Text: Frederick Newberry, “A New Perspective on the American Romance: A Review Essay ,” Poe Studies, December 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 13:33-39


[page 33:]

A New Perspective on the
American Romance: A Review Essay

University of Oregon

Readers who expect a continuation of the critical debate over the distinctions between the English “novel” and the American “romance” will be surprised, perhaps disappointed, in Michael Davitt Bell’s The Development of American Romance [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981. 291 pp. X22.50]. Other readers ought to feel blessed because the book has spared them this “cliche” (p. xi), the familiar and now tedious run-down of the debate begun by Lionel Trilling, advanced by Roy Harvey Pearce and Perry Miller, apotheosized by Richard Chase and his disciples (notably Daniel Hoffman and Joel Porte), rejected by Nicholaus Mills, and, most recently, considered a bogus issue by Robert Merrill.(1) It seems clear in the course of his study that Bell is indebted to these writers and gratefully indebted to others who have written on romance,(2) but at the outset he only nods in the usual direction by courteous way of setting out on his own. The English novel and the American romance have become, he seems to believe, bloated categories exploited far more for critical discourse than for crisp understanding. While he admits the profound influence exerted by English fiction on American writers, Bell prefers to focus his investigation, more closely than anyone heretofore, on precisely what Brown, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville meant by describing their fiction, at one time or another, as romance. “Only then” Bell says, “can we assess its historical importance and its usefulness in describing or understanding whatever tradition may be embodied in their work” (p. xii). If Bell’s approach is not a full-fledged attempt to deconstruct traditional approaches to the American romance, it certainly moves in that direction; and in my view, it is the right direction.

Somewhat similar to the method in his first book, Hawthorne and tlDe Historical Romance of New England, Bell sets up a context for romance which is at once literary, historical, and sociological; but in this new book, eight years in the making, he presents a far more intricate and complex study which has the advantage, at first glance, of a simple thesis. Bell believes that there are basically two definitions of romance with which we need to be concerned, since they were the main ones generally accepted by the romancers themselves and by their society. These are what Bell calls the conservative and the primary theories of romance. The conservative theory is best defined by Hawthorne in “The Custom-House”: romance occurs in a “neutral territory” where the “Actual and the Imaginary” verge on one another. Balance and integration are the chief traits, lest too wide a latitude in imaginative play lead away “from the truth of the human heart.” Hence, [column 2:] a “higher moral realism” lies behind the romancer’s intention, serving as a sort of check on excessive fantasy. For Hawthorne ( and the same might be said for other romancers’ intentions), the romance is “controlled, serious, moral, and conservative” (p. 8).

The primary theory of romance, at odds with Hawthorne’s, is best enunciated by Henry James. The romance must ever involve “a sacrifice of community, of the ‘related sides of situations,‘” but the sacrifice must not become so flagrant that a reader’s illusion of the relation between actual and imaginary is broken. James believes, Bell says, that romance is “an art of pure (if ‘insidiously’ disguised) fantasy, which ‘more or less successfully palms off on us’ a spurious facsimile of experience, ‘disconnected and uncontrolled’ ” (p. 8). The romancer must necessarily cut the connection between actuality and imagination, but the trick, the fun of it, lies in cutting the tie without being detected. Thus the conservative theory’s moral intention opposes the primary theory’s less than moral sleight-of-hand.

We are accustomed to thinking that Hawuhorne’s definition represents his own self-conscious practice, as well as that of other romantic authors like Irving, Cooper, and Simms. But what if Hawthorne is not telling all he knows about romance? What if his definition in some way amounts to a strategy or ruse designed to conceal as much as reveal? And conceal from whom — himself and his audience which expects the safety of fictional verisimilitude, not works cut sheerly from the whole cloth of imagination? Bell argues that not Hawthorne’s but James’ definition of romance is “closest to the primary meaning of the term in British and American discourse before the Civil War” (p. 8). Indeed, Hawthorne’s conservative definition may have functioned “to obscure this primary meaning” (p. 9 ) . Bell does not specifically say so, but his language strongly suggests that Hawthorne and fellow romancers intended to hide their indulgence in fantasy, thus allowing themselves to cut the Jamesian rope connecting the everyday things of earth to the psychological balloon of experience. “In other words, in spite of the efforts of Hawthorne and others to legitimize the mode through an apologetic of moral symbolism (‘relating’ illusion to truth, the imaginary to the actual), — ‘romance’ meant, first of all, fiction as opposed to fact, the spurious and possibly dangerous as opposed to the genuine” (p. 9).

By “first of all,” Bell means preeminently. The general conception of romance held by British and American writers from the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century was “its departure from ‘truth,’ from ‘fact“’ (p. 10). Not only romance, but tales and novels might jusr as easily, and often did, share in the common distinctions drawn between invention and imitation, fancy and reason. Bell does not especially stress this point, but he will likely be charged with blurring the hackneyed generic differences between the novel and romance. His point, however, is a good one — and long overdue. Borh are fiction in contrast to fact, to actuality, to history.

