Lydia G. Fash


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

Cover Interview of April 22, 2020


This book makes an argument for the inherent interestingness and importance of short fiction. That’s a hard sell, I know. People think about short stories, the descendants of the sketch and the tale, mostly as a niche literary product found in The New Yorker. But sketches and tales were everywhere in the first half of the nineteenth century. And they weren’t lowbrow or highbrow. They just were. Everyone who had the ability to purchase written products was reading them, and many who couldn’t or didn’t buy literature would have come into contact with them through communal reading practices.

Their ubiquity and portability—they were often copied from one source and reprinted in another—allowed sketches and tales to do significant cultural work. Coming off the War of 1812, US residents sought a sense of self, a way of understanding and defining their new country and its inhabitants. Sketches and tales offered that to readers. They made the fictional feel historic and authentic. And they marked those fictional worlds and their heroes and heroines as American.

A book with a national frame isn’t super trendy at a moment when the transnational and planetary are hot. Yet, the national clearly still holds great explanatory power for us. In our moment of increasing racial and ethnic intolerance, that authors inscribed whiteness into “American” is important to underscore. The US literary tradition is not naturally white: authors, readers, and, yes, critics, have marked it as such over many long years of effort. It is incumbent upon us to continually complicate our literary history, not just with the stellar alternate histories of writers of color that exist, but also through reexamining the work of more canonical white writers. For, as this book argues, whiteness is neither invisible or inevitable.