Michael McKeon,  Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).


Introduction:  Dialectical Method in Literary History


Genre theory cannot be divorced from the history of genres, and the theory of genre must be a dialectical theory of genre (1).


1.                 Assessment of Watt


Achievements          1.




Flaws          1.




2.                 Archetypalist Theory


Claud Levi-Strauss



Northrop Frye


What is the romance according to Frye?


What does McKeon take from these theories?


What does McKeon change or answer?


3.                 Dialogic theory of the novel – Mikhail Bakhtin


Achievements          1.



Flaws          1.


What does McKeon take from  Bakhtin?


4.                 The simple abstraction – Karl Marx pp. 16-19


What is this historical process that encapsulates both the articulation of a concept and its dialectic contingency?  This “deceptively monolithic category that encloses a complex historical process” (20)?


How does it apply to genre theory?


How does McKeon use this concept to structure his argument about the emergence of the novel in the eighteenth-century?


5.                 Genre theory and the outline of his categories


“Genres provide a conceptual framework for the mediation (if not the ‘solution’) of intractable problems, a method of rendering such problems intelligible.  The ideological status of genre, like that of all conceptual categories, lies in its explanatory and problem ‘solving’ capacities.  And generic form itself, the dense network of a conventionality that is both elastic and profoundly regulative, is the prior and most tacitly powerful mechanism of the explanatory method of genre” (20).


Generic Categories – epistemological crisis – questions of truth

Social Categories – crisis of cultural order – questions of virtue


What is the analogical relation between these two sets of questions?




1)     Romance idealism --

2)     Naïve empiricism --

3)     Extreme skepticism –




1)     Aristocratic ideology –

2)     Progressive ideology –

3)     Conservative ideology –



What role does the conflict/debate between Richardson and Fielding play in the formulation of McKeon’s problematic – poetic of the novel?  See H. O. Brown’s review essay “Of the Title to Things Real.”



PART ONE – Questions of Truth (pp. 23-128)


Chapter One – The Destabilization of Generic Categories


Before 1740 the terms “romance”, “history,” and “novel” are used interchangeably, but there is an impulse to oppose “romance” to “history” as alternative ways of knowing (25); and yet there is a simultaneous practice of showing the similarities as well as differences between the two categories. 


How does McKeon explain this phenomenon?  How important is it to his argument?  (Cf. his review of Davis’ treatment of this “undifferentiated matrix”.)


I.                   “Romance” as a simple abstraction (26-28)


How does one explain the use of “romance” as a generic distinction as well as a pejorative term for lying?


2.                 Precursor Revolutions:  The Greek Enlightenment (28-33)


What effect does this “literacy” revolution have on memory?  What effect does it have on oral cultures?  To what extent does McKeon see the creation of “Socratic myth,” Thucydidean history and Sophoclean tragedy as versions of romance narratives?  As emplacement to orality?


3.                 Precursor Revolutions:  Twelfth-Century Renaissance (33-39)


What effect does this shift from divine immanence to the human mediation of empirical details have?  How does the role of Scripture change?  How is historicity constituted?


“If romance names are the outward embodiment of an inner or essential truth, romance character development tends to proceed by discontinuous  leaps between states of being – by ‘rebirths’ – and to be signified by the successive divulgence or alteration of name” (39)


What is the status of “romance” in this period?


4.                 Historicism and the historical revolution (39-45)


How are we to understand McKeon’s claim that only in the modern period “romance” becomes a simple abstraction in opposition to “true history” (39).


What is periodization and how does the Renaissance conceptualize it?

What is the connection between the Reformation and the notion of historicism McKeon recognizes in the Renaissance?

What is the connection between common law and historicism of the Renaissance?


Examine the following connections made by McKeon:


Summary:  The printing press also facilitated historicity and periodization by making the past more knowable – by fixing it in typography and preserving it. The effects of the print revolution are felt in and precipitated by  the scientific revolution and faith in empiricism – the faith in this form of truth is connected historically with the means of producing this form of knowledge through print (43-44).  Another revolution tied to this sense of historicism is the Protestant Reformation which was closely allied to the Book – the Bible – and the individual’s experience with the book.  The change in Protestant thought is related to empirical, historical habits of mind (45).


5.                 The Claim to Historicity (45-47)


How do printing conventions of the Renaissance contribute to the production of “romance” as a simple abstraction (45)?  Compare the role of “newness” or “news”.


