Remembering Zion: Ambiguity, Consciousness, and Literary Criticism

By Laura RigalJuly 4, 2013

Remembering Zion: Ambiguity, Consciousness, and Literary Criticism

Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip F. Gura

THE STRUGGLES of “modern consciousness” have been the bread and butter of American English departments since at least the late 1940s. During the Cold War, several generations of college students learned to read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Emily Dickinson’s most difficult poems by seeking out the ambiguities, or layers of contradiction, that made the text meaningful. Ideologically speaking, this way of reading literature, seeing it as a container for contradiction, justified American literary studies itself as a training ground for a liberal democracy, where conflict and difference would be engaged by an educated consciousness, without insistence on “closure” or the revelation of one true meaning. As a feature of the Cold War liberal consensus, the study of a work of literature — open to multiple interpretations — could buttress both sides of the American liberal tradition: the economic faith in a regulated capitalist system and a political faith in a democratic republic, where conflict was part of the scenery.

The word consciousness is rarely used openly in American classrooms today. But the pedagogy of consciousness remains implicit in the politics of literary interpretation, especially whenever the goal of criticism is to awaken American readers to their own ambiguous, inconclusive, and paradoxical selves. This is precisely the aim of Philip Gura’s new literary history Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel. For Gura, what makes early American novels significant is their “raggedness” as artifacts of modern liberal consciousness, in its struggle to emerge from the Christian faith communities of Protestant New England where it, paradoxically, originated.

This kind of “consciousness” was not Freudian (not the opposite of “the unconscious”), nor was it strictly Marxist (as in class consciousness), or early feminist (as in consciousness raising). And it was not yet consciousness as defined by evolutionary neurobiology, or by cognitive systems theory. It was, instead, an interpretive frame for reading, and a perspective on secular modernity as the drama of “coming to consciousness” — or, in 18th-century terms, coming of age. For literary scholars in the liberal arts, consciousness was a liminal, or in-between place, inseparable from language — where everything really happens — a space in between thinking and feeling, subjective truth and objective knowledge, individuals and society, the isolated person and the symbolic order.


Gura’s book is an intentional revival of a 1940s-style literary history. The format is encyclopedic, combining short biographies of novelists with summaries of their most important novels, allowing for coverage of a remarkable variety of novels and writers — most of them entirely neglected by general readers. The result is nostalgic, inclusive, and a lot of fun. Packed with information about all the weird and wonderful 19th-century novels Americans have never read, Gura calls upon a national reading public to remember its upbringing in the liberal arts and return to “consciousness.” The project is appealing: Truth’s Ragged Edge not only provides a uniquely retro (19th century) summer reading list, it issues a direct challenge to American readers — to try to remember what consciousness is.

The book’s title is a phrase from Melville’s novella Billy Budd, and Gura’s history includes Melville and Hawthorne, whose novels once defined the operation of “ambiguity” in early American literature. But Gura gives equal billing to less familiar white, male sentimentalists (Sylvester Judd and W.S. Mayo), writers of psychological and early “stream-of-consciousness” novels (Charles Brockden Brown, Ik Marvel), along with an unclassifiable group of expatriates, Gothic fantasists, Knights of Labor, and authors of “fancy” fiction (John Neal, Robert Montgomery Bird, George Lippard, George Thompson). Gura paints with an uncommonly broad brush; his survey-style format intentionally revives a scholarly classic: Alexander Cowie’s 877-page The Rise of the American Novel from 1948. In homage to Cowie, Gura introduces his book as the “revival of a dormant tradition.” But Truth’s Ragged Edge is not a revival of Cowie’s cultural politics, which privileged white male novelists; Gura promises to be “more attentive to the powerless members of society,” and responsive to the “rediscovery of women and African American novelists, forgotten or ignored because of their gender or race,” which has “upended the history of the novel.” Gura revises Cowie by devoting a chapter to early 19th-century, African-American novelists (Harriet Wilson, Martin Delaney, Frank and Mary Webb, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown) and, in a move more central to Gura’s project, opening the door to an overwhelming number of white women writers of sentimental or “domestic fiction.”

