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The Power of Historical Knowledge

The Power of Historical Knowledge: Narrating the Past in Hawthorne, James, and Dreiser

Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 334
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  • Book Info
    The Power of Historical Knowledge
    Book Description:

    In this provocative study, Susan Mizruchi argues that the act of writing history is the key to the political concerns of American novelists. Using nineteenth-century theories of history as well as recent narratological models, she examines reconstructions of the past in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Bostonians (1886), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and An American Tragedy (1925). Her special focus allows us to see that the efforts (on the part of characters and narrators alike) to reshape the past reveal both anxieties about the self and larger struggles for political power.

    Professor Mizruchi demonstrates the deepening connections between narrative and political coercion from Hawthorne to Dreiser, whose novels (as she further shows) both incorporate, and portray their characters incorporating, the conditions of their contemporary worlds. Her argument addresses a major contemporary dialogue on the subversive qualities of American texts and the place of history in literary interpretation.

    Originally published in 1988.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5919-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-2)
  5. ONE The Problem of History in American Literature
    (pp. 3-40)

    The protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges’s tale, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” is possessed by the desire to rewriteDon Quixote. In pursuing this task, he comes to believe that the least interesting means of accomplishing his aim is to exchange his own identity for Cervantes’s. “To be, in some way, Cervantes and reach theQuixoteseemed less arduous to him . . . than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.” Rejecting the possibility that “the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918” can be forgotten, Menard...

  6. TWO The Problem of History in American Historiography
    (pp. 41-82)

    The epigraphs that open this chapter represent a series of assumptions about history. Each emphasizes in some way the interpreter’s role in framing historical narratives. Without some informing standpoint, there is no history, only a mass of detail. At the same time, these views reveal a movement in the philosophy of history toward a theory that goes beyond the acknowledgment of how the historian creates the past in narrating it—a theory that suggests the past’s unyielding mysteriousness, its resistance to repetition or reformulation as a familiar requisition of the historian’s imagination.¹ The need to formulate a philosophy of history...

  7. THREE From History to Gingerbread: Manufacturing a Republic in The House of the Seven Gables
    (pp. 83-134)

    The House of the Seven Gablesholds a precarious position in the canon of the American author commonly regarded as our foremost “historian.” Less historically serious than its classic predecessor,The Scarlet Letter, it falls short of the contemporary relevance of its successor,The Blithedale Romance, which highlights the problems of nineteenth-century women and Utopian reformers. On the whole,Seven Gablesseems a more disengaged work, a rather loosely structured indulgence that Hawthorne wrote to appease his wife and contemporaries after the gloom ofThe Scarlet Letter. But if the novel feels inaccessible to us as a work of historical...

  8. FOUR The Politics of Temporality in The Bostonians
    (pp. 135-181)

    Henry James’sThe Bostoniansis often viewed as his most extensive portrait of social conditions, his great effort to “do” Boston in the way that his French master Balzac had “done” Saumaur and Limoges. Critics have devoted much attention to the novel’s rendering of the American context. Yet interconnections between its socio-political and artistic themes remain largely unexplored. Criticism ofThe Bostonianshas stressed the task of evaluation, and has ranged from those who locate it among James’s finest works to those who find it somehow “alien” to his most subtle talents.¹

    Though judgments of its quality differ, most critics...

  9. FIVE American Innocence and English Perils: The Treachery of Tales in The Wings of the Dove
    (pp. 182-241)

    The conclusion to Henry James’sThe Wings of the Dovehas been seen as typical of the renunciation that befalls the Jamesian protagonist. Kate Croy’s “We shall never be again as we were!”¹ signals the end of her bond to Merton Densher, realizing the “temple without an avenue” (52) that has symbolized their relationship. Kate and Densher will go separate ways, their love destroyed by greed and guilt. Their union has been tainted from the start, such a reading supposes, and the ending merely confirms the air of deprivation and futility that has plagued them.

    Yet the novel’s close can...

  10. SIX The Power of Mere Fable: Reconstructing the Past in An American Tragedy
    (pp. 242-294)

    Critics ofAn American Tragedyhave puzzled over the title and its generic implications. “Can a tragic vision,” some have asked, “govern a Deterministic universe?” The question of the novel’s title is often attributed to carelessness—yet another example of the author’s (or the army of editors’) ineptitude.¹ It is more revealing, however, to take this inconsistency on its own terms, to consider how the tension between a tragic and a deterministic philosophy might pervade the novel.

    Most definitions of “tragedy” assert some degree of free will—that the protagonist’s actions are “neither wholly predetermined nor wholly free.”² The genre...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 295-308)
  12. Index
    (pp. 309-313)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 314-314)