No critic has ever given the accent that Bell does to a basic American distrust of fiction. A cultural distrust of imagination itself is thus the essential context for Bell’s study, and there is no shortage of evidence from prominent spokesmen. Expressions hostile ro fiction and imagination [page 34:] commonly appeared in the late colonial period and the first decades of the early National period, especially in “Puritan” New England — while Jefferson’s familiar warning to his nephew on the psychological dangers resulting from reading novels is a notable southern example of what Bell calls orthodox opinion. The position stipulated that “Rhetoric was inferior tO meaning, possibility tO actuality, stimulation ro stability, imagination to reason or judgment” (p. 12 ). An imagination given free play not only threatens an individual’s state of mind but also society’s stability and cohesion. For if imagination leads to irrationality and mental disintegration, so it leads by extension to social chaos: witness the French Revolution.

Of course, fear of imagination and hostility to the very life of fiction was not monopolized by Americans. “Still, historical circumstance and intellectual tradition conspired to make it especially acute in the new nation” (p. 11). Lacking an established tradition of fiction, not to mention the solid careers of such writers as Defoe Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, America was far more susceptible than England to Common-Sense philosophy. Philosophers of this school were welcomed by the American intelligentsia far less for whatever original warnings they made against the passionate language of imagination than for their providing a rhetoric, a terminology, for antipathetical attitudes against imagination already existing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Despite these attitudes, perhaps even because of them, a few American writers chose to write fiction, chose to indulge, that is, in the most excessive form of imagination: the romance. Because they were all more or less familiar with, if not nourished upon, the Common-Sense philosophers, and because they were indisputably aware of the “orthodox” admonition against imagination, why did they choose to write fiction, to practice romance? “Who and what,” Bell asks, “in that complex process of interaction that constitutes a whole culture, were they struggling for — and as?” (p. xiii).

They may very well have been struggling, despite themselves, against their own better judgment. Nevertheless, after Bell concludes separate chapters on Brown, Irving, and Poe, and then a chapter on Hawthorne and Melville, we see developed highly complicated approaches to imaginative expression — ones which increasingly made a claim to the reality of imagination, which raised doubts over the ability of language to express a verifiable truth beyond subjective experience, and which finally showed that imaginative, symbolic expression could relate to external reality (to culture) every bit as truthfully as, and probably more profoundly than, mimetic expression. The writers themselves were not as confident about these claims as we are. Except for Hawthorne’s possible influence on Melville, they evidently learned little from one another’s engagements with a mode of fiction that subverts the link between actuality and imagination, and Bell wisely makes no attempt to impose a factitious historical continuity upon their practice. Instead, he shows the writers’ separate confrontations with their culture’s anti-fictional prejudices. In his view, the development of American romance took place in these individual confrontations.

A brief summary of this complicated development is impossible. Bell himself cannot distill it in his introduction, [column 2:] nor in the separate prologues to the three parts of the book, nor in the first two chapters appropriately entitled “Loomings” and “Casting Off.” In light of the potential importance of this book for our understanding of Poe and his contemporaries, an extended (and, I hope, fair) hearing in these pages is in order. In it, readers will recognize the connection of Bell’s approach to Brown and Hawthorne with his own earlier work on these authors, as well as affinities between his readings of Irving and Melville and those of William Hedges and Edgar Dryden respectively. Readers will also find correspondences between Bell’s view of Poe and those of critics as diverse as Eric Carlson, G. R. Thompson, and David Halliburton, although one suspects none would fully accept Bell’s conclusions about the author. The book’s value, however, does not rest in new readings of standard texts but in its effort to recover the dynamics, both cultural and personal, of their author’s engagement with the process of writing romance in an American setting.


If the American insistence on reality (and thus mimetic writing) was as widespread as Bell holds, if this insistence grew out of a fear that to employ the imagination was to endanger psychic order and in the end social control, self-conscious practitioners of romance needed a means by which to bridge the distinctions between fantasy and reality in order to win readers’ provisional trust. The newly acquired and growing sense of national identity — coupled, one suspects, to a desire to learn more about the historical events leading to and legitimizing that identity — provided the key to just such means. “By attributing to reality itself the ‘romantic’ or ‘poetic’ qualities of subjective imagination, American writers, influenced by associationist aesthetics and by the example of Scott, attempted to bridge the chasm between fantasy and experience, fiction and fact. It is in this sense that we should understand the vogues of historical romance and romantic history” (p. 15). Such a bridge may have been duplicitous, as Bell claims, but it accounts for the emergence of a distinctive American literature in terms more sophisticated than a patriotic exploitation of native materials which until now has been the most widely accepted theory.

