its own right, this behavior opens up unlimited circulation and, with it, the freedom to associate.
The final two of five moves essential to becoming an American novel during the early republic install formal protocols designed to reduce the risks of just such freedom. The emergence of hubs would have told the early American reader that a narrative had begun to convert the bad behavior of its collective protagonist into a set of practices that reduced the risk of unfettered social circulation so as to ensure the mobility necessary to keep forming new connections. The emergence of hubs signaled the reader, in other words, that a prose narrative was well on its way to becoming a novel. To perform what is an essentially managerial task, the early novels replaced the household supported by private property with something like a relay station that made it possible for people to encounter one another and still continue on their ways somewhere else. Should a household curtail such mobility, it would fail in its responsibility to promote social interaction and soon vanish from a novel. To understand the basis on which such domestic hubs gained favor over households in these early novels, one needs to take a step back and rethink the notion of freedom that depends on the protection of person and property. Where the traditional British protagonist removes self and property, as Crusoe certainly does, from social circulation, the composite protagonist of early American fiction depends for its very existence on making preferential attachments.
In these novels, nothing coalesces the field of minor characters faster than a common threat of captivity. In that it shuts down the power of attraction that connects one character to many others and, by way of them, to the entire field of characters, this threat produces a version of the pleasure principle that compels the protagonist to make new connections as if life depended on it. Should property in whatever form deprive some group of that freedom, these novels contend, the entire network of social relations will be compromised and grow increasingly vulnerable to foreign interests. Given the heterogeneous field of characters, however, unlimited circulation proved a nonetheless risky proposition—as likely to take an individual out of social circulation as to destroy a hub that allowed just anyone to pass through. To transform the concept of the nation modeled on and composed of independent households into a sustainable system of hubs, the novels we discuss under that rubric proposed that writing itself was the means of managing the risks attached to the pleasure of unrestricted socializing.
There is no clearer example of just how writing managed this risk than the American seduction novel. Once she can no longer circulate and make new attachments, the letters, journals, or secondhand accounts of the ruined woman circulating in her place provided readers with a cautionary tale. If you want to pursue preferential attachments, such novels told the reader in no uncertain terms, then you must avoid strangers who want to remove you from circulation and hoard the pleasure with which you infuse the entire system of relationships by socializing. In this respect, seduction has the same effect that marriage does in a novel that aims to transform the pleasure of socializing into the exclusivity of reproductive love. The need for discretion, fostered by the pervasive dread of self-removal, is virtually the only control these novels are willing to place on the heroine's social impulse. As the pleasure of socializing subsumes sexual pleasure, the early American novel deprived reproductive sex of the erotic charge it tries and fails to monopolize in the European novel. And as their narration came to manage the pleasure of preferential attachments, the early American novel, as we read it, presented itself as a way of managing a rapidly expanding and diversifying readership.
Having come thus far, we have yet to explain the tactical maneuver by which these first American novelists—independently, but nevertheless in concert—recruited readers as participants in the community that emerged from within the field of characters itself. By means of formal protocols that openly defy E. M. Forster's anthropomorphized notion of "perspective," this community paradoxically expanded beyond the limits of the individual novel and engaged ways of seeing and forms of writing that novels designated as outside and fundamentally incompatible with theirs. Despite a number of admirable attempts, the novels of even so talented a writer as Charles Brockden Brown continue to defeat critical attempts to describe them as a coherent perspective traceable to a source in the individual author. As for a comprehensive American perspective on the new United States, on the other hand, the novels written during the time of democratic writing addressed too many local readerships within a national population for any one of them to lay claim to offering a representative view.