Despite the paternalism of his gesture of inclusion, there is something inspired about Gura’s resurrection of Cowie from the golden age of American liberal consensus, with its fiction of a American reading public, rooted in a shared libertarian (yet conformist) Protestant past. Gura’s book takes its rise from a Harvard tradition of American intellectual history established by Perry Miller, Reinhold Niebuhr, Alan Heimert, Sacvan Bercovitch, Ann Douglass, and others, who traced the literary origins of “the American mind” to colonial New England. Gura is explicit about his debt to Heimert in particular, whose Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (1966) reexamined the role of New England Protestantism in a (presumably secular and rational) American Revolution. For Gura, likewise, the rise of consciousness in the early American novel is rooted in the endlessly self-dividing branches of Protestant separatism in New England: Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Universalist, Unitarian, Quaker, Romantic, and Transcendentalist.

Gura’s style of American literary history, organized around the “Puritan origins of the American self,” has been criticized for at least half a century for a chauvinistic fixation on New England and apparent blindness to the transnational geographies of slavery, colonialism, and US imperialism. And yet, illustrated by the ongoing conflict between liberal secularists and Protestant sectarians today, the connection between Reformation theology and Revolutionary nationalism remains undeniable significant.

For Gura, the core of modern American consciousness has been its struggle with Christianity. He organizes his history chronologically in three parts, tracing the early national novel through a vast archive, from “first glimmerings” in Boston, Philadelphia and New York (1790–1830) to the industrialization of publishing in the 1830s and 1840s, and the novelistic outpouring of the 1850s and 1860s. The focus is mostly on writers working in the urban Northeast, especially New England and New York, with a few outliers in Cincinnati. If Gura’s national geography is circumscribed, his principle of selection is expansive, giving pride of place to a sprawling archive of popular domestic and sentimental novels, the majority of which were written by middle-class white women who, in Gura’s telling, shaped the early national literary marketplace more profoundly, and variously, than Americans have ever recognized.

This is the exactly the kind of women’s writing that Hawthorne dismissed as “trash,” scribbled by pathetically prolific females who, he claimed, with few exceptions (Hawthorne greatly admired Sara Parton’s Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time [1854]) “write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from them by greater feebleness and folly.” Gura insists, to the contrary, that this outpouring of “emasculated” work was essential to the development of a liberal literary consciousness as it emerged, in all its struggle and self-division, from a Protestant intellectual culture on the move from Christian communalism to capitalist contract.

What is most important to Gura however, is not that these scribblers were women, or white, or middle class, but that their novels were, without exception, deeply engaged — pro or con — with the legacy of radical Protestantism, and the deep division between Christian community and secular individualism, or “free will.” Gura’s argument is clear. The religio-spiritual struggles and psychological “interiority” of women’s popular fiction defines a body of work every bit as modern and significant as the famously complex and ambiguous novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, or Charles Brockden Brown. Women’s domestic novels must be fully integrated into the main line of 19th-century literary history, on the grounds of their participation in the rise of a liberal-democratic “mind of America,” by which Gura means an internally divided, quintessentially readerly consciousness, rooted in the Protestant book cultures of western Europe and New England.

Of course, English-language novels did not “rise” in the United States, but with early 18th-century authors Defoe, Smollett, Sterne, Fielding and Richardson. The first novels in the United States were novels of seduction in the style of Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and his gloomier Clarissa (1748) — the tragic novel of a Christian heroine who kills herself rather than succumb to the blandishments of the libertine Lovelace. Early American novels in this vein, such as Susana Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791) and Hannah Foster’s The Coquette (1797), substitute unwanted, unwed pregnancy and death for suicide. But, more important, these novels of seduction served as warnings about the dangers of Revolutionary Independence. Within five years of the Constitution’s ratification, as the French Revolution took a violent turn in the 1790s with beheadings in Paris, war with England, and “the Terror” generally, the plot of seduction became a national, as well as sexual and religious, allegory of the dangers of democracy without a governing “head. “ As John Adams put it in 1804, while commenting on Federalist stability versus continuous revolution: “Democracy is Lovelace and the people are Clarissa. The artful villain will pursue the innocent young girl to her ruin and death.” [1]

