Marcy J. Dinius: Review of Lara Langer Cohen's "The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture"

Roundup: Books

Marcy J. Dinius is assistant professor of English at DePaul University and the author of The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype (2012).

The Fabrication of American Literature is a long-overdue examination of the antebellum practice of "puffing" books, or shamelessly promoting them for profit, politics, and other interested motives. Cohen exposes the mechanics and machinations behind the "genuine" literature that was supposed to prove the United States' artistic and cultural maturity to the Old World—as well as behind more marginal publications like "ersatz backwoodsman's tales" and "false slave narratives," which could have suggested just the opposite to cosmopolitans on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, she is careful to avoid imagining an entirely disinterested literature and literary criticism as the ideal state from which the antebellum period fell into a world of petty deceit, relentless competition, and utter confusion. Cohen does so by starting from "a paradox at the heart of American literary history: at the very moment when a national literature began to take shape, many observers worried that it amounted to nothing more than what Edgar Allan Poe described as 'one vast perambulating humbug'" (1). She argues that this paradox disrupts not only critical narratives of the flourishing of a representative national literature after its difficult birth and awkward adolescence, but also counter-narratives of the "cultural work" done by popular and political—and not just refined and removed—literature.

By assembling and working from an archive of concerns about "subterfuge, impostures, and plagiarism" in print, Cohen situates mid-nineteenth-century literature within, rather than apart from, the rest of antebellum American culture. As a result, unnoticed family resemblances become more prominent. The practices of publishing and reviewing books of all kinds begin to look a lot like promotions for quack medicine, land bubbles, and worthless shares of stock. Even Poe—best known to us as a poet and gothic fiction writer, but notorious in his own time as a critic who reviewed and promoted his own writings—makes himself heard among the many voices cautioning that the "indiscriminate laudation of American books" is "a system which, more than any other one thing in the world, has tended to the depression of that 'American Literature' whose elevation it was designed to effect" (34)....

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