America might not have England’s rich, misty past, charged with poetic associations and ready-made for the romancer’s conversion, but it did have a past; and if the associations were missing or thin, why then they could be fabricated — or imported. Despite such familiar laments as Irving’s and Hawthorne’s over deficient American materials, in the long run the subject matter is far less important than the creation of the associations — the imaginative and aesthetic activity of working up the subject. Creating these associations, to be sure, clearly led to creating a national literature out of national materials, which in turn supported the conservative theory of romance, the relation of fiction and fact. At the same time, however, as long as attention focused on the materials rather than on the creative process, the primary theory of distelation was obscured. Pre-Civil War romances by Cooper, Simms, and Sedgwick, for example, were “written on the explicit or implicit assumption that the sacrifice of relation could be overcome or evaded because certain native materials were already [page 35:] imbued with ’storied and poetical associations’ or could be so imbued” (p. 21). And yet they were not so imbued as readily or as fully as they were in England or Europe which recognition (as Irving and Hawthorne maintained) could only lead to the conclusion that writing European romance was impossible in America. And if this conclusion were true, if the conservative romance linking fact and fiction could not truly be American, then perhaps the only romance possible for America was precisely the one most feared, that of disrelation.

Not many writers arrived at this awareness, or, if they did, very few accepted it or wrote in light of the challenge it posed. Most writers continued to work within essentially borrowed forms, the didactic novel of seduction and the historical romance, thus adopting the culture’s basic bias against fiction, even though their works were helping to break away from the general fear of imaginative experience. But they did not break away. No one did — with the possible exception of Poe or, on occasion, Melville. And here we get at the crux of Bell’s book:

What distinguishes Brown, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville from their less able predecessors and contemporaries is not that they overcame earlier problems bur that they faced them with far more awareness. They continually return in their fiction to doubts and questions about their medium, about the source of its power and its place in society. They most assuredly indicared a place for imagination in America, but that place was small and inconspicuous, not to say uncomfortable. What is far more important, the imagination whose place they indicated was in many respects precisely the sort of imagination against which American moralists had inveighed for nearly two centuries. (p. 29)

These writers were, in short, deviants, and their careers fit rather nicely with the four-stage model of deviant careers designed by sociologist Howard Becker. Using this model as context, Bell sets out to investigate problems central to the literary and the cultural historian. Chief among these are “How were the social or psychological dilemmas and strategies of the romancer transformed into the aesthetic dilemmas and strategies of romance? How that is to say, was the disrelation of the ‘deviant’ romancer from his ‘normal’ society transformed into the fundamental disrelation of romance as a form of literary expression — a disjunction of sincerity from artifice, of nonverbal meaning from linguistic statement, of mysterious impulse from the mask of ordered expression?” (p. 39).

Answers to these and other questions cannot be as certain for Brown and Irving as they are for Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville; and yet Bell is no less than persuasive in illustrating the ways Brown and Irving superseded their predecessors’ moral didacticism in identifying themselves by degrees with the forces of passion and imagination, of the dark (gothic) side of the mind and thus of the world itself which could not be explained by eighteenth-century rationalism but which verified warnings by conventional moralists and Common-Sense philosophers against imaginary preoccupation. Brown’s villains, for instance, are often artist figures whose behavior or tales trigger confused chains of events apparently aimed at the inadequacy of Lockean sensationalism while implying the inadequacy of a mimetic theory of art. Although confirming the duplicitous nature of fiction and thereby conventional [column 2:] fears, Brown’s artists reveal the more profound issue of the potential duplicity inherent in any form of expression, in language itself. In Wieland, “to communicate the truth, Carwin must resort to imposture, and his ‘truth’ destroys Wieland just as surely as illusion destroyed his wife and children” (p. 48).

Implications no less dangerous arise in all of Brown’s works wherein the contest between sincerity and duplicity produces chaos or raises doubts over the possibility of placing any more confidence in human nature than in the “truth of literary language” (p. 57). However rationally, pragmatically, Brown’s narratives may seem to be resolved, they are uneasy resolutions at best. A double-faced specter has been raised: the disjunction between objective reality and words, the artist as imposter or confidence man. Perhaps because he could not long stare at this specter, could not confront his own repressed fear that the province of romance is the romantic province of mind uncomfortably related or opposed to reality, Brown turned away from fiction in his last years and adopted, along with conservative politics, the orthodox theory of mimesis and rational judgment.

Like Brown, Irving spent just a few years writing fiction, really evident only in The Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall, and Tales of a Traveller, where one finds him “willing to identify himself or his various personae overtly as writers of fiction” (p. G4). While his later works occasionally included interpolated tales or legends, “the volumes themselves would appear as works of history, biography, or personal observation” ( p. 68) . During the brief period of fiction-making, however, Irving verged beyond the neutral zone of relating fact and fiction and confronted the primary theory of disrelation.

