How did 19th-century American novelists deal with liberty, equality, slavery and the changing role of religion in American life? That’s the question Gura (American Literature and Culture/Univ. of North Carolina; American Transcendentalism: A History, 2007, etc.) sets out to answer in this comprehensive survey.
On one side stood conservatives like James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels “demonstrate a belief that the ambitions unleashed by liberalism and capitalism needed strong regulation, if not outright elimination.” There was also Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 experimental novel Sheppard Lee, which suggested that people are happiest when they accept their social role. Likewise, The Lamplighter, Maria Cummins’ widely popular 1854 novel of a struggling orphan girl, “instructs the reader to acquiesce rather than to resist.” The novelists on the other side—spurred over time by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the social philosopher Charles Fourier—were re-examining accepted notions of equality, faith and community. Sara Payson Willis Parton’s 1854 novel Ruth Hall “had little interest in Christian submission and morality.” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s overwhelming Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) brought slavery to the forefront, as well as a number of foundational African-American narratives. Gura knows his field and draws many credible connections, but he's also long-winded and tends to smother his insights in countless plot synopses. While his attention to so many forgotten writers is commendable, it's perhaps telling that his writing only really comes alive when he's wrestling with the big fish. He's superbly cogent on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (a critique of the kind of communal living inspired by Fourier) and impassioned about all things Melville. The Confidence-Man, he writes, sounded an alarm "about the nation's descent into mere self-indulgence and, so, possible irrelevance."
Illuminating in key spots, but a slog for nonacademics.