Nineteenth-Century American Fiction

House of Mirth Poster

The initial reception of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905) was mixed. Hailed as a masterpiece by New York and Boston critics, the novel was read as emblematic of a larger threat to Christianity by critics in southern cities like Charleston and Biloxi.

In this course, we will consider the rise of fiction across the long nineteenth century. In particular, we will consider the structural transformations — from new printing techniques to copyright enforcement — that enabled the rise of authorship in US culture. Students will also master research techniques that enable them to engage texts in historical context. We will read advertisements, reviews, letters, diaries, and publishers’s records. In short, our goal will be to consider “fiction” not as a fully legible category of literary endeavor, but as a contested and continually transforming discourse.

Ultimately, I will ask each student to weigh in. Students will:

1.) Choose one of the texts from our syllabus.

2.) Begin by writing a short reception history of the text, examining primary sources to discover whether, how, and among whom it became popular.

3.) Then, using this research, students will write a final essay. This essay will bring together original research into primary sources, a close engagement with scholarly sources, and a formal examination of the literary text in question.

Students will meet with me for extensive one-on-one feedback at each stage of this semester-long project.