By the 1820s, however, these early plots of sex and social death were supplanted by novels more securely rooted in “New Light” and evangelical Protestant ideals, traceable mostly to New England. With market “individualism ascendant” and “religious authority diminished,” Americans “looked to novels for the kind of guidance once found” only in church or scripture. Within 50 years of the Declaration of Independence, white women’s fiction had assumed a new social function, one recognized by feminist critics starting in the 1970s as “sentimental power,” “domestic individualism,” and “the feminization of American culture." [2]

With Catherine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827), Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl (1814), Susan Warner’s bestselling The Wide, Wide World (1850), and Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter (1854), women’s fiction took over where Christian tracts left off. Moreover, bestsellers like The Lamplighter forever changed the early American book market, as publishers tried to recreate their success. Such novels seem to follow a recipe. Their plots center on imaginative and resourceful young women (typically orphans) who forge personal power within the bonds of family life. Such girls achieve love and a measure of autonomy by conquering worldly desires and living their lives in imitation of Christ. “Spirited” and intensely emotional evangelical heroines, like Ellen in The Wide, Wide World, find spiritual stability and human affection by firmly disciplining their animal spirits.

And yet, as Gura makes very clear, the managerial “Sunday school” ethos was only one possibility within the moral imaginary of women’s fiction. The transcendental power wielded by mothers and daughters on behalf of “the Social Gospel” set the stage for liberal religion’s dalliance with free will, self-culture and self-fulfillment, and for social and sexual experiments with radical abolition, women’s suffrage, Fourierist or anarchist communism, and free love. These novels went far beyond Christian activism on behalf of children, family, community, and temperance reform, and Truth’s Ragged Edge does its best work by surveying the wild variety of plots and problems they engaged. Among the most appealing are novels by and about New England “mill girls,” employed in the great textile factories of Lowell or Manayunk. Several of these, like Fall River, An Authentic Narrative (1833), tell already conventional “true life” stories of mill girls seduced and mysteriously murdered. By contrast, Martha W. Tyler’s 1855 A Book Without a Title, or, Thrilling Events in the Life of Mira Dana narrates the harrowing adventures of a “wild, merry, gypsy-like” girl hired at the Lowell mills. Hoping to earn money to attend school, Mira labors at the loom and works to “tame down that high, wild spirit.” Eventually, like so many heroines in this genre, she becomes a writer; but in the meantime she organizes a strike, leading 4,000 young women in a walkout when wages are cut.

Sentimental novels about strikes are relatively few, however. The books Gura finds most radical or innovative were inspired by the Emersonian aesthetics of self-culture, arising from the divine artist-creator inherent in every imaginative mind. Thus it is with New England transcendentalism that modern literary consciousness begins to emerge. In Caroline Chesbro’s Isa: A Pilgrimage (1852) or Lillie Blake’s Southwald: A Novel (1859), passionate and ambitious women take center stage in flight from various forms of sexual and spiritual oppression. Such self-creating writer-characters live out numerous identities: Romantic artist, lover, social reformer, health advocate, spiritualist, utopian socialist. Gothic elements abound, as novelists and their heroines together enter “a twilight world of consciousness, and spectral phantasms” at the edge of religious and sexual symbolic systems.While Gura situates these female adventures within the history of consciousness, his point is better made in the language of more recent literary theory: such novels engage in a politics of “affect” communicated through layers of historical, socio-political, physical, and material experience that can never be conveyed by the reflective mind of an individual subject — no matter how creative, or spirited.