Irving’s struggle against his culture’s hostility to authorship and his desire at the same time to win approval, to gain status, and to earn gold from the very culture he had to defy, offers a case study in the neurotic condition of American writers. He is at once rebellious and guilty, full of ambition and yet alienated. Largely concurring with the orthodox fear of imagination, Irving embraces the stabilizing influence of associationist aesthetics, fiction mingled with and based upon solid reality — thus Geoffrey Crayon’s European search for objects having “storied and poetical association[s].” All the same, if Crayon is a projection of Irving’s deep need to fix upon substantial objects and avoid the error of imagination, the Nervous Gentleman narrator of “The Stout Gentleman” in Bracebridge Hall and “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman” in Tales of a Traveller “is a Geoffrey Crayon for whom associations have failed — for whom, that is, the doctrine of associationism is ceasing to fulfill its function as a displaced vocabulary, and mask, for the more frightening truth of imagination” (p. 76). Here as well as in theoretical commentary on imagination, Irving takes “a crucial step in the movement from individual neurosis to the disrelation of romance” (p. 72).

In his best fiction, Irving becomes aware that disrelation defines the psychological territory which is romance, and this awareness is clearly witnessed in the masks and personae, in the gothic ambiguity, Irving adopts in such tales as “The Adventure of My Uncle” and “Adventure of a German Student.” These tales, obvious burlesques of [page 36:] Radcliffean gothic, force the reader to shift attention from the supernatural to the psychological — “to a consideration of the irrational or duplicitous motives of characters and narrators” (p. 81) — and suggest that Irving is fully conscious of the duplicity of fiction itself. He does not explore the motives behind irrationality and duplicity, does not explore, in other words, the basis of narrative appeal. He does, however, in such a tale as “The Story of a Young Italian,” reveal “the fragile complicity between artist and audience, narrator and reader, in the imaginary indulgence of romance,” and he “traces this imaginative complicity, finally, to those unconscious ‘mysteries in our nature,’ those ‘inscrutable impulses and influences,’ behind the serene mask of rational aesthetic discourse” ( p. 84) . Having verged this far into the disrelation of fact and fiction, Irving pulled back, perhaps afraid to probe further into human nature or imagination; and so he turned in his last years to history and biography, wondering at first if readers of judgment would believe he could tell the truth after his stint of fiction-making. “Irving had made the unreliability of historical ‘reality’ the prime object of satire in Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), but it was to the role of historian that he fled, after 1824, for the security of ‘relation‘” (p. 65).

If Poe needed the security of relation, it is not immediately apparent in his works, although we can often see in the psychological disorders of his heroes the degree to which he at once reflected and defied his culture’s bias against the imagination. Bell insists on placing Poe in a social context, not only, it would seem, to subvert the general impression that Poe was utterly anomalous to his time and contemporaries, but also to see in his defiant commitment to imagination just how radically connected he was to society, thus becoming the singular, rather heroic, transition figure in the development of American romance. Both in practice and (pointedly, self-consciously) in theory, Poe advocated the autonomy of imagination and art — welcomed, in fine, without the least hesitation, the deviant career of romancer:

In Poe’s fiction the relation between imagination and reality, fantasy and judgment, artist and society, is as problematic and ambiguous as in the works of Brown and Irving, but in his criticism he gives a newly explicit prominence and urgency to the relation between the work of art itself — the product of imagination, the deliberately ‘phenomenal’ structure of words and images — and the judgment or reality of the reader. By the sheer pressure of his insistence on the craft of fiction he moved the debate between imagination and reality away from considerations of insanity or immorality — whatever the thematic importance of such concerns in his tales — to the central problem of experimental romance: the dissociation of artifice and meaning, “effect” and intention, rhetoric and motive. What is the relation, his works continually demand, between the romancer’s words and the reader’s world? Or between the romancer’s words and the noumenal imaginative energy they seem simultaneously to communicate and conceal? What is the status of the language of romance? ( p. 89 )

To get at these latter questions, Bell undertakes an analysis of Poe’s life-long debate over the Coleridgean distinctions between fancy and imagination, a debate having important if often ignored links to the wide-spread interest in spiritualism during Poe’s day. For Poe, neither fancy nor imagination creates in any ultimate sense, both are involved with combining what is already known. The [column 2:] difference lies in the fancy’s failure to achieve the “ideal,” which term means (and here Poe borrows A. W. Schlegel’s definition of “mystic”) a suggested or submerged meaning lying beneath the surface of apparent meaning. Unlike his contemporaries, Poe has little interest in a mystic experience but has great interest in the techniques producing a mystical or spiritual effect. The definition of “spiritual,” as Poe wrote in comments on Tennyson in 1844, “is not its relation to another world but its vagueness, its lack of apparent relation to anything in our own.” Hence we see Poe the romancer, cutting “with a vengeance” the Jamesian cable connecting actuality and imagination. (pp. 93-94).

