Howard’s essay argues for the significance of antebellum evangelical tract tales both as precedents for later best-selling works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and as provocations to consider our critical understandings of literariness. Tract tales belonged to a moment in which discourses of literary aesthetics were bound to a set of questions about whether meaning derived from God, language, or man. The literary was not a mark of the secular, understood as the absence of spiritual concerns, but part of a process of thinking about the relationship of individual will to moral law, biblical precepts, and history. Howard follows the development of ideas about literariness in the antebellum evangelical context by first tracing their roots in a Puritan tradition of representing divine things in language and a Scottish aesthetic tradition that deemed such representations useful. Both of these traditions allowed for a gap between the practical use of language and theories about its significance. It was in this gap that the tract tales emerged—within a cultural context still suspicious of fiction—as representations of what divine truths looked like when lived in the modern world. The essay demonstrates how tales used the developing forms of plot and dialogue to argue for biblical precepts by reading several shorter works as well as Helen Cross Knight’s 1846 tract tale Robert Dawson; or, The Brave Spirit. In closing, Howard considers the formal analogies between this work and the century’s best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
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Kathleen Howard; Tract Tales, Literary Aesthetics, and American Fiction. American Literature 1 September 2014; 86 (3): 463–492. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2717380
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