The emotional geography of Alice Cary’s Hagar: A Story of To-day (1852) represents a direct assault on the gospel of female self-creation. Born and raised on a farm near Cincinnati, Cary escaped to New York with her sister, where the two women supported themselves in a boarding house on income from their writing. Hagar opens with an affair between a rural girl and her minister. When the heroine becomes pregnant and delivers a son, the minister steals the child and abandons her. Years later, Hagar meets her minister-lover once again and, while searching his desk, discovers, to her horror, the skeleton-corpse of her baby in a drawer, enclosed in a tiny casket. The minister, mad with shame and guilt, is carted off to an insane asylum, while Hagar lives out her life unmarried and alone, without any redeeming emotional, economic, or social connection Every character in Hagar seems to end up in a box of some kind, as individuals collectively isolated, among others, in a gothic reflection of the bureaucratic-managerial state that Max Weber called (in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) stahlhartes Gehäuse” or “the iron cage.”

By contrast, Mary Gove Nichols’ Mary Lyndon: or Revelations of a Life is based, episode for episode, on Nichol’s own history of spiritual, social and sexual experiments — the “truth” of which, she writes, exceeds language, because “what is felt can never be described.” Nichols tries on an extraordinary number of identities which, in Gura’s account, are the stuff of liberal consciousness: vegetarianism, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and women’s health, Fourierist socialism, the mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg (especially his theory of conjugal love), and two years in the anarchist community Modern Times. Nichols and her husband left Modern Times after a disagreement with its leader over the question of open marriage (Nichols and her husband insisted upon it). They then embarked upon a career in spiritualism together, channeling spirits from beyond the grave before converting, finally, to Roman Catholicism.

Gura finds much to admire the characters of such “unruly” women, who reject the figment of emotional reward in a well-run family, and for whom marriage is often “annihilation.” Ultimately, though, such novels and novelists tend to violate rather than affirm liberal-democratic consciousness, by engaging what Cassandra, the protagonist of Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons (1862) calls “the Deity of the Illicit […] hidden among the Powers That Be, which rule New England.” Nevertheless, Gura situates Warner and Cummins, Carey, Nichols, and Chesbro’ firmly within the intellectual trajectory of Protestant New England — from Jonathan Edwards’ Great Awakening to Emersonian transcendentalism. Women’s “literary imaginations,” Gura concludes, were fertilized by “untraditional, liberal religion, from German idealism to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, particularly Emerson’s emphasis on the interior life.”

Fortunately, Truth’s Ragged Edge overflows its own preoccupation with earnest middle-class women to consider a number of interesting bad boys — all of whom refuse, surprisingly, to “light out for the territories.” In the city novels of George Lippard and George Thompson, another form of preaching rises: darker, violent, more paranoid, prophetic, and, at times, pornographic. Pro-labor and anti-corporate, Lippard openly claimed the revolutionary mantle of the Christ. Railing against “the Sunday School Union with its imposing display of Managers,” and “complacent annual report,” Lippard pilloried the religious and financial leaders of Philadelphia in The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (1844), a novel in which bankers seduce young girls and city fathers become rapists in a gloomy underground world of wealth and illuminati-like secret societies: “We believe,” Lippard prophesied, “that the religion of Christ withers and dies when it comes in contact with any Immense Corporation based upon the Money Power.” Also in the 1840s, New Yorker George Thompson produced some 60 works of fiction, including the pornographic Venus in Boston (1849) and City Crimes (1848). Thompson’s deviant heroes heap hatred upon an “unjust, hypocritical society of businessmen, wealthy mill owners and real estate developers, the pious men and women of God.”

Venus in Boston is Gura’s sole representative of the booming New York pornography industry and the new market for dime novels that, subverting the moral logic and plot devices of middle-brow domestic fiction, point to an obscene, seemingly “real” underbelly of liberal consciousness. Serialized in “sporting magazines,” Thompson’s plots were an assemblage of mid-century sexual crimes — group sex, incest, child rape, adultery, miscegenation, and cannibalism — lampooning “complacency” with satire dredged from a journalistic underworld and poured upon the heads of sinners. As the Boston pimp “Sow Nance” describes herself: “I came from a first-rate family. My father was hung for killing my mother — one of my brothers also danced the hornpipe in the air [was hanged], and another is under sentence of death, off South, for beating a woman’s brains out with a fire shovel, and choking her five children with a dishcloth.” Nance lures young women to prostitution, repeating the injustices visited on her. Such, Thompson said, is the “romance of reality.”

