American fiction in the nineteenth century: An appraisal [Archives:2003/674/Education]

October 6 2003

By Dr. Bashar Ghazi Askar
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American fiction is known as romance. In this sense, one may understand that a romance represents an avoidance of reality, a dependence on fantasy, imagination, sentiment or even melodrama. However, American romance is not escapism from the realities of life. It is a romance oriented to the American pattern, style and life. The standards of romance are very much like those of an epic.
Romance is an individualistic movement with revolutionary implications. Man can achieve happiness and virtue through the spontaneous expression of his desires and by living close to nature. In its form and pattern, American romance has assumed the pattern of a journey and isolation. The journey is used to represent self-discovery, adventure and fantasy. The writer can turn a simple journey into a universal journey. The journey is circular with universality and exclusiveness.
In the traditional novel, the writer tends to resolve the contradictions of the society. The characters are more important than action and plot. In the traditional novel the characters are related to their social class and even to their past whereas American romances are free to render reality in less volume and detail and actions seem to be more important and free in these romances.
The 19th century fiction deals with themes in social terms, the contemporary fiction is concerned with the world of man's personal and metaphysical relations. The 19th century writer was trying to project an ideal and his search was derived from his hope and experiences to be free from all types of restrictions. In fact, it was a search for a national American identity. It was a search to be free from all old beliefs and forms. The protagonist in the traditional novel was in conflict with society whereas the protagonist in American novel was in conflict with himself. Myth and folklore contributed a lot to the development of romance. Myth and folklore came with the arrival of the new settlers. One can notice them in the writings of Hawthorne, Melville and Mark Twain.
These writers regarded civilization as corrupt. They realized that the simple and the primitive people are closer to nature than the civilized people. The spirit of the century was characterized by too much individualism, self-reliance which seem to result in isolation, alienation, pride and sin. The century also witnessed a drift toward more freedom, human rights, and fraternity. American democracy was well represented in the saying of Emerson,” Let man stand alone, go alone and possess the universe.” In this respect, the ideal man is the free man who moves around in search of his goals. However, all these democratic principles of equality, justice, human rights and fraternity were in a state of conflict for the Americans refused to share all these privileges with the Negroes, Red Indians and other minorities. The nineteenth century was thus the century of experimentation in the true sense of the term.