Letter investigates the impact of the present in early historical fictions and how that present is manifested in the elaborate allegorical structures of the first popular novels to emerge after the War of 1812. Specifically, the figure of the suffering Revolutionary soldier, central to both James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy and John Neal's Seventy-Six, serves as a contemporary allegorical expression of historical change, a figure best explained by Walter Benjamin's definition of the allegorical ruin. The suffering soldier complicates national origins and resists narrative closure. As a literary figuration, this soldier represents a disruptive discourse in the early nation, one that contradicts master narratives of progress and national destiny. Thus, the suffering soldier complicates criticisms of early popular novels by suggesting a highly complex cultural function for the genre. Presentism as an early national orientation suggests an alternative to historical progressivism and antiquarianism, both of which depend on linear approaches to the study of early U.S. culture and literary history. Cooper, when read alongside his contemporary Neal, reveals a deeply conflicted temporal sensibility, one as much concerned with past losses as it is hopeful of future gain. Historical allegories, because they articulate between past and present, offer an important discursive frame for studying the emerging significance of novels in early national culture.
Joseph J. Letter; Past Presentisms: Suffering Soldiers, Benjaminian Ruins, and the Discursive Foundations of Early U.S. Historical Novels. American Literature 1 March 2010; 82 (1): 29–55. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2009-068
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