When, in 1792, one Charlotte Palmer published a work of fiction entitled It Is and Is Not a Novel, her choice of title, both teasing and fence-sitting, suggested a long history of generic fluidity. It also suggested that by the end of the eighteenth century this history was drawing to a close, as if the moment had arrived when it could be viewed through the lens of a certain playful self-consciousness. Our work this semester will be devoted to the record of remarkable narrative experiment preceding this moment of generic consolidation: preceding the moment, which arrived later than we might think, when a disparate range of fictions—including many calling themselves “histories”--could be categorized retroactively as examples of “the” novel and treated as “imaginative literature.”
Early modern writing does a remarkable job of testing our twenty-first-century expectations about literary kinds and our twenty-first-century convictions about how those kinds relate respectively to probability, knowledge, evidence, fact, and believability. We find factually-based biographies that draw unabashedly on the conventions of the heroic romance; we find travel narratives that are part allegory, part scientific discourse; and, most interestingly for our purposes, we find fictions that claim to report the truth.
These early fictions’ documentary pretenses, their affinities for matters of fact and transcripts of real life, will be one recurrent concern for this seminar. The overlap between the novelist and the juror in a legal trial (both of whom, according to Ian Watt, take a “circumstantial view of life”) will be another. Throughout the semester we’ll probe Bakhtin’s suggestion that the moment of the novel coincides with that moment when Europe is thrust out of its cultural isolation and enters into relations with the entire globe--a suggestion that helps us see why questions about empire, colonial domination, racialization and chattel slavery loom so large in this writing. And one additional question that is likely to inform our discussions goes like this: why are the secret truths of female sexuality (white and black) so often the referent of early realism?
Note: Graduate students who wish to obtain 200-level credit should be auditors in English 141 rather than enrolling in it officially.