Reforming the World

Reforming the World

Social Activism and the Problem of Fiction in Nineteenth-Century America

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256 pages, 6 x 9 inches

“Elegant, eloquent, engaging, and deeply informed, María Carla Sánchez’s Reforming the World is an exploration of a literary history that is too often either overlooked or dismissed. Whether the literature she addresses is radical or conservative, passionately moral or amorally passionate, Sánchez draws us always to imagine a possible nation in which literature can be a contentious and productive forum for working out the challenges and failures of an always imperfect union. From start to finish driven by strong convictions, this book reminds us that reading literary scholarship can be a pure pleasure.”—John Ernest, West Virginia University

“With verve, erudition, and style, María Sánchez’s Reforming the World offers an exemplary study of the productive if sometimes uneasy marriage between reform and fiction in the antebellum United States. Sánchez’s authors’ central questions, 'What kind of nation do we wish to be?' and 'What is the proper role of the writer in a troubled country?' resonate equally strongly today. Everyone interested in American cultural history should read this book.”—Karen L. Kilcup, University of North Carolina at Greensboro and president of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers

Reforming the World considers the intricate relationship between social reform and spiritual elevation and the development of fiction in the antebellum United States. Arguing that novels of the era engaged with questions about the proper role of fiction taking place at the time, María Carla Sánchez illuminates the politically and socially motivated involvement of men and women in shaping ideas about the role of literature in debates about abolition, moral reform, temperance, and protest work. She concludes that, whereas American Puritans had viewed novels as risqué and grotesque, antebellum reformers elevated them to the level of literature—functioning on a much higher intellectual and moral plane.

In her informed and innovative work, Sánchez considers those authors both familiar (Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Beecher Stowe) and those all but lost to history (Timothy Shay Arthur). Along the way, she refers to some of the most notable American writers in the period (Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe). Illuminating the intersection of reform and fiction, Reforming the World visits important questions about the very purpose of literature, telling the story of “a revolution that never quite took place," one that had no grandiose or even catchy name. But it did have numerous settings and participants: from the slums of New York, where prostitutes and the intemperate made their homes, to the offices of lawyers who charted the downward paths of broken men, to the tents for revival meetings, where land and souls alike were “burned over” by the grace of God.

Table of contents: 

1. The Devil and His Angels
2. The Panic of 1837 and the Failures of Literary Men
3. Sentimentalizing the Fallen Woman
4. Making History with Child and Stowe
5. Saying Goodbye to Timothy Shay Arhtur