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Friday, April 13, 2007

The Novel of Purpose

Posted by Miriam Burstein on 04/13/07 at 02:59 PM

Readers may well wonder how “transatlantic studies” constitutes an alternative to the familiar practice of Anglo-American criticism—or, for that matter, any other form of comparative criticism.  Most nineteenth-century specialists, for example, are well aware of Poe’s influence in France, Scott’s influence in America, or Hawthorne’s influence in England.  “Influence,” however, suggests an external pressure—an active force impressing itself on a possibly passive recipient.  By contrast, Paul Giles has argued, the new comparative criticism “involves not simply an easy elision of the national into the transnational, but rather a consideration of various points of friction where these two discourses intersect” [1].  Transatlantic criticism, then, aims to unsettle our neat professional divisions as well as our neat national divisions.  It posits that there is an ongoing, mutually constitutive--and mutually disruptive--relationship between national literatures.  “Influence” is no longer the keyword; instead, critics turn to the language of “intersection, interaction, and intervention”—registering a debt to postcolonial criticism in the process [2].  As the rapidly proliferating “inter-” prefixes suggest, transatlantic studies finds British literature “in” America and vice-versa, whether uncomfortably so or otherwise.

Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World yokes transatlantic criticism to one of literary history’s great warhorses:  the history and theory of literary realism.  The nineteenth-century “novel of purpose,” Claybaugh argues, works on the assumption that “transforming readers was a necessary step in transforming the world” (34); to that end, then, the novel of purpose necessarily crosses paths with realism.  Claybaugh’s interest lies less with the novel of purpose’s contents, however, and more with its narrative structures.  Irrespective of their own political beliefs, realist novelists appropriate reformist narratives in order to tame (or at least clarify) otherwise recalcitrant plot elements.  Thus, Claybaugh finds Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers making off with the temperance plot’s “disciplined structure” and “the license it provides for verisimilar detail,” even as Dickens pokes jovial fun at both the temperance plot’s actual subject matter and the moral character of its tellers (63).  Similarly, she shows that Anne Brontë utilizes temperance’s “plot of doubled promising”—“in which the marriage vow is supplemented by the temperance pledge” (94)—as a model for plotting marital relationships more generally, even though Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is deeply ambivalent about temperance per se.  Moreover, Claybaugh notes that the American novelist Elizabeth Stoddard, in an act of further revisionism, joins with Brontë in her use of the plot of doubled promising, but then rewrites her (and her sister Charlotte) by insisting “that desire exists outside of the courtship plot and after the wedding vow” (111). 

But reformist narratives also intersect with professional narratives—specifically, the narratives of authors’ careers.  Claybaugh points out that reformist aspirations became part and parcel of the very definition of “novelist,” leaving figures likes Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Hardy, or Henry James in a dither.  Dickens reinvented his early novels as reformist for self-marketing purposes, while Hardy, as an ex-novelist, did something similar in order to shore up his political work (214).  George Eliot, called on to be “an exemplary woman in the campaign for women’s rights” (128), critiqued the very notion of exemplarity itself as antithetical to realism (130).  James, meanwhile, draws on reformist subject matter in order to “be realist without being purposeful” (139); by doing so, he intervened in contemporary critical arguments about his own status as a “typical” American author (147).  Claybaugh sees such professional self-construction at work in the career of Mark Twain.  Noting not only that a market for reformist narrative exists, but also that it exists long after the reforms in question have been accomplished, Twain asks what’s at stake for the audience in enjoying such fictions.  In particular, Twain shoots down the reformist discourse of sentiment: “Generations of readers have identified with Huck and have in the process congratulated themselves as if they were alone in recognizing that slavery was wrong, that African Americans are human beings.  And that, Twain suggests, is the worst con of all” (175).  Twain thus manages to expose reformist narrative as an explicitly commercial enterprise.  Instead of transforming their audiences, such narratives only have designs on them.

In showing how authors reinvented reformist narratives in the pursuit of various literary realisms, Claybaugh complicates a familiar critical project: demonstrating how a genre or mode establishes itself by appropriating, pastiching, revising, and parodying other genres or modes.  Thus, in the nineteenth century, we have historical novelists reworking the Gothic and Jewish novelists (or, at least, writers on Jewish themes) undoing the Christian conversion novel; more recently, established “literary” novelists have been exploiting the conventions of “genre” fictions like the detective novel or thriller [3].  For the goals of transatlantic studies, however, the novel of purpose is especially useful, because British audiences were interested in (and, needless to say, pirated) “purposeful” American authors and vice-versa [4].  As Claybaugh shows in her reading of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, however, “interest” did not necessarily mean “understanding”; Caliban, it seems, didn’t always recognize his face in the glass.  One might go further, and ask how the work of novels translated from other languages affected the Anglo-American circuit described here.  Claybaugh already points to such added complications by noting the role of “continental realism” in shaping James’ self-definition as a novelist. 

