Engl 730: The New Rise of the American Novel: Readings

Discussion Questions/Talking Points on Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word

Below I list some questions that occured to me as I was reading the initial chapers of Davidson's Revolution and the Word; I think that by answering the questions below, we can get some sense of how Davidson's book can form a literary and critical matrix in which we can begin to develop our own ideas about the primary works we are going to be reading for this course.

First of all, what is the critical/theoretical framwork or body of assumptions that Davidson acknowledges before she begins and as she proceeds? What do we mean when we say that a piece of writing is doing "cultural" work?

An important question for me, since on the first day I posited that one level of investigation for us would be the "cultural work" these novels do, is "How does one recognize the cultural work that is being done?". In other words, what textual features can one look at to ascertain cultural work?

We'll need to develop ideas on this, but for beginners I thought that noticing role models might be one method--maybe also look at stereotypes (their assumptions, values) and how those characters are regarded in the text by other characters. Assess, perhaps, which characters' opinions, words, actions seem to be valorized by not only the rest of the cast in the fiction, but to try to judge where the author's mask might "slip" a bit. In addition to the obvious intrusions of the author into the text (sometimes the author as writer simply addresses the audience directly), where else might we determine an agenda that the author is trying to push? And, if possible, is there any dissonance between the intruded author and the "masked author?" I'd really like to hear more on these issues in our continuing dialogue. ___________

What specifically does D mean by revolution in addition to the obvious reference to the military conflict with Britain? What are the relationships she posits between "revolution" and "the word"? Part of what this course will assay is the "thick description" of the period (p. 10) we are studying; what do you understand that term to mean? D claims that novels (fiction) was "subversive" in the early republic (pp. 13-4); how so? ___________

What did you find most interesting in D's brief history of book manufacture and distribution in colonial America? How does that section itself convey a sense of what life in early America was really like? Are you convinced (or what other evidence might be useful to convince someone) of Ds assertion that "in the critique of fiction, one sees how readily aspects of the British class system were transported to the New World and translated into terms consistent with the looser social structures of the young Republic"? (p. 49) What exactly does she mean here anyway? ___________

Why would certain segments of the population criticize novels so vehemently? What did they think they were losing? Where were the threats? D. writes "The early American novel, as a genre, tended to proclaim a socially egalitarian message" (p. 73). Given the zeitgeist of republicanism, why would novels be considered dangerous? ___________

On page 78, D. writes, "Even such rudimentary scribblings should remind the sophisticated historian that these novels were written for the readers of the times and that they played a vital (if unquantifiable) role in those readers' lives." Given the evidence that D provides, clearly she has shown that the novels were "precious" and "affective." But, unless D is being overly reductive (of course, writers write for the living audience available), how has she proven that the novels "were written for" (in the sense of designed for) those readers. Was there no "ideal reader?"