This is the limit of Gura’s attention to pulp, however. Admirers of great books from Beadle’s Dime Library, Edward Ellis’s Steam Man of the Prairie, or John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Muríeta, will be sorely disappointed. Gura’s liberal-democratic archive also excludes the entire trans-Mississippi west — including, especially, the despised historical novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Although he discusses the almost always overlooked The Crater (1847), he does so to condemn Cooper as anti-democratic, punishing him (along with Thoreau) by exiling the hunter-savage frontiersman Natty Bumppo from the history of American liberal consciousness. Southwest border novels as well — Maria Ruíz de Burton (The Squatter and the Don, 1874) and Helen Hunt Jackson (Nelly’s Silver Mine, 1878; Ramona, 1884) — are unaccountably omitted. As a result, Gura’s readers hear nothing, even indirectly, of Iroquois, Lenni Lenape, Pawnee and Sioux, Cherokee removal, or the Mexican American War.

On the book jacket, Richard Rabinowitz celebrates the urban, introspective character of Truth’s Ragged Edge: “Most modern-day readers,” he blurbs, “wander into early American fiction as if it were the back lot of an old movie studio — full of strangely garbed frontiersmen ready for wilderness adventure.” Gura, by contrast, brings us “face-to-face with dozens of fictional characters much more like us — urban, introspective, worried about moral survival in a money-grubbing society.” In fact, Gura has a lot of sympathy for money-grubbers. Many of his female novelists and their heroines — like Mary Bean, The Factory Girl: A Domestic Tale, Founded on Recent Events (1850) — grub for money and labor in penury. It is certainly true that few of Gura’s novelists own guns, or, like the real life character Mary Bean, are cruelly murdered and thrown in a mill stream. And yet, it is inaccurate to conclude, with Rabinowitz, that Gura’s book “has created a new genealogy of American anxiety.” On the contrary, what Gura attempts to do is return his readers to “consciousness,” the sine qua non of American literary history and the defining condition of bourgeois modernity.

For Gura, the rise of a liberal consciousness in the United States was defined, above all, by its struggle with Christianity. The history of the early American novel, then, is the story of a radically “Separatist” consciousness as it strives for stability and identity through progressive (rather than anti-capitalist) social transformation — and does so, furthermore, in a paradoxical effort to escape the patriarchal delusions, even madness, of its own Christian background. Gura is wrong, of course, that the rise of a 19th-century literary “consciousness” in the United States begins with John Cotton and ends with Emerson. Gura’s own bookends, more or less, with Rebecca Harding Davis’s recollection of a visit she paid to Emerson and Bronson Alcott, at Hawthorne’s house. Upon meeting Emerson, she admits, “my body literally grew stiff and my tongue dry with awe”; but she was taken aback by how the writers discussed the Civil War: “They had much to say of it […] and all used the same strained high note of exaltation,” particularly Alcott, who “chanted paeans to the war.” Intellectual New England, she complained, was swarming “with weak-brained imitative folk” who “had revolted from Puritanism, not to enter any other live church, but to fall into a dull disgust, a nausea with all religion” that “they cured by going to Concord.”

By democratically including Davis, Gura opens his argument to the dialectics of her criticism, as he does with Melville’s judgment on the military-industrial literary culture that employed him. At the conclusion of Melville’s late novella Billy Budd: Sailor (An Inside Narrative), the supreme commander of a British warship, Captain Vere (his name connotes veritas) holds a military tribunal that results in the execution of an angelically beautiful, innocent sailor named Billy Budd. After witnessing Vere’s legal murder of Billy Budd, the restless, near-mutinous sailors on Vere’s ship are restored to order by the regular (not ragged) beat of the ship’s drum. “Toned by music and religious rites,” Melville writes, “subserving the discipline and purposes of war, the men in their wonted orderly manner dispersed to the places allotted them when not at the guns.”