6.                 Naïve Empiricism and Extreme Skepticism


It is within news printing that McKeon first identifies the pattern of dialectic reversal that comes to characterize his “narrative” of the novel.  Consequently it is of great importance.  Analyze this pattern from the following quotation:


“In the charges and countercharges that liven the battle over news reporting during the revolutionary years can be discerned the outlines of a pattern that will emerge with increasing clarity in varied contexts over the next few decades.  The pattern marks the climax of the early modern revolution in narrative epistemology, and it is of fundamental importance in the origins of the English novel: the naïve empiricism of the claim to historicity purports to document the authentic truth; the extreme skepticism of the opposing party demystifies this claim as mere ‘romance’.  But this basic formulation of the pattern belies its dialectical fluidity, for what looks like an ‘extreme critique’ from one perspective reveals itself as a ‘naïve claim’ from another.  This fluidity is due to the crucial fact that both postures, which are versions of the antithetical offshoots of Renaissance ‘historicism,’ are fundamentally skeptical and have much in common.  ‘Naïve empiricism’ is no less opposed to the falsifications of ‘romance’ invention than is ‘extreme skepticism’: in fact it is the earnest energy of the naïve empiricist critique of falsehood that renders it vulnerable to the countercritique of extreme skepticism” (48).



The remainder of this section presents apparent answers to other theories or observations on the news, print, rise of literacy, comments on women’s reading, and a middle class.  What does he conclude is the relationship between middle class literacy and the novel? (52)


7.                 Romance, Antiromance, True History (52-64)


“To formulate the problems of the origins of the novel in terms of how one dominant prose form ‘became’ another is really to ask how romance responded to the early modern historicist revolution” (53) – what does McKeon suggest in answer to this question?


How are verisimilitude (the precursor to “realism”) and claims to historicity different and opposing? (53)


How does he explain the relationship between the roman à clef or “true histories” – the antiromances – and the original romances?  (55)


In what ways does Don Quixote bear the marks of internalized self-criticism of the romance? (56-7).


What are the characteristics of the “romance” versus the “anti-romance” in terms of truth?


Chapter Two – The Evidence of the Senses:  Secularization and Epistemological Crisis (65-89)


1.                 The contradictory unity of the new philosophy (65-8)


What is secularization in McKeon’s sense of the term?  How is secularization paradoxically progressive and reductive? (65)


Examine Bacon’s empiricism – how does Bacon reconcile divine knowledge with empirical verification (67)?  How does this science engender both the impulse to reveal the truth of nature and to regard such sensory revelation as impossibly error-ridden (68)?


2.                 “Natural History” as a Narrative Model (68-73)


How does the Royal Society define the new science with respect to the testimonies of the past?  What role do “romance motifs” play in such justifications?  How does the standard of probability (fiction) support, at this time, the findings of natural history (empiricism) (69-70)?


What version of conservative critique (extreme skepticism) responds to the “naïve empiricism” of the Royal Society?


3.                 “Religion versus Science” and the problem of mediation  (73-77)


How does Galileo make science the “newest and most authoritative – because empirical – method of scriptural exegesis, of determining biblical truth” (74)?


How does McKeon explain the confrontation of science and religion in terms of a dialectical state of immanence, “of the ongoing presence of divinity in the things of this world” (74)?


What is unique about the problem of mediation in the modern period according to McKeon?  How is this dialectic more pervasively dualistic?  On the other hand, how is science parallel to religion in terms of signification (74-75)?


4.                 The Literalizing of Revelation (77-83)


How does the historicizing of biblical texts lead to a spiritual revelation based on orality and how does this translate into Protestant and Catholic categories of spiritual enlightenment? (77-80)


Examine Locke’s critique of revelation and the importance of verifiability of claims (80-81).


5.                 Apparition Narratives


McKeon subtly suggests a transformation which will have a tremendous influence on the novel.  This revolution in the empirical critique of biblical narrative “entails a transformation from metaphysics and theology TO epistemology.  Henceforth the process of coming to a knowledge of truth will be understood according to a tacitly assumed metaphor of visual sense perception” (83).  This has implications for the teaching of moral truths based on ‘true histories’ – or of scripture with a claim to historicity.  “To be saved by a transcendent Truth requires the increasingly separable and prior act of being empirically convinced of it” (83).


What impact do the apparition narratives that McKeon explores have on a faith in “the powers of material phenomena to mediate the truths of divine creation”?  What is the opposing effect?


McKeon summarizes the information of this chapter on pages 87-89.  Examine in particular the restatement of the model of historical process:


“In the present case, the conflict that begins to emerge from public controversy is first intelligible in sequential terms.  The empiricism of the ‘true history’ opposes the discredited idealism of the romance, but it thereby generates a countervailing, extreme skepticism, which in turn discredits true history as a species of naïve empiricism or ‘new romance.’  Once in motion, however, the sequence of action and reaction becomes a cycle:  the existence of each opposed stance becomes essential for the ongoing, negative definition of its antithesis.

