My dissertation, “Reviewing the Purpose Novel: Reception, Social Reform, and the Limits of Persuasion in Turn-of-the-Century American Fiction,” recovered an understudied category of nineteenth-century American fiction and revealed the role reviewers played in shaping the relationship between novels and public opinion at the turn of the century. My research demonstrated that reviewers recognized and responded to a variety of works as “purpose” novels (which I define as fictions motivated by a desire to provoke social change), but then reacted in ways that undermined the novels’ persuasive power. Drawing from a wide range of periodical and archival material, I used thoroughly contextualized accounts of each novel’s publication history and reception to show the ways reviewers established generic expectations, defined audiences, and encouraged affective responses that deflected the novel’s intended social criticism.
For example, as an attempt to influence readers’ racial attitudes, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition was not hampered by its “bitter” tone, as scholars following a famous assessment by William Dean Howells have asserted. Instead, most northern reviewers responded favorably to Chesnutt’s novel, but they did so in ways that released their own readers from any obligation to reflect on and change their own racial attitudes, instead placing the responsibility for addressing Chesnutt’s criticisms on geographically or ideologically removed reading publics. Reviewers used the language of local color to gender and minimize Mary Wilkins Freeman’s purpose novel, The Portion of Labor, and to imply that Freeman was incapable of addressing political issues. While reviews published in monthly magazines described Frank Norris’s The Octopus as epic in scope, newspaper reviewers addressed the book as a purpose novel and faulted it for failing to meet their generic expectations. And although Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is often cited as a purpose novel that achieved legislative success, the disgust reviewers experienced when reading about the slaughterhouse colored their other responses as well, leaving them unwilling to react sympathetically to the book’s depiction of poverty and labor abuses. In the case of each of these novels, the lens of the purpose novel makes available readings that challenge scholarly interpretations that view realism, naturalism, and regionalism as the most salient (as well as the most critically worthy) features of the late-nineteenth-century generic landscape.