In an 1891 article speculating on the future of literature for the Columbus Enquirer, Augusta Evans Wilson, author of the 1866 bestseller St. Elmo, ponderously declared of the novel of the twentieth century, “It Will Have a Purpose.” Wilson’s essay predicted the continued rise of the genre known in the nineteenth century as the purpose novel, an understudied but commercially popular category of fiction characterized by a desire to promote social, political or economic change. Although the genre has received relatively little critical consideration from present-day scholars, the purpose novel was big business in the second half of the nineteenth century, and garnered considerable attention, both positive and negative, from critics and book reviewers. The archive of nineteenth-century criticism about the purpose novel reveals a sustained and complex conversation about how to evaluate novels that sought to directly affect present-day social or political circumstances.
“Novels of the Present: History, Scale and Critique in the American Purpose Novel” examines the responses of readers who took seriously the idea that a novel can and should be evaluated by its effect on its moment of publication. I argue that the generic expectations and reading mode associated with the purpose novel encouraged readers to see the fictional world of the novel as closely connected to their own historical world. This close connection between the reader’s time and the novel’s created a set of generic expectations rather different from those assumed by many narrative theorists. In relying on verifiable references and topical issues, purpose novels suggested that fiction, far from constituting a distinctive or separate imaginative sphere, could function as an active participant in the ongoing process to determine which as-yet-unresolved contemporary issues should be understood as significant to a large-scale historical narrative, rather than simply as ephemeral news of the day. “Novels of the Present” examines this relationship between fictional modes and historical understanding by applying methods of reception study, network analysis and close reading to reviewers’ responses to the purpose novel, demonstrating that a hybrid approach to reception data produces new insights into the way genre conventions function within public discourse.
I apply this method to a large corpus of purpose-novel criticism and reviews from 1870-1902 alongside four turn-of-the-century purpose novels (Frank Norris’s The Octopus, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, Mary Wilkins Freeman’s The Portion of Labor, and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods). The method requires both close and distant reading. In addition to traditional historicist and reception study, I use network visualization software to map the literary reference networks in the corpus of purpose novel reviews to show that critics constructed the genre of the purpose novel associatively and inductively, building an understanding of the genre not through descriptions of formal characteristics, but rather through a complex web of references to related novels and authors. I conclude by demonstrating the portability of this approach by using it to interpret the extremely popular twenty-first century genre of dystopian fiction, a genre that can be understood as a descendent of the purpose novel in its present-focused, historically verifiable mode of writing and its concern with the double scale of the immediate present and a longer arc of history.
In addition to recovering the alternate sense of historicity and scale that characterize the purpose novel, my reception analysis also shows the forces that limited the purpose novel’s effectiveness within public debate. Although the idea of the purpose novel played an important role in critics’ and reviewers’ notions about what a novel might accomplish, “Novels of the Present” demonstrates that nineteenth-century reviewers responded to individual purpose novels in ways that tended to diminish, rather than amplify, critical examination of the social or political actions promoted by the novels. But while reviewers may have chafed against purpose novels’ advocacy on specific issues, they engaged with the novels’ attempts at historical narration, so that the most influential work such books may have done lay in their ability to suggest ways of understanding the history of the present. Like the novels it analyzes, “Novels of the Present” both examines and thematizes questions of scale, arguing that novels that aim to change readers’ minds about their own historical moment and the systemic social, political and economic issues that affect them must themselves be considered on both a large and a small critical scale. “Novels of the Present” combines analysis of genre construction on the level of individual novels, close readings of purpose-novel reviews, and distant readings of a large corpus of such reviews to show that texts like the purpose novel, whose persuasive aims are inextricably linked to their present moment—and thus their initial reception—require a hybrid methodology that dilates in and out from textually focused close reading to historicized contextual analysis to large-scale visualizations of reception networks. In applying this method to both nineteenth- and twenty-first-century fiction, “Novels of the Present” argues that the modes by which nineteenth-century novelists engaged with public issues can help us understand the literary marketplace of the twenty-first century.