And there is a further cut: a crucial one between sentiments and words. Poe’s mystical, spiritual aesthetic rested on uncertain grounds philosophically, and no one was more troubled over it than Poe himself. The consequence, in Bell’s view, was a rejection of spirituality altogether. “By 1845 the mechanistic ‘unity of effect,’ celebrated in the 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, had replaced the earlier imagination of mystic insight” (p. 94). Spirituality, Poe said to Lowell in 1844, is “‘a mere word‘” (p. 94). Only matter and combinations of matter exist. “Thus inexorably did his investigation of ’spirit’ lead him to matter, and his investigation of ‘imagination to language — ‘mere words.’ Beginning with Romanticism’s promise of integration and relation, Poe’s philosophy drove him back to the rigid dualism of Common-Sense thought” (pp. 94-95) .

Given Poe’s materialism, if there were such things as spirit or soul — however inexpressible or impossible to conceive — they had to depend on, yet ultimately be disconnected from, the physical world, from sensual being. Thus Poe’s rationale for concentrating on death and the grave, not to mention the possible rationalization for repressing his own sensual fears. Poe was, however, no different than many spiritualists in his culture who, as Hawthorne thought, confused the “‘celestial soul‘” with the “‘earthly corpse.‘” Since they really didn‘t know what spirit was, they could find it, imagine it, only in physical death, the final “effect” (pp. 97, 99).

What distinguishes [Poe] is not his antisensual conception of the spiritual but the sensual extremes to which he took it. He pushed the denial of flesh beyond mere prudery to aaual mortification, murder, and suicide. The essential Poe fable, however elaborately the impulse may be displaced or projected onto a double or a lover, is a tale of compulsive self-murder. For Poe, in the last analysis, the soul was ‘elevated’ in art by the vicarious experience of the body’s destruction. Poe may be extreme, bur behind his critical ideas and tales one always finds the compulsions of his culture (p. 99).

We arrive, not quite finally, at the issue of what some commentators have seen as Poe’s confusion over the nature of spirit, which Bell approaches in terms of Poe’s theory of intended “effects” and the verbal artifice producing such effects. For Bell, Poe’s works are neither as vulnerable to the charge of obscurantism as his detractors have charged nor as “pure” (autonomously self-contained) as his defenders have supposed. Poe’s tales are certainly vague, seemingly unrelated to the world we generally know; but they are vague by design and not as unrelated or meaningless as they first appear. In his use of “Arabesque” and “Grotesque,” Poe found linguistic means by [page 37:] which he could, in the first instance, vaguely hint at spirit or the ideal, and, in the second, create a secondary or suggestive level of meaning. If Poe’s indefinitive arabesque imagery and symbols are meant to conceal specific meaning or to suppress fears better left hidden, his grotesque imagery serves to penetrate pure linguistic masks and reveal the contamination behind them. Meanings, relations between artifice and reality, are available as long as readers do not conspire with Poe’s narrators who deliberately or unconsciously refuse to see, to name, the implications of their own tales. “What must be recognized is that obscurantist displacement is both the medium and the subject of Poe’s arabesques . . . . Far more explicitly than Brown or Irving, Poe recognized and exploited the congruence between the dissociation of neurotic repression — severing conscious ‘purity’ from unconscious fantasy — and the romance’s sacrifice of relation — severing ‘words’ from ’sentiments‘” (p. 111) .

Poe’s narrators (and finally Poe himself, we come to see) believe in the power of mere words. They believe in them so much that they repeatedly pull back and declare that language will not express their thoughts. While these admissions of linguistic impotence suggest that even though ideal beauty is nonlinguistic its effect can be produced by “divorcing words from fixed meanings,” we perceive that these narrators have their sights fixed less on beauty than on forbidden feelings their indefinitive language is meant to conceal. They are far more comfortable than they let on with a world of words which can be manipulated to purpose. “The real terror is not that words will fail to communicate the feelings they hide but that they may succeed and in succeeding reveal the personal guilt behind the quasi-religious Romantic rationale” ( p. 114). Thus, for example, “‘Ligeia’ is a fictional enactment of the fullest power of words — the power to make real and present an ‘impossible conception.’ The narrator’s horror at his success suggests, however, that his incantatory repetition of Ligeia’s name has been meant as much to subdue as to summon her spirit” (p. 115).