Claybaugh’s project also raises useful questions about the role of national identity in the transatlantic reception, as well as creation, of reformist narratives [5].  How did British readers react to American abolitionist or temperance narratives, and vice-versa? To what extent did topoi fail to transfer across national boundaries? To what extent were they rewritten “in transit,” as it were? In what ways did authors misrecognize reformist narratives from other national traditions? After all, the same event frequently signifies very differently in British and American narratives—representations of the family prayer circle, for example, which in Victorian Britain usually pointed towards spiritual equality in the future, but in Victorian America just as usually indicated a very republican egalitarianism in the present.  Such questions are, in fact, exceptionally difficult to answer.  Claybaugh’s account of Connecticut Yankee’s misfortunes suggests one way in which we might go about reconstructing such clashes, but it’s telling that she is describing a much-reviewed work by a famous author; it’s far more difficult to uncover how British readers might have reacted to the influx of American “escaped nun” narratives, for example, since many of them received little to no coverage in the mainstream press [6]. 

Perhaps the most significant achievement of this book—as with transatlantic studies more generally—is that it promises to make our lives much more difficult.  Victorianists already have to contend with the specter of Henry James (is he British? Is he American? Is he American only when it’s convenient?); now, Claybaugh reminds us, we must also remember the presence and cultural work of far less canonical figures.  (In Victorian religious studies, the American revivalists Moody and Sankey play a similarly disconcerting role.) Will we all be transatlanticists now?

[1] Paul Giles, Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 14. 

[2] Helen Thomas, Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 5.  Thomas quite explicitly situates her work in the postcolonial vein. 

[3] Historical fiction and the Gothic: e.g., Ian Duncan, Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Fiona Robertson, Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994); James Watt, Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Jewish and philosemitic novelists on the conversion novel (e.g., Grace Aguilar, Benjamin Farjeon, George Eliot): Michael Galchinsky, The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996); Michael Ragussis, Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” and English National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995). 

[4] A point made frequently, as in Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); for a theoretical account of why such piracy was significant, see Meredith McGill, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002). 

[5] For an example of such an inquiry, see Marjorie Stone, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Garrisonians: ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,’ the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and Abolitionist Discourse in the Liberty Bell,” in Alison Chapman, ed., Victorian Women Poets (Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2005). 

[6] See, for example, Susan M. Griffin, Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 


In reading this, I found myself asking what structure could be common to all of these moments of dubious interpretation, including transatlantic interpretation without understanding, or self-congratulatory reading of Huck Finn in the decades following the accomplishment of the reforms which, according to this model, frame its protagonist and plot.

It is inspired to begin this post with the image of “yoking” transatlantic criticism to realism, and to progress from there to the problem of topoi that “fail to transfer across national boundaries.” After all, the doubled promise of temperance and marriage echoes the old model of pleasure (courtship and love) being yoked to virtue (temperance and renunciation) in the text that pleases and instructs.

The problem, then, is an intervening gap. This can be the space between Europe and America, or it can be the time between the moment of publication, with all its attendant reformist exigencies, and the readership of later generations. It can even consist of the gap between novelists where they “intersect” or (in Derrida’s terms) form a hinge, rather than embodying a tradition through passive influence.

In every case, enjoyment is no longer yoked to instruction: the enjoyment, by the British, of the American drama of temperance, for example. Or the self-satisfaction of a reader who meaninglessly celebrates his own lack of racism. Or the theft of the temperance plot by Dickens in the service of the liberated, satiric Pickwick Papers.

In this light, what might otherwise be the unfortunate circumstance of an implicit sexual metaphor in Giles—criticism “involves not simply an easy elision of the national into the transnational, but rather a consideration of various points of friction where these two discourses intersect”—turns out to be an entirely logical consequence of the scandalous transition from moral purposiveness into amoral pleasure.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/13/07 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Will i get into cambridge university with these a levels:


also what is the social life at cambridge university like?
good night life?
is there a massive work load?
any information about the life of a cambridge student would be very useful.

also i am predicted to get all A*s in my GCSEs which i am taking this year.

i am particularly interested in geography and/or maths so any information regarding this would be very useful

thank you

By John Bush on 06/27/10 at 04:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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