cover image Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel

Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel

Philip F. Gura. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8090-9445-5

Those who agree with Hemingway’s claim that Huckleberry Finn created all modern American fiction will find this study of our pre-Twain literary tradition illuminating. UNC–Chapel Hill literature professor Gura (American Transcendentalism) shows that this tradition consisted of far more than just Uncle Tom, Captain Ahab, Leatherstocking, and Hester Prynne. The book’s main thread is a liberated sense of self that Gura traces back to Jonathan Edwards’s passionate sermonizing. A Christian tract-writing tradition found renewed vitality transplanted into something resembling everyday American life, as in the first known American novel, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, published in 1789. Other authors directed a sense of moral purpose away from individual virtue to wider social issues, as in Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Gura also ventures outside this main vein of sentimental, enlightened concern, finding African-American self-advocates, such as Harriet Jacobs, with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and those who tested taboos, including John Neal, author of Logan: A Family History, which features interracial relationships, and in 1822. Gura tempers this book’s thrill of discovery over forgotten voices and stories with a still-relevant warning that the fearless individualism of American fiction can come dangerously close to solipsism. (Apr.)