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Theories of the American Novel

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Organizer: Alex Moskowitz

Co-Organizer: Ben Bascom

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This seminar will explore what might be considered the coherence and incoherence of “the American novel.” We intentionally use scare quotes around that phrase to draw attention and elicit doubt around its critical relevance or irrelevance. What does the adjective American do to the aesthetic object novel? How do these terms qualify or clarify one another in particular and/or recognizable ways? And how might accounts of the American novel present us with a more material understanding of its forms, its limits, and its specific modes of thinking and engaging in social worlds? Novel studies has historically been dominated by a focus on the British tradition, with the novel as an English-language form of art burgeoning in the British eighteenth century. To be sure, in the early American context the novel was socially and morally suspect for a variety of reasons. Yet some of the most important interventions in the form come from the U.S. through texts such as Melville’s Moby-Dick and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her composite companion A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Moby-Dick asks us to consider if there is anything that the novel couldn’t contain, while Uncle Tom’s Cabin asks us how the novel should participate in and attempt to affect real social change. We are interested in this divide. What type of art form is the novel? And how could a form of art be so capacious and yet still remain coherent?

This seminar will think about the form of the novel in the American context, broadly construed. We are interested in papers that consider how the novel in the American context responds to, critiques, and reimagines the political and social world out of which it emerged. Additionally, we want to investigate how theories of the American novel must take into account the other literary genres with which it has circulated and its material proximities to related and unrelated forms: how, for example, the popularity of something like the slave narrative interacts with the form of the novel. Rather than only a literary commentary on the social contexts in which American novels were written, a number of these texts hoped to directly intervene in those contexts, and had to directly contend with the vibrant world of social activism, especially in the nineteenth century.

We welcome readings of texts as well as critically informed reflections on how our practices of reading might shift, change, or have to adapt to the novel in the American context.

Potential topics:
-The (early) African American novelistic tradition
-The sentimental novel, politics, and aesthetics
-The novel and social change
-The novel vs. traditions of oration, the essay, etc.
-The uses and abuses of the American novel
-Weird American novels (Norris’s McTeague or Brown’s Wieland)
-“Bad” novels
-Science, empiricism, and the novel
-Circulation, advertising, and the commercial world of publishing

Feel free to contact us with informal inquiries or to think through submissions!

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