Lydia G. Fash


On her book The Sketch, the Tale, and the Beginnings of American Literature

Cover Interview of April 22, 2020

In a nutshell

Between the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), US folks celebrated US beginnings in all sorts of ways. They formed Forefather Societies. They held Forth of July parades and oration contests. They painted grand historical canvases. They founded historical societies. They erected monuments. And they wrote lots of stories about Puritans, revolutionaries, and ancestors.

I was fascinated by this concerted attention to beginnings and how white US writers and citizens were using these beginnings to define who was “American” and what it meant to be “American.” (The most accurate adjectival form of the United States is US, but I use “American” to acknowledge how grandiose and manufactured the concept is.) Even though, following Sir Walter Scott’s success with Waverly, there was plenty historical fiction published in the States, to me, this problem is fully narrative and not just about historical fiction. Rather this moment, which I call the culture of beginnings, is about a widespread effort to define beginnings and, in turn, use those pinpointed moments and ideas to articulate the sense of a national people.

Because the beginning is more prominent in shorter works—where the beginning and ending are close together—and because shorter works were easier to publish before the 1850s, this theorization of who was American took place in sketches and tales, the two dominant forms of short fiction. As I show, a number of really important authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, innovate with narrative beginnings as they cater to a public that wants to define the present through the past. It is in reaction to the culture of beginnings, I argue, that Poe creates the whodunnit, which places the temporal beginning (the murder) at the story-end (when the detective reveals who did it).

While I talk about a number of other authors, Poe is helpful to pull out because the racism of his whodunits is blatant. His villains are apes and “swarthy” sailors, and the city-setting of his stories associates crime with the presence of foreign others. Poe is far from alone. All the sketches and tales that I discuss define Americanness in terms of whiteness. And such figurations still frame how we, as a culture, think about who counts as fully American.