Annotation: Cathy Davidson’s “Preface” and “Introduction” to Revolution and the Word (1986)

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Davidson, Cathy N. “Preface” and “Introduction: Toward a History of Texts.” Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. vii-xi, 3-14. Print.

In the “Preface” to Revolution and the Word Davidson outlines four revolutions she explores in her book. Aside from the obvious, America’s Revolutionary War, she also draws our attention to three “quiet revolutions,” namely; the “Industrial Revolution,” which led to the growth of cities and changed the social fabric of the new nation, a “reading revolution” facilitated by print technology and the genre of the novel, and a revolution occurring in universities today, one that challenges disciplinary boundaries and canonicity (vii). In discussing these various revolutions, Davidson makes a compelling case for the study of early American fiction and the novel in particular. While long neglected by scholars and academics, she claims that this field can shed light on our understanding of America’s early nationhood during a time when people were still struggling to define themselves as American. In her perspective, the novel was an “inchoate form appropriate for and correlative to a country first attempting to formulate itself” (14). Davidson discusses the various roles of the novel during the turbulent years of the early republic, for instance, as a tool for the education of women. But her most provocative argument asserts that the novel figured as a point of entry for marginalized peoples, allowing them to gain “access to social and political events from which many… would have been otherwise largely excluded” (10). In essence, the novel can be seen as a place where those barred from formal political participation, especially women, could be empowered, a fertile ground where authors and readers alike could imagine the enormous potential of the new nation. Yet, these works also represent the disjunction between reality and fiction, and thus expose “versions of emerging definitions of America—version that were, from the first, tinged with ambivalence and duplicity” (10). Consequently, Davidson’s analysis of the early American novel does not simply discuss the ways in which historical circumstance gave rise to these texts, but also provides a nuanced analysis of how these texts shaped and influenced their times.

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4 thoughts on “Annotation: Cathy Davidson’s “Preface” and “Introduction” to Revolution and the Word (1986)

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