It is deeply moving and humbling to read brilliant scholars–Matthew Pethers, Duncan Faherty, Thomas Koenigs, Karen A Weyler, Ed White, Sian Silyn Roberts–take seriously, chapter by chapter, Revolution and the Word:The Rise of the Novel in America, a book I wrote 30 years ago. This is a special Forum in the Journal of American Studies:, each scholar takes on a chapter and looks at the field since then, how it has changed and how it has not, what work needs to be done.
My gratitude to Matthew Pethers, the editor of the Forum, and to all who made this happen.
I did not read their chapters before I wrote my Afterword nor did I re-read Revolution and the Word. I had to in 2004 when Oxford University Press published a lavish new edition and invited me to write a comprehensive new Preface. It’s painful to go back and see one’s youthful early writing! I didn’t do it again this time. Instead I focused on three “secrets” about the book’s publication–you’ll have to read the Forum to find those out. I’m not telling!
Who knew that book would last this long? Incredible. People thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to find actual books with marginalia and find actual words by the first generation of readers–working class, middle class, women, immigrants, slaves–and understand more of their responses to failed aspirations and a compromised Revolution.
I ended my Afterword to the JAS Forum, as I almost always do, with Stuart Hall:
“First and last and always, I return to a post-Gramscian analysis and the critical acuity of the great Stuart Hall. In post-independence America, it was unsettling to the elites that women and the working classes flocked to the novel at the same time that the new US Constitution, the guarantee of a supposedly revolutionary culture, excluded women, the unpropertied, and slaves from citizenship. Now, as we have eviscerated social services and made higher education unaffordable, as we have saddled young people with political systems that are unworkable, social problems that are seemingly unsolvable, and environmental disasters that are catastrophic, is it really so surprising that we label these young people “coddled” and scapegoat their entertainments as dumb, distracting, and even dangerous?
If culture is a critical site for social action, a place for the con- testation and unsettling of power, perhaps in hashtag activism such as #BlackLivesMatter or #SayHerName one can begin to see some possibilities for policing the crisis, talking back to the official versions of state power evidenced in presidential campaigns, political punditry, and the mainstream media. That, always, is the hope.
Even thirty years after Revolution and the Word, and more than two hundred years after the period it describes, I still hold to that post-Gramscian and Stuart Hallian faith in the potential of culture: that, as cultural consumers and producers, in the late eighteenth century or in the present, we are able to find those forms of agency that allow us not just individual expression but community, and the possibility of working together for a greater social voice, for equality, and for change.”