Episodic Poetics: Politics and Literary Form After the Constitution

ISBN : 9780199346530

Matthew Garrett
256 Pages
164 x 239 mm
Pub date
Apr 2014
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The early United States was a culture of the episode. In Episodic Poetics, Matthew Garrett merges narrative theory with social and political history to explain the early American fascination with the episodic, piecemeal plot. Since Aristotle's Poetics, the episode has been a vexed category of literary analysis, troubling any easy view of the subsumption of unwieldy narrative parts into well-plotted wholes. Garrett puts forward a new, dialectical theory of episodic form to recast this peculiar object of literary history, looking to the episode as a narrative unit smaller than the genre in order to give an account of all the period's major prose genres. Garrett shows how, in ways both magisterial and mundane, episodic forms gave variegated shape to the social, political, and economic conflicts that defined the moment of national formation. Episodic Poetics proposes a new method of reading and a new way of conceiving of literary history. The book asks how we might understand the cultural role of the episode as a literary micro-unit, one that forces us to read individual narratives in terms of an always partial and fraught development toward plot. Episodic Poetics combines theoretical reflection and historical rigor with careful readings of texts from the early American canon such as The Federalist, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, and the novels of Charles Brockden Brown, along with hitherto understudied texts and ephemera such as Washington Irving's Salmagundi, Susanna Rowson's Trials of the Human Heart and the memoirs of the metalworker and failed entrepreneur John Fitch. Garrett recounts literary history not as the easy victory of grand nationalist ambitions, but rather as a series of social struggles expressed through writers' recurring engagement with incompletely integrated forms.


Introduction: Reading the Episode in the Early Republic
The Episode between Part and Whole
Telemachus's Doubt: Toward a Theory of Episodic Poetics
The Whole against the Parts: Narrative Theory
From Event to Episode: Historical Poetics
The Hillock and the Mountain
Chapter One: The Poetics of Constitutional Consolidation
Complexity and Consolidation: Out of Many, One
Common and Finer: The Legacy of 1787-88
The Chain of Reading: Commerce, Episodic Poetics, Politics
Hierarchy and Literary Form 1: Commerce and Contagion
Hierarchy and Literary Form 2: Governing the Splintered Society
Hierarchy and Literary Form 3: Faction as Form
Mercantile Time and the Periodical Plot
Debt and the Rhythm of Exchange
Unreadability and Nationalism's Chain of Reading
Chapter Two: The Life in Episodes
Structure and Dispersion
Erratum and Episode: Duration and Narrative Binding
Character and Competition, Success and Failure
Society, Mischief, and the Episode
Experience, Selection, and Narrative Unity
Chapter Three: The Fiction of Hesitation
Reading the Episode in the Novel
Adventure and Didacticism
Incipits and the Incitement to Reading: From Clarissa to Constantia
Against the Episode: Morality and Form in the Literary Market
Nothing Happens
Endless Prolixity
Episode versus Futurity
Episode and Ideology
Chapter Four: Miscellany and the Structure of Style
Commodity Writing
Whim-Whams on the Market
Criticism and the Work of the Writer
Salmagundi: An Arthrology of the Literary Miscellany
The Rejection of Reference
Volubility and Formal Compromise
Appendix to Chapter Four: Table of Contents and Collation of Salmagundi
Works Cited

About the author: 

Matthew Garrett is Assistant Professor of English & American Studies at Wesleyan University.

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