19th c. American Novels Not as Big a Deal in 19th c. America as We Thought?

I just read John Austin’s surprisingly brief contribution (“United States, 1780-1850”) to the “Market for Novels–Some Statistical Profiles” section of Franco Moretti’s The Novel, vol. 1.  Austin begins with Lyle Wright’s significant bibliographic study, but adds to it data from later studies, notably Frank Luther Mott’s work, to come to some non-standard conclusions about the status of the American novel in the 19th century.  The standard view (which Austin encapsulates by citing Michael Davitt Bell’s entry in the Cambridge History of American Literature) has novels by Americans ascendant over other fiction genres and,  in particular, over British novels (beginning about mid-century).  There are a number of conclusions that Austin comes to which unseat the American novel from the high position it is accorded in most literary histories, but the most striking to me–as I prepare to teach a class in the American novel to 1900 in the fall–is his interpretation of Mott’s work on best and “better” selling novels in the US from 1770-1899 (Golden Multitudes, 1947).

According to Austin, apart from the decades of the 1820s, the 1850s, and the 1880s, in which American novels edged out British imports, “Americans, it seems, were reading as much, if not more, British fiction over the course of the nineteenth century than American fiction.”  “The American literary market,” he concludes “[was] only sporadically American.”

This does not suggest to me that I should scrap the course, but it does make me think more and more about the value of a trans-Atlantic approach to novels of the 19th century.  My training was fairly nation-bound.  I didn’t study the 19th century novel, per se, but things like American Realism and Naturalism, and other similarly nation-identified bodies of literature.  But if the novel-reading American public was trans-Atlanticly omnivorous, maybe that’s how we ought to approach the novel in America in the 19th century. I know this is not an earth-shattering idea, but Austin’s does seem a significant, useful, and unusually data-driven study.


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