In other words, neither the aesthetics of ambiguity — “not to enter any other live church” — nor the internally divided consciousness celebrated by Gura in Truth’s Ragged Edge, can comprehend the contradictions of middle-class literary art in the secular United States. The Cold War liberal consensus that identified literary history with coming to consciousness has been breaking down for a long time, and especially in recent decades. This is not simply because historically disenfranchised groups (African-American, Indigenous, female, queer, non-English-speaking) demanded representation in national literary canons and access to the liberal arts. Nor is it simply because of the emergence, in the mid-1990s, of “empire” in American literary studies (the Marxist-inflected consciousness of US imperialism’s role in the global expansion of capitalism and colonialism). Instead, with the rise of global information economies, a new model of the embodied mind has become the norm, and consciousness has been redefined as distributed cognition and global connectivity. This global-systems model emerges from digital communications and biotechnology; it does not attack and destroy the self-divided liberal consciousness of Cold War pedagogy, but penetrates, digitally evacuates, replicates, and redistributes it. It takes American liberalism as intellectual real estate available for redevelopment, selling it on liberalism’s own terms, as progressive, democratizing, modern, novel, and inevitable. In the storyline of liberal identity formation, consciousness has been not only been repackaged as a technology for socioeconomic success, it has been simultaneously elaborated and diminished as a “searchable” database. Thus, today’s literary scholars rarely define themselves, as Gura does, in relationship to a deeply divided liberal consciousness in conflict with its Protestant heritage. On the contrary, neoliberal literary studies in the United States is more likely to celebrate consciousness as a cyborg-like “second nature,” like Dick Cheney’s new heart, the complex product of highly evolved biotechnical structures and cognitive systems, rather than as a philosophical and aesthetic formation rooted in religious, revolutionary, socio-symbolic awakening.  

Nevertheless, literary studies in the United States still serves, paradoxically, as a safe house of sorts, for the angry or disoriented children of the American bourgeoisie. And it is still possible to imagine that certain complexities of consciousness will elude the neo-industrial management techniques that frame them, even as consciousness itself is under liquidation. Today, the institutional and pedagogical counterpart to neoliberalism is not the liberal arts, but the university research park, where narratives of transformation through the “life sciences”  (nanotechnology, neurochemistry, biomedical, and genetic engineering) can be heard, by those with ears to hear, vibrating with the messianic energies of social gospel. The stories that biotechnologies tell about the future have endings that are often “progressive,” but rarely attentive to statistically insignificant levels of damage that do not register on the GIS of global economic development. What Gura’s history of the American novel ultimately delivers, then, is the gentle shock of its own historical anachronism, with an implicit reminder that the only justification for American literary studies is not its liberal-democratic pedagogy, or its cultivation of interiority, but the negative and dialectical power of its criticism. 

[1] Quoted by Michael T. Gilmore, “The Drama,” The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 1, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 585. [Back]

[2] Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1986); Gillian Brown, Domestic Individualism Imagining Self in 19th Century America (University of California Press, 1992); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998; first edition, Knopf, 1977). Gura is far from the first to recover the culture of women’s sentimental fiction for 19th-century literary history. His commitment to the archive of sentiment rests on rests on 40 years of scholarship by feminist literary historians, beginning with Ann Douglas, Jane Tompkins, Nina Baym, Annette Kolodny, Nancy Armstrong, Gillian Brown, Cathy Davidson, Carol Smith Rosenberg, and Julia Stern, among many, many others. [Back]


Updated 7/11/2013 — Eds.

Laura Rigal is the author of The American Manufactory.

LARB Contributor

Laura Rigal is an associate professor in the Department of English and in the American studies program at the University of Iowa. She teaches courses in 18th- and 19th- century American literature and culture that emphasize the intersection of nation-building and imperial expansion; the culture of American federalism; the history and culture of industrialization; the relationship between visual and textual structures of representation; and Native American cultural history of the 18th century. Her book on the early industrial culture of federalist America, The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic was published in 1998 by Princeton University Press. Her other articles and book reviews may be found in recent issues of Theatre JournalThe Huntington Library Quarterly, The William and Mary Quarterly, and in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth Century Art and Literature, edited by David Miller.


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