What, one might ask, does the connection between language and feeling have to do with the romance which inherently involves their disconnection? Bell’s answer: nothing. While Poe probably turned to romance for the “dissociation of rational discourse and irrational impulse” which “promised a kind of objective correlative for unresolved personal conflicts,” the fictions show auain and again the betrayal of this promise. “Feelings enter the medium of conscious thought, in Poe’s tales, only through displacement and sublimation — as symbols. Repression and expression do not fuse in his criticism or his fiction into a coherent, unitary aesthetic theory. . . . Verbal artifice destroys feeling only to be destroyed, in its turn, by what it has suppressed” (p. 117).

All of which, it would seem, ultimately places Poe in the odd position of being consciously unconscious ( supremely so) of the relation between words and sentiments, romance and reality. Eschewing the power of words to name reality on the one hand, Poe delves deeper and deeper, through his first person narrators, into the depths of his own mind until he arrives at his deepest fears and fantasies, and then withdraws, now apparently suspicious on the other hand that words may indeed be able to name what he really [column 2:] does not want to know. Disrelation, the impotence of language, seems safe, as does Poe’s theory. Only we see otherwise. Behind the mask of language are realities still available to language if one wants to push far enough. Poe and Poe’s society pulled away from acknowledging the double world of phenomena and noumena. To cross from one to the other was to cross into madness.

Hawthorne and Melville do acknowledge the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, the possible link between them, and even, to a certain extent, the access to the noumenal by means of language. Whether through allegory or symbolism, both writers seem intent on recovering “the noumenal energy in phenomenal order. Which is to say that for Melville, as much as for Hawthorne, the sacrifice of relation becomes a matter for overt narrative comment and inquiry” (p. 130). Hawthorne and Melville both take it for granted that the sacrifice is the province of romance, just as much as they take for granted their deviant role as artist-romancers ( although they do not accept that role as thoroughly as Poe and even set up smoke screens — Hawthorne more than Melville — to obscure their practice ) .

A writer as disposed to allegory as Hawthorne is mighr initially seem unrelated to the hidden impulses inherent in romance. Yet the safe and convenient abstract notions to which his allegories point are hardly Hawthorne’s own. They are invariably his characters‘. To Bell, that is what cripples them, that is their Unpardonable Sin, their allegorical habit of mind: Parson Hooper, Goodman Brown, Alymer, Owen Warland. While Hawthorne works in an allegorical mode embodying ideas already verbalized, he also intends to get at “subjective, nonrational, nonverbal levels of experience“ — the province of the romancer. Ambiguity, even confusion, results. But the confusion is never Hawthorne’s, not until after The Scarlet Letter at least. His allegorical meanings are always clear. “Yet these abstract meanings are themselves symbols, for behind them is another set of meanings — not abstract but vague, nonverbal rather than verbal. In short, allegorical meanings, abstract notions, serve essentially the same function for Hawthorne’s characters that arabesque obscurity serves for Poe’s: they are the veil by whose means the inexpressible is both masked and shadowed forth” (p. 140). We therefore might conclude that “the form of the sacrifice of relation, in Hawthorne’s fiction, is the dissociation of mode and intention” (p. 140).

Was Hawthorne, then, less an allegorist rhan a symbolisr; and if so, what is the relation of symbolism and romance, if indeed the terms are not synonymous? Bell holds that Hawthorne’s works are likely more symbolical than allegorical (at least in intention). But the real symbolist, the one who most decidedly opens the romance to symbolist intentions, is Melville. For it is Melville who openly challenged the conventional Common-Sense distinction between imagination and reality. As his spokesman puts it in Mard’: “Truth is in things, and not in words: truth is voiceless. . . . And I, Babbalanja, assert, that what are vulgarly called fictions are as much realities as the gross mattock of Dididi, the digger of trenches; for things visible are but conceits of the eye: things imaginative, conceits of the fancy. If duped by one, we are equally duped by the other.” [page 38:]

To cast off cables and voyage chartless into the world of mind is to discover that symbols, fictions, “are as much realities as gross matter precisely because gross matter is not real”; “‘reality,’ rather, is a species of romance” (p. 145). The one is as potentially duplicitous as the other. What therefore is Truth if fiction is true and nothing is truer than fiction? Truth eludes us, and “silence,” says the narrator of Pierre, “is the Voice of our God.” Hence Melville’s disillusionment and flirtation with nihilism. Early in his career, in the famous Mosses review, he defined fiction as “the great Art of Telling the Truth.” Yet in Mardi and Moby Dick, and “especially from Pierre on, there runs an elaborate demonstration of the dangers of fiction and imagination every bit as urgent as the warnings sounded by American moralists in the decades before Melville’s birth” (pp. 147-148). Melville, however, pushes even farther in clinging to his logic. Objects of normal perception were as lacking in truth and thus as open to indictment as imagination: “‘All visible objects,’ Ahab preaches to Starbuck, ‘are but as pasteboard masks.’ When it learned to exploit the perception that ‘reality’ itself is a fiction, American romance came at last to maturity. Hawthorne arrived at this perception by exploring the psychological and social duplicity of allegorical thinking. Melville reached the same point by attempting to act out, literally and sincerely, the imperatives of symbolism” (p. 148).