     This model of conflict defines the terms in which the crucial ‘questions of truth’ are debated in the Restoration and the early eighteenth century, and the epistemological boundaries within which ‘the novel’ as we know it coalesces during that period.  It is a conflict between two different species of ‘history,’ respectively hopeful and dubious about the attainment of narrative truth” (88).


How can we understand this conflict as a feature of the narrative in Pamela?


Chapter Three:  Histories of the Individual (90-128)


The subgenres of the seventeenth century – saint’s life to spiritual biography, picaresque to criminal biography, and various travel narratives – contain the same claims to historicity and the same problems of the mediation of spiritual truth that McKeon observed in the science, religion, history and journalism. 


To what extent can we apply the epistemological model to each of these literary categories?  What do we learn about the novel by doing so?


McKeon identifies in all of these the persistent thematic tension between the telling of the individual’s life story and the overarching pattern of narrative to which the genre subscribes.  How does the increasing validation of naïve empiricism change the relationship between the two in each case?


1.                 From Saint’s life to Spiritual Biography (91-96)


How does the  impulse toward “quantitative” standards of completion (e.g. in Foxe’s Lives of Christian Martyrs) conflict with the Christian (romance) truth of overarching pattern?


What is the narrative form of atonement McKeon identifies in the conflict between present action and past narration of the spiritual biography?


What are the implications of the observation that the documentation of the self is the most important device of authentication in spiritual biography? 


How might we read Pamela as a spiritual biography?


2.                 From Picaresque to Criminal Biography (96-100)


How do claims to historicity change from Picaresque to Criminal biography?


3.                 From Christian Pilgrimage to Scientific Travel (100-105)


Discuss the Royal Society’s influence on the creation of the travel narrative. 


4.                 The Empirical Style becomes Problematic (105-114)


What is the significance of the naïve empiricism in the parodies of real travels?


What does the problem of selection suggest about the difficulties of empirical style?


What is the significance of a) original documentation, b) eye-witness accounts, c) the character of the witness and d) the character of the writing style itself?


What is the benefit of not resorting to skepticism in narrative despite its availability – cf. Aphra Behn and William Congreve (113)


5.                 The Emergence of Extreme Skepticism


“The false modesty of the plain style and its attendant pretensions was highly vulnerable both to direct attack and to parody” (114).  Henry Stubbe, again, serves as the example of counter-critique.


How do arguments for and against the “plain style” illuminate some of the stylistic controversy over Pamela?


McKeon claims that Protestant versions of extreme skepticism are less likely than scientific ones, and yet they do happen.  How does the extreme skepticism of Protestant persuasion reconcile truth of spirit with truth of history.


How does Shaftesbury illustrate for McKeon the double-reversal of extreme skepticism characteristic of the dialectic of questions of truth?  (116-7).


6.                 Toward Realism, The Aesthetic and Human Creativity (118-128)


McKeon argues against a Bakhtinian view of the novel, which privileges the extreme skepticism in narrative as a more densely self-conscious form of heteroglossia; instead he finds the extreme skepticism of narrative equally vulnerable to critique.  While the analogical Christian arguments against human self-sufficiency provide a model for Protestant narratives by positing an “absolute truth accessible to the mediations of figurative and parabolic narrative” (119), most narratives being secular do not have such an alternate model of Truth.


What are the implications of his claim that the narrative of extreme skepticism occupies “the untenably negative midpoint between these two opposed positions [Romance or Christian idealism and naïve empiricism], in constant danger of becoming each of them by turns” (119)?


In this last section McKeon offers a fascinating historical explanation for the emergence of realism and the autonomous aesthetic in terms of the related hostilities toward human creativity exercised by Protestantism and by Capitalism.


Examine the parallel gestures of disavowal of subjective human authority by Protestantism and by scientific empiricism (123).


How does the authority granted to the printed word (what he sees as a fetishized and disowned text) reconcile the “hostility to human creation that lies at the heart of empirical –capitalist thought itself” (123)?


And how is this reconciliation parallel to the Protestant reconciliation of human creativity through the doctrine of poetic justice? (124)


Examine the claim that “There is good reason to see these years as a critical period in which the orthodox spirituality of an equitable afterlife was being replaced by the aesthetic spirituality of an equitable denouement” (125).


How does McKeon’s critique of sentimental novels (126) illustrate the problems of Pamela’s reception?