Offering a unique perspective on the origins of American fiction, Cathy N. Davidson focuses not only on the early novels themselves but also on the people who produced, sold, and read them. She demonstrates how, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the novel found a special place among some of the least privileged citizens of the new republic. Though now mostly forgotten, these early American novels enabled those who bought and read themespecially women and the lower classesto move into the higher levels of literacy required by a democracy.
Combining rigorous historical methods with contemporary critical theory, Davidson brilliantly reconstructs the complex interplay of politics, ideology, economics, and other social forces that governed the writing, publishing, distribution, and comprehension of these early novels. She assesses the precarious business of the printer, the hardships endured by the traveling book peddler, the shortcomings of early American schools, and the lost lives of such women as Tabitha Tenney and diarist Patty Rogers. By exploring how Americans lived during the Constitutional era, Davidson presents the genesis of American literature in its fullest possible context.