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Volume 50 of the Journal of American Studies features a roundtable on Cathy N. Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: 

21st-Century Studies in the Early American Novel: A Roundtable on the Thirtieth Anniversary of Revolution and the Word. Cathy N. Davidson Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). Pp. 322.isbn: 978 0 1950 5635 2.


As Matthew Pethers writes in his introduction:
“On the occasion of Revolution and the Word’s thirtieth birthday, then, it is only appropriate that a group of scholars currently working on the early American novel take the opportunity to use Davidson’s book as a measure of developments in the field past, present, and future. In the pages that follow, Duncan Faherty, Matthew Pethers, Thomas Koenigs, Karen Weyler, Ed White, and Siân Silyn Roberts each take on one or two of Revolution and the Word’s capacious chapters in order to critically assess where the study of early American fiction has been and where it may be going, before Cathy Davidson herself offers some final reflections on the writing of the book and its ongoing relevance. In the new Preface she wrote in 2004, Davidson described it as “a dialogue between myself as a critical reader and the ‘author’ of Revolution and the Word who in 1986 had not been able to avail herself of the riches in scholarship available to the present author.” That dialogue continues in her contribution here, and it is joined – as it has been all along – by the voices of those who are indebted to her groundbreaking work.”


Davidson concludes the Afterword as follows:

“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.”

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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