Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example

Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse
University of Pennsylvania Press
2018

During the 30 years following ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the first American novelists carried on an argument with their British counterparts that pitted direct democracy against representative liberalism. They developed a set of formal tropes that countered, move for move, those gestures and conventions by which Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, and others created their closed worlds of self, private property, and respectable society. The result was a distinctively American novel that generated a system of social relations resembling today's distributed network.

The authors show how these first American novels developed multiple paths to connect an extremely diverse field of characters, redefining private property as fundamentally antisocial and setting their protagonists to the task of dispersing that property throughout the field of characters. So reorganized, the populations proved suddenly capable of thinking and acting as one. Despite the diverse local character of their subject matter and community of readers, the first U.S. novels delivered this argument in a vernacular style open and available to all.

Novels in the Time of Democratic Writing: The American Example