In arriving at this perception, though, neither Hawthorne nor Melville ever equated reality and imagination. In Bell’s view, they were not, rhat is, thorough-going Coleridgean romantics. “Indeed, had imagination and reality been the same thing, or aspects of the same thing, there would have been no cable to cut, no relation to sacrifice” (p. 154). In other words, they could not have been romancers as Bell defines them. Some distinction between imagination and reality must somehow prevail or there can be no romance, even if reality is considered a species of fiction. For Bell, the greatness of Hawthorne and Melville lies in their accepting this distinction as the condition of romance, accepting that “the dissociation of symbol or language from meaning” is “the condition of life itself, whether in the form of Nature’s ‘cunning alphabet’ or in the form of man’s ‘unconscious self-deceptions‘” (p. 155). In their writing romance and writing about romance, Hawthorne and Melville come at last ro write about life. Ultimately there is a link — which brings us to the ingenious paradox of Bell’s thesis: “In the sacrifice of relation, in casting off all cables, romance oddly enough found the very relation it sacrificed” (p. 155). It must then be obvious that while Hawthorne and Melville may reveal the last gasps of romanticism they by no means register the “twilighr of romance” as Perry Miller believed; rather, they establish the tradition of American romance: the use of “the dissociated world of romance, its ‘world of words,’ ro scrutinize the world of their contemporary American culture” (p. 155).


In his last two chapters, Bell shifts his attention m Melville and Hawthorne’s scrutiny of culture. Whereas the [column 2:] first six chapters focus on “the sociological connection between writer and society,” the last ones “explore a more explicitly literary connection, in the works of literature, between social vision and criticism, on the one hand, and fictional theory and practice, on the other” (p. 160). Avowedly abstract, this exploration is not meant to suggest a general connection between American culture and the literary form of the romance; but it does intend to demonstrate that Hawthorne and Melville’s “self-conscious investigation of literary expression . . . is often simultaneously an investigation of the nature and meaning of ‘America‘” (p. 160). Bell’s purpose is pointedly not to supplement but to qualify and substantially reverse Perry Miller’s equation of the development of romance form with the growth of American nationalism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Only in so far as the romance brought together American history and scenery to create poetic effects can it be seen as responding to the call for a distinctive national literature. Perhaps the work of Cooper and Simms, or their lesser imitators, would largely fall into this category. Bell does not say. He does say that the romance as a developing literary mode shows preoccupations transcending narrow interests in American history and Geography. As developed by the writers in his study, the romance’s “‘philosophical doctrine’ grew, not out of self-conscious nationalism, but out of a set of ingrained assumptions about the nature and status of romance and romancers in a society hostile to both” (p. 161).

These assumptions involve and have their origins in a “revolutionary impulse” dating back to the Puritan overthrow of formalism and gaining legitimacy in the self-evident truths enumerated by Jefferson. Sincerity (“the great Art of Telling the Truth,”) thus lies at the root. And Emerson’s “The American Scholar” probably gives this spirit its fullest expression. If we consider in conjunction the growth of romantic spiritualism during the early national period — that is, the shift from phenomenal appearances to noumenal essences — then we can understand how the idea of America (the revolutionary truth) came to share some identity with the deep, nonverbal truth of romance. The revolutionary truth of America may indeed have provided the ultimate justification for the romancers’ deviant fiction-making.

This is not to say that romancers proclaimed the connection between revolution and romance. Brown barely touched on the revolution; Irving evaded it; Poe ignored it altogether. Hawthorne and Melville saw the connection but were scarcely ready to herald it. “The deepest ‘revolutionary’ imperatives, as they understood them, were not beatific but antisocial, irrational, and violent” (p. 166)

If the truth of human nature is based upon revolutionary impulses, then these impulses have to be managed, just as the deeper truths of romance have to be managed, in forms of hints and clues, or in a variety of rhetorical devices designed to conceal as much as reveal.

Bell analyzes how Hawthorne and Melville were more or less attracted to and then disenchanted with the revolutionary spirit of America. The analyses cover most of their major works and are too detailed to present here. A few of Bell’s major points, however, can be indicated. In keeping with his earlier book, Bell argues that Hawthorne charts the steady decline of revolutionary spirit in his New [page 39:] England tales, despite rekindled flashes of the founding fathers’ spirit appearing in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As long as he dealt with the past, Hawthorne could parallel the demise or sacrifice of this spirit with the sacrifice of relation in romance. The Scarlet Letter shows the finest culmination of this analogous sacrifice. The tension between ordered expression and symbolic suggestion, along with other tensions inherent in romance, results in a vital ambiguity between fact and fiction. When Hawthorne turned to the contemporary scene in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, he had less to sacrifice. The distance being closed between past and present, fact and fiction, results in a loss of tension and an utter confusion between them. Only ambiguity remains. Bell does nor think it coincidental that in these two works Hawthorne shows the death of American revolutionary spirit while also recording the failure of romance. There are no relations to cut.

