Amanda Claybaugh. The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007. ISBN: 9780801444807. Price: US$45.00.[Record]

  • Daniel Siegel

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  • Daniel Siegel
    University of Alabama at Birmingham

In The Novel of Purpose, Amanda Claybaugh offers a highly inventive account of the reformist origins of Anglo-American realism. According to Claybaugh, the cultural preoccupation with social reform both authorized and limited the creative scope of roughly three generations of British and American novelists; as she puts it, “Realism emerged by struggling against and learning from reformist writings, while the status of the novel and of the novelist were secured by the prestige of reform” (51). Claybaugh posits a genetic history in which early nineteenth-century novelists in Britain and the United States, bringing to bear the methods of verisimilitude that had developed in the previous century, began to take on reformist purposes, advocating projects such as temperance, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. As the century progressed, the novel moved away from its specific reformist agenda but continued to propagate the idea that novels ought to intervene in the contemporary world, an idea that fed a distinctively Anglo-American form of realism. Whereas continental novelists pursued ethically neutral representations of the world “as it is,” British and American writers created a “purposeful realism” which imagined the world as it should be. Throughout the century, Claybaugh argues, the novel of purpose dominated the literary marketplace; while critics might object to a novelist’s particular purposes, few disputed the necessity of writing with a purpose. As a consequence, many writers who had no real reformist intentions ended up engaging with questions of reform. She gives the example of Elizabeth Stoddard, who admitted that she was willing to write “religious lies for Sunday School publishing houses” (49). Importantly, then, the relationship between realism and reform was not the expression of a coherent political or epistemological disposition; rather, the pervasiveness of reformist writing caused it to get “caught up in the consolidation of Anglo-American realism” (45). Much of the book’s nuance comes from its focus on writers who had a mixed relationship to the conventional social reform movements, writers whom Claybaugh dubs “reluctant reformers.” In their novels, “reformist subject matter is . . . put to nonreformist uses”; their relation to reform is “strategic rather than committed” (33–34). This is an important insight, one that keeps reform at the center of Claybaugh’s reading of nineteenth-century realism without denying or bracketing the other competing imperatives that belonged to the novel. In fact, Claybaugh’s main interest seems to be in the way that reformist writing becomes subordinate to those other imperatives. And yet the uses of reform vary widely from one novelist to the next. Just a handful of examples among many: Dickens uses reformist narratives in Pickwick as a way of transforming the novel from picaresque fantasy to verisimilitude, and yet he also sees the logic of the temperance narrative as implying an individualizing account of poverty that he wishes to disclaim. Anne Brontë uses temperance plots to highlight women’s vulnerability within the domestic sphere and give form to the repetitive experience of marriage, while Stoddard uses these same models to articulate women’s desire outside of the courtship plot and after the marriage vow. George Eliot and Henry James resist associations with reform that they once found useful, and in doing so, they draw into question the public taste for “exemplary women” and “typical Americans.” Similarly, Mark Twain stages fantasies of reform in order to interrogate his readers’ desire for self-congratulation. And Thomas Hardy takes up the novel of purpose late in his career in order to present a utopian model of community and to imagine radical alternatives to marriage. Thus the novel of purpose adopts a wide array of attitudes towards the purposes it …