3/6 Hunter, Parts I & II and one chap. of your choice from Part III
Reception paper: Gary Simons
With sustained focus on audience and cultural contexts, Before Novels offers us a number of new ways to examine the early British novel. It also offers a nice contrast to both Watt and McKeon, while engaging in a number of similar queries.
I have asked you to choose one of the chapters from Part III of the book to read; this part encompasses Hunter’s treatment of “pre-texts” or those discourses that fed the desires of the “new” reading public and hence made way for the novel. Choose one that interests you, and be prepared to discuss it in your post or in class.
Hunter prefaces his work with a detailed statement of why and how he chose to write this history of the novel. What are his objectives behind advocating cultural historicism in literary studies and in the study of the novel in particular?
On p. xx Hunter mentions his debt to and departure from Watt, who introduced the sociological basis of the English novel. What is the debt? Where does he depart? Ultimately, how does Hunter improve on Watt’s analysis of the novel?
Hunter begins his study with the question “What was new about the novel?” Why is this an important question to address?
He claims that his particular contribution to the study of the novel is focusing the necessity of reading the novel in its broader cultural context – both popular and polite reading – and attending to a wider array of people involved in the shaping of and response to the reading public’s desires, people like John Dunton.
What are these broader cultural contexts? How do they differ from Watt, McKeon?
How important is someone like John Dunton to your understanding of the rise of the novel?
Despite his claims for broadening the landscape of the novel’s history, we find ourselves again discussing the formative roles of Richardson and Fielding. How does Hunter justify the importance of these two figures?
Hunter is fond of lists in this book-- evaluate his list of characteristics of the novel (pp. 23-4). In what ways do these define the unique literary characteristics of the novel? How do they compare with Watt’s? (Do they engage the heuristic categories of McKeon in any way?)
Note his detailed footnote on competing definitions of the novel, alternatively too broad and too narrow. He asserts that we ought not to be distracted from the claims of those creating a new species of writing in the 18th century. (see fn. 36, p. 359-60). How valid are the grounds of this argument? What is overlooked? What is gained?
Despite the ambiguity and tentative status of “novel” throughout the century, Hunter claims that a body of work developed in the 18th century that was self-conscious in its novelty and character. “The writers of novels at midcentury did not always know they were writing in a “genre” or a “species” (though some, like Richardson and both Fieldings, did): they were simply writing the kind of books that had become the latest lasting novelty, writing to a public hungry for the combination of delight, instruction, information, and cultural satisfaction provided by such books” (27).
Compare this explanation with McKeon’s use of the “simple abstraction” to explain the instability of the term. Which is more historically rigorous? Which is more useful?
Evaluate Hunter’s nine prominent characteristics of the novel, which frequently fail to correspond with formal models.
Exhibitionist or confessional
Categorize different readers
Ask “How do you know X?”
Incorporates other forms of discourse
How do these differ from the earlier list of characteristics? In what sense can we consider these literary qualities? In what sense are they specific to the novel? Do the novels we have read fit into these characteristics? If so, how?
Hunter suggests a possible connection between the rise of urban consciousness, which “began to focus the overwhelming sense of solitariness among the many,” and the generic capacity for representing isolation (40). How might this characterize the urban focus of The British Recluse and Fantomina?
“But writers of novels know that they are writing for readers alienated (at least in part) from that older world, and the earlier writers of novels consciously address the many and various readers they hope to attract” (43). What evidence do you see of this in the novels we have read? How might this characterize Pamela?
Hunter argues that youth are featured in novels, both as the presumed target audience and as the main characters in the novel. What evidence do we have of this? Is this a solid observation or a reasoned speculation?
Hunter argues that Defoe’s and Richardson’s first-person narratives, relying as they did on the tradition of spiritual autobiography, relate questions of epistemology much more obviously to the eighteenth-century reader than do Fielding’s more intellectualized experiments in epistemology (45-6). To what extent do you agree? How do McKeon’s categories of naďve empiricism and extreme skepticism explain this phenomenon?
On literacy – Hunter states: “the quantitative information we now have suggests that the steepest acceleration in literacy occurred early on in the seventeenth century, at least three generations before the novel began in any meaningful way to emerge” (66-7). “The most fundamental issue has to do with what three generations (and more) of readers did while they were waiting for the novel to rise” (67).
What effect does this statistical information on literacy have on Watt’s thesis? How does it effect readings such as McKeon’s or Warner’s? How significant is this finding?
Hunter is committed to showing the relationship between social and historical contexts and literary forms, and he notes that McKeon shares this emphasis: “One of the most important differences between McKeon’s approach to the novel’s origins and my own involves his emphasis on intellectual history and his reliance on traditional literary conceptions of texts (363 n. 14). Evaluate this claim. In what ways is Hunter’s approach to non-traditional literature substantially different? Which approach is more rigorous? Which is more helpful?
Note the characteristics of “new” readers that identify them as potential novel readers beginning on p. 75. To what extent do you agree with Hunter’s arguments? How much of this is speculation? How much of his later argument about the characteristics of the novel and its “pretexts” rely on accepting these characteristics?
“The humanist tradition, old elitist literary values, and the security of established authority all were, in fact, threatened by philosophical optimism, the new trust in human reason, and (especially) by belief in empiricism and the validity of individual observation” (109). Hunter’s explanation of how the Augustans, like Swift, reacted to the moderns, like John Dunton, sounds much like McKeon’s argument for extreme skepticism and the conservative ideology. Again, compare and evaluate the two approaches to this aspect of the novel’s history.
Hunter’s extensive treatment of the idea of
Some of the observations that Hunter makes seem on shaky ground; for example, “in this tight atmosphere of everyday life, reading was an escape of a peculiarly spatial kind” (127). What evidence do we have of this claim? How much of this is speculation?
To what extent do you agree with Hunter’s suggestion that the suspicion of fairy tales roughly correlates to the antagonism expressed of the urban to the rural or the Whig to the Tory (p. 146)?
Offer us a sense of the “pre-text” you choose to read and some observations and questions about it.