Accounts of the rise of American literature often start in the 1850s with a cluster of "great American novels"—Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Moby-Dick and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But these great works did not spring fully formed from the heads of their creators. All three relied on conventions of short fiction built up during the "culture of beginnings," the three decades following the War of 1812 when public figures glorified the American past and called for a patriotic national literature. Decentering the novel as the favored form of early nineteenth-century national literature, Lydia Fash repositions the sketch and the tale at the center of accounts of American literary history, revealing how cultural forces shaped short fiction that was subsequently mined for these celebrated midcentury novels and for the first novel published by an African American.

In the shorter works of writers such as Washington Irving, Catharine Sedgwick, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lydia Maria Child, among others, the aesthetic of brevity enabled the beginning idea of a story to take the outsized importance fitted to the culture of beginnings. Fash argues that these short forms, with their ethnic exclusions and narrative innovations, coached readers on how to think about the United States’ past and the nature of narrative time itself. Combining history, print history, and literary criticism, this book treats short fiction as a vital site for debate over what it meant to be American, thereby offering a new account of the birth of a self-consciously national literary tradition.

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