Lydia G. Fash

 

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

Cover Interview of April 22, 2020

A close-up

I risk undercutting my argument that short fiction needs more attention by saying this, but for most readers, the easiest chapter to dive into will be the final chapter about four different prominent US novels. That chapter—about Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Brown’s Clotel—shows how the conventions of the sketch (loosely plotted, focused on a “truth” of scene or character) and the tale (invested in change over time and plot) are incorporated into mid-century novels. Printers and publishers had more money to publish longer works, and with the drums of civil war getting ever louder, it simply was no longer viable to celebrate a shared US beginning in short fiction. But sketches and tales were useful and meaningful genres that could be lengthened to form what we now call novels.

Both Hawthorne’s and Brown’s books are made of a paired sketch and tale. But Brown’s relation to the sketch tradition is different from Hawthorne’s because of race. The dominant literary genre for African Americans up to that point was the slave narrative, which constrained black authors to a particular factual form of narration. To make the jump to fiction, Brown retooled his slave narrative into a third-person sketch that both authenticates him as an author and aligns him with the sketch tradition popularized by Washington Irving. It is this move that makes it possible for Brown to jump to the fictionalized (but built on a kernel of truth) account of Thomas Jefferson’s biracial progeny and the sales, assaults, and neglect they suffer. Even as the sketch and tale tradition in the US was white, Brown uses them to craft the first novel by an African American.

Brown’s novel reminds us of how short fiction played a role in many US literary firsts: the first novel by an African-American, and also, as I discuss, the first successful US ladies magazine, the first literary gift book, the first whodunnit, the first transatlantic bestseller by an American, and the first miscellaneous collection. Sketches and tales shaped US literature, and tracing their history allows us to see how authors used them to self-consciously form a national tradition.