Reviewing the purpose novel : reception, social reform, and the limits of persuasion in turn-of-the-century American fiction
“Reviewing the Purpose Novel” addresses the relationship between novels and public opinion by recovering an understudied category of nineteenth-century American fiction and analyzing the reception of four examples of the genre. Though narratives about how novels can change history are popular, my research indicates that there were far more barriers to a novel impacting public opinion than critics generally recognize. Drawing from a wide range of newspaper, magazine, and archival material, “Reviewing the Purpose Novel” constructs thoroughly contextualized accounts of each novel’s publication history and reception to show the ways that reviewers established generic expectations that limited the persuasive power an individual purpose novel was granted. Rather than locating the purpose novel’s disappearance in the modernist disdain for literature that engaged too explicitly with political or social issues or with the New Critical insistence that critics focus on aesthetic and formal qualities over social and historical ones, “Reviewing the Purpose Novel” offers a counter-narrative that engages mass and popular reading modes to show that by the turn of the century, reviewers, writers, and readers may have liked to imagine that a novel could effect concrete social change, but the models reviewers offered for reading the novels tended to limit or resist the persuasive process.