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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Monday, April 16, 2007

The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Gregory Garvey

Posted by Gregory Garvey, Guest Author, on 04/16/07 at 11:46 AM

Gregory Garvey is Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Brockport.  He is author of Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America and editor of The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform.  He has served as director of the Director of the SUNY Center on Russia and the USA, at Moscow State University and as Fulbright Senior Scholar at St. Petersburg State University.

The two dialogues at the center of this book—British/American and reform/novel—must have been hugely difficult to orchestrate.  It might just be because my own interests, but I felt the tension between reform culture and the developing conventions of the novel answered and raised the most questions.  This dimension of Amanda Claybaugh’s book has made me think of a distinction between two ways of pursuing cosmopolitan discourses.  On the one hand there is work like Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters which makes a structuralist argument regarding the economies and politics through which literature flows amongst borders and identities.  Casanova tries to map out flows, the motives of flows, places where literary culture accumulates, etc.  On the other hand there are projects like John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples in which he takes his theory of “justice as fairness” and goes global, trying to imagine the ways people with fundamentally different value systems can construct what he refers to as “decent” societies.  A recent example of this line is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.  This line is focused less on mapping the structure and internal tension of reform and more on analyzing the obstacles that prevent or slow change.

Amanda Claybaugh’s book is, I think, more like Casanova’s in that it tries to create a complicated and subtle map of simultaneous change in several spheres of cultural production.  It is amazing the rigor with which Claybaugh stays on topic—almost never swerving away from the study of literary representation into the rough-and-tumble of struggles amongst social reform activists.  This book contains the tensions of reform within a discussion of literary production and reception more thoroughly and productively than anything else I have read.  It also manages to do it in a period of very significant change in the conventions of the novel and during a kind of golden age of reform culture.  The pressure that Claybaugh puts on her authors to explain how tropes, conventions, and goals of reform animate their narratives and define their characters has revealed processes of thought and evolution and are important to understanding the relationship between politics and aesthetics in this period.

I suppose we are all still processing this book and the various posts related to it.  For me, at the moment, the intensity of Claybaugh’s analysis of authorial motivation has actually pushed the novelists away from the reformers instead of integrating them into the reform community.  Rather than considering the novelists activists in reform movements, we might create a slightly more accurate way of seeing the relationship.  In the American context (and in these things the Americans tended to trail the English), at least, at the point Claybaugh picks up the narrative, “charity” or “benevolent” reform was quickly morphing into a distinct culture, complete with professional cadres, fund raising, committee structures to create national strategies, vehicles of publicity (mass meetings, traveling agents, newspapers, tracts), and norms of discourse for public debate.  These professional, career reformers emerged in the first half of the 19th century and have become a permanent feature of most democratic societies.  The novelists Claybaugh studies do not seem to have been integrated into these movements as activists.  They seem to have significant ideological reservations as well as significant scrupples relating to the responsibilities of the artist.  It might be useful to distinguish them from the activists who shaped reform movements.  This might be useful partly because the activists—people ranging from Frederick Douglass to Frances Willard—were also deeply invested in print culture.  The over-riding aesthetic concern Claybaugh identifies is representation.  These novelists function as critics and analysts of this emerging culture, more than players in it.  Those whose speech and writing is driven by an interest in persuasion differ from the novelists whose interest was in representation.  The novelists were certainly influential in reform, but almost all of Claybaugh’s authors seem torn between reform and aesthetics and when push came to shove, they seem generally to have self-identified as artists rather than as reformers.

This tension between aesthetics and politics in The Novel of Purpose is what made me think about Casanova’s World Republic of Letters.  One of the main points of that book is that under certain conditions literary cosmopolitanism paradoxically manages to denationalize even national literatures.  The realist novel and the interests of reform movements, in Claybaugh’s hands, are largely denationalized—the form of the realist novel relates to other similar forms regardless of national origin.  It skips from the States, to England, to France in the effort to deal with formal problems.  Equally, temperance, marriage reform, etc., also supercede national norms because the issues specific to each movement take precedence.  In terms of the impact of reform on the novel during the second half of the 19th century, The Novel of Purpose will inform, maybe even define, discussion for some time.

I am left with a few questions.  It would be very interesting to hear more of Claybaugh’s assessment of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance.  This romance seems an important precedent to some of the realist novels in The Novel of Purpose.  Also, Hawthorne’s own—“don’t be too utopian because we’ll find some way to screw it up”—ambivalence seems to anticipate many of the perspectives that Claybaugh addresses.  It would also be very interesting to hear some sort of off-the-record speculation on how Claybaugh thinks her authors felt about the goals of reform movements—how do James or Eliot think the world might change if the reforms actually worked, and people’s motivations or social institutions actually were reformed.  Claybaugh does some of this with Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and comes tantalizing close to arguing that Hardy had his own vision of reform that was somewhat different than those of the organized movements. 


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