As for Melville’s works — at least in all the sea novels excepting Moby-Dick — Bell argues that American revolutionary spirit ( buried aggression ) becomes rather transparently masked by revolutionary rhetoric. Words, that is, become a substitute for truth and sincerity, undermining (or nearly so) the very essence of literature as Melville saw it. Violence and rebellion ( both Melville’s and his characters’) are managed through “repressive evasion, guilty self-destruction, or — increasingly — a curious sort of passive enervation” (p. 213). In Moby-Dick, though, Ishmael (perhaps Melville, too) is able ro project his own violent impulses onto Ahab’s “allegorical exploitation” of the whale, thereby acquiring a distance from overt, cataclysmic violence (p. 219). Thus Ishmael displaces. But it is crucial to bear in mind that he is “a writer, an artist. Or perhaps we should say that it is in the very process of displacement, rather than in revolutionary promptings themselves, that he finds the key to his utterance. He survives because he accepts, and even implicitly advertises, the sacrifice of the relation between his promptings and his utterance” (p. 222). The connection to Bell’s thesis on romance is clear: as long as Melville wrote about the sea, he was able to maintain distinctions between fact and fiction, the phenomenal and noumenal. Much like Hawthorne, however, when he shifted to the contemporary scene in Pierre and The Confidence-Man, those distinctions become completely blurred. Especially in the latter work, we find no displaced revolutionary spirit, but worse, no imaginative promptings — only phenomenal mystery, virtually impossible to decipher. No meaning. Just mere words, as Poe would say.

The key virtues of The Development of American Romance spring from the persuasiveness and clarity of its complex thesis and, throughout, from the lucid exposition and integration of its multiple parts. When Bell undertakes separate readings of the artists’ works, the reader encounters focused exposition, not thesis-riding: there is no violence committed on any of the texts that I can see. Indeed, prior criticism makes us very nearly familiar with most of Bell’s views on individual works, as he amply acknowledges in the notes.

The wonder is that no one has written this book before. It gives us the sense that Emerson thought only the best books can give: that we ourselves might have written [column 2:] it, because its originality exposes less of what is new than old, what we may have been suspecting was true all along but could never quite articulate. A few of Bell’s leading ideas have been available for a long time. Chase, for example, cites the same passages from Hawthorne, Melville, and James that Bell does to help define American romance. But Chase’s probable error (and that of his followers) is in thinking of the romance as an American “form,” opposed to the English novel, as if somehow literature lends itself by genre to cultural differences. Bell does nor make this mistake. He does not treat the romance as a form, but as a process, a technique, an approach to material, even an experience — as James said it was. Thus the romance as a form is dissociated from national identity, while the romance as an artistic process issues out of and reflects on cultural traits. The difference is enormous and will no doubt become the disputed issue in future discussions of Bell’s work.

Just as Chase’s study became seminal for the last several decades, so Bell’s will become the source for renewed study of romance for the decades to come. Should his Conservative and Primary categories of romance become accepted terminology, we will want to know how the works of Cooper, Simms, and Sedgwick, for instance, relate to these concepts. Bell suggests that all three more than flirted with the Primary theory of romance, bur he does not satisfactorily explain their relation to the writers he studies, nor does he account for why he dismisses them. We will also want to know how the tradition of Primary romance as it culminates in Hawthorne and Melville relates to writers after the Civil War — especially, I should think, to Twain, Crane, and James. And more than them too. For Bell claims that the Primary theory of romance is the tradition of American fiction, after the experimental phase which ends with Melville. If so, a number of books will be required to explore how the evolving strategies of writers relate to the evolving cultural circumstances in American history. We will be doubly fortunate should future investigations match this exemplary study by Michael Davitt Bell.


1 - See Lionel Trilling, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Scribner’s, 1976); Roy Harvey Pearce, “Hawthorne and the Twilight of Romance,” Yale Review, 37 (1948), 487-506; Perry Miller, “The Romance and the Novel” in Nature’s Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967); Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1957); Daniel Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York: Norton, 1973); Joel Porte, The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969); Nicolaus Mills, American and English Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: An Antigenre Critique and Comparison (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1973); and Robert Merrill, “Another Look at the American Romance,‘’ Modern Philology, 78 (May 1981), 379-392.

2 - Bell pays special debts to John Caldwell Stubbs, The Pursuit of Form: A Study of Hawthorne and the Romance (Urbana: Univ. Of Illinois Press, 1970), and Richard H Brodhead, Hawthorne Melville, and the Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973).


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]