“The Empire of Romance”: Some Notes on Novels in an Extensive Republic


Cross-posted from The Junto. Please leave any comments there.

The current issue of the Journal of the Early Republic includes Andrew Cayton’s SHEAR presidential address on the novel’s place in the postrevolutionary Atlantic world: “The Authority of the Imagination in an Age of Wonder.” The essay makes a case for the usefulness of period novels to early-republic historians. Cayton gives us three reasons novels are useful as historical sources:

  1. “The people we study paid attention to them.” Novels were significant parts of people’s lives, and they illuminate “the shifting structure of discourse and discourse communities” in early-nineteenth-century America.
  2. “They challenge our preoccupation with categories.” Novels were experiments in defining and redefining people.
  3. Novels reveal that many people conceived of liberty socially, “as a voluntary location of one’s self within overlapping social networks” (25-26). [1]

To put these three ideas another way, Cayton argues that novels are evidence for intellectual continuity between the imperial-revolutionary eighteenth century and the national-liberal nineteenth. Contrary to their domesticated and privatized reputation, early nineteenth-century novels were a medium in which Americans discussed radical ideas about liberation and indeterminacy and, through acts of imagination, assumed those ideas into themselves.

Cayton makes this case largely through close readings. He discusses Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent and Ennui, William Godwin’s essays, Mary Hays’s Emma Courtney, Martha Meredith Reed’s Margaretta (a lonely American production), and Walter Scott’s Waverley. His treatment of these texts is excellent. What’s particularly useful is that he doesn’t read them looking for evidence of resistance or social activism, as many have. He’s more interested in figuring out what fills the gaps in “careless conversations and half-finished sentences.” He wants to read novels the way a cultural materialist reads teapots.

Because of this, he also makes a (largely implicit) claim that novels were a special vector of ideas across the ocean—part of the intellectual binding of the British Atlantic world. Here he’s incorporating work by Eric Slauter and Stephen Shapiro. But I’m not sure he fully articulates what I’m coming to see as a particular function of novels as part of public discourse.

The more I read of literary criticism from the first quarter of the century, the more convinced I become that the novel (or the “historical romance”) helped early nineteenth-century Americans manage a specific socio-political problem: the problem of distance. The novel’s functions included reconciling individuals and communities to the paradoxes of vast but republican empire, which strained established ideas about truthful representation and community cohesion.

Here’s an early contemporary text hinting at part of this problem. In 1800 in New York, Charles Brockden Brown published “The Difference Between History and Romance,” arguing that the obvious difference between a historian and a “romancer” is misleading. It may be correct, in a sense, that the historian relates things that have actually happened and the fiction writer describes things that have not. But when we look more closely, Brown wrote, we find that truth isn’t simply a matter of describing observable facts. It’s also a matter of tracing relationships and associations:

Curiosity is not content with noting and recording the actions of men. It likewise seeks to know the motives by which the agent is impelled to the performance of these actions; but motives are modifications of thought which cannot be subjected to the senses. […]

The facts to which we are immediate witnesses, are, indeed, numerous; but time and place merely connect them. Useful narratives must comprise facts linked together by some other circumstance . . . . How wide, then, if romance be the narrative of mere probabilities, is the empire of romance? This empire is absolute and undivided over the motives and tendencies of human actions. Over actions themselves, its dominion, though not unlimited, is yet very extensive.

Brown, claiming that historical truth is necessarily romantic, hinted that romance somehow has an authority, or a criterion of truthfulness, that doesn’t derive from empirical reality. The imagination provides access to truths that the mind demands but cannot obtain from the senses.

For citizens of a federal republic, I think, alienated from their own public histories by space as well as time, finding the links between facts and human motives presented a special challenge. How was it possible for a citizen to judge for himself the claims of authority, when every representation of history was the testimony of someone else? (It’s worth bearing in mind that Brown was just twelve years old when the Revolution ended.) The imagination provided what sight could not—and what one should not take on another’s word.

Skipping ahead in time a bit, seeing as this is a blogpost, I sense that the discontinuity between facts and whole experience was particularly problematic for American intellectuals trying, after the War of 1812 (and the “paper war” it ignited among the literati), to demonstrate that republican government had been good for the United States in intangible ways.

So in 1822, we have James Fenimore Cooper (or so the anonymous article has been attributed), writing in the nationalistic Literary Repository, reviewing Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s New-England Tale:

Our political institutions, the state of learning among us, and the influence of religion upon the national character, have been often discussed and displayed; but our domestic manners, the social and moral influences, which operate in retirement, and in common intercourse, and the multitude of local peculiarities, which form our distinctive features upon the many peopled earth, have very seldom been happily exhibited in our literature. […]

Any future collector of our national tales, would do well to snatch [such books] from oblivion, and to give them that place among the memorials of other days, which is due to the early and authentic historians of a country. We say the historians —we do not mean to rank the writers of these tales, among the recorders of statutes, and battles, and party chronicles; but among those true historians . . . with whom Fielding classes himself, nearly in these words: “Those dignified authors who produce what are called true histories, are indeed writers of fictions, while I am a true historian, a describer of society as it exists, and of men as they are.”

Cooper himself, of course, was already deeply involved in a project of “making American Manners and American scenes interesting to an American reader” through historical novels.[2] But what’s easy to overlook is the imperialism of Cooper’s pronouns. Reviewing a book about New England, Cooper (who was many things, but was not a Yankee) talked about “our domestic manners” and “our distinctive features.”[3] Through fiction, he could lay claim to kinship—even in ostensibly private matters—with Americans in other communities. By depicting private kinship, novels made a national public more conceivable.

As a matter of theory, of course, this isn’t anything new. Homi Bhaba and Benedict Anderson have covered this territory thoroughly. But early-republic historians and literary scholars alike sometimes struggle to treat novels in general as a mode of communication about public things. The solution, I think, lies in their very privacy.


[1] Cayton contrasts this socially thick freedom with liberal conceptions of freedom as individual autonomy. But the more interesting challenge may be to other group-conscious conceptions of liberty, especially in historical literature on republican politics, nationalism, and race.

[2] Letter to his first publisher, Andrew Thompson Goodrich, 28 June 1820, in James Franklin Beard, ed., Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 1:44.

[3] It’s worth mentioning, of course, that Sedgwick’s title is a bit ironic. A New-England Tale is about a young woman’s escape from Yankee Calvinist parochialism thanks to her national context.