In our estimation, then, the novels of the early republic did not fail to produce a comprehensive perspective and the omniscience it implies so much as they succeeded in linking alternative and often incompatible perspectives in a composite view of the same phenomena. Guided by the principle of anamorphosis, the novels of the early republic walked a tightrope between one perspective and another without allowing either to dominate. To pull off this balancing act, these novels often included people, things, and behaviors that would seem perfectly ordinary from one perspective within the Atlantic world but resolutely unintelligible from another. Very much like the formless blotch that hovers above the carpet in the foreground of Hans Holbein's painting, The Ambassadors, these curious holes in the aesthetic surface of the text tell the viewer that an outside perspective has inserted itself within a picture that might otherwise appear to offer a comprehensive view. The intrusive perspective comes from elsewhere to expose the limitations of the framework that has organized the information within its parameters. Because it thus refuses to submit to intelligibility from any one perspective, the anamorphic object serves as a conjunction between such perspectives and makes the spectator hop back and forth in order to grasp the whole picture.
As it followed the protagonist across boundaries between country and city, North and South, black and white, Europe and America, the early American novel forged connections among a sequence of such perspectives. Rather than obscure "the figure in the carpet," Henry James's term for the concept now known as pattern recognition, anamorphosis endows that pattern with spots of illegibility that concatenate the perspectives of the different and often incompatible groups and geographical regions, pulling form back into the process of formation. As they assembled a community that could simultaneously expand and diversify at these conjunctions, novels of the new republic indeed formed a recognizable pattern. Like the fundamentally unfinished process they assemble, their formal protocols posed what was at once a formal and a political challenge to the concept of community as bounded and self-contained: a decentered and open-ended social network that cut across and countered point for point the logic of a world of property.
Convinced that such a community required and deserves a critical vocabulary as eclectic as Forster's is consistently anthropomorphic, we drew our "aspects of the novel" from the social sciences, the biological sciences, cybernetics, and network theory, as well as from religious studies and art history. This struck us as somehow appropriate to the work of novelists who used the materials at hand, chiefly other novels, to assemble a community that was sufficiently open to new subject matter yet one to which a wide range of local readerships eventually imagined they belonged. Within a decade of their appearance in the 1790s, these novels were traveling between relatively self-contained local readerships within the new United States and inviting those readerships to imagine their nation from other points of view. Working on the premise that these novels are their best and only critical theory, we drew an explanation of each piece of our critical vocabulary from novels that used that particular trope to what we saw as the best rhetorical advantage—much as we did above with the seduction novel.
To explain how early American novels revised the form of the British novel, we have made a somewhat anachronistic and quite unfair example of Jane Austen, who—according to Ian Watt and F. R. Leavis, among others—performed the synthesis of preceding British novels and should therefore be considered the inaugurator of the British tradition. During the twentieth century, the rhetoric of self-enclosure that she performed with peerless ingenuity fell into the hands of European modernism, where it became a means of detaching the community Austen had imagined, along with the novelist's imagination, from the turbulence that swept away national boundaries while leaving economic inequities intact. During this period, as Georg Lukács assessed the situation, literary modernism tightened the rules of appropriateness and shrank the domain of literary realism down to the parameters of the text and its author's imagination. As he explained it, "The decisive error is the misconception of perspective, its equation with reality. This fallacy, which produced the naturalist depoeticization of reality in the first place, was now employed to turn back prose into poetry" (Realism in Our Time 125-26). From this, it would follow that to read the novels of the early republic, one must reverse the very turns in large part responsible for today's literary discipline and the procedures we use to read a novel as a work of literature.
With this aim in mind, we designed the body of this argument—Chapters 4 through 8—to show in some detail how a sequence of particular tropes mobilized a social network that replaced the traditional concept of property as the traditional means for a novel to organize its field of characters. Convinced that the novels of the Americas, as Anderson suggests, anticipated the rise of postcolonial fiction, we felt that it was up to us to show how each of the rhetorical moves we have identified persists in literary works of fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Harriett Beecher Stowe, and Henry James, the very authors whose novels, when read as literature, constitute our national tradition. Extending the tropes of the early American novel into the later periods was our way of floating the suggestion that this early endeavor to imagine an alternative community did not simply vanish from the novel but, to the contrary, continued to argue on behalf of the idea of the nation as a set of hubs in an expanding social network over and against the nation as a bounded, self-centered form. What are the twin protagonists of Huckleberry Finn, after all, if not more companionable but no less incompatible actors in exactly this argument—Huck the errant principle of free circulation and preferential attachments and Tom the principle of a community limited to and supported by property?