Failure and the American Writer

Cambridge University Press

If America worships success, then why has the nation's literature dwelled obsessively on failure? This book explores encounters with failure by nineteenth-century writers - ranging from Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville to Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett - whose celebrated works more often struck readers as profoundly messy, flawed and even perverse. Reading textual inconsistency against the backdrop of a turbulent nineteenth century, Gavin Jones describes how the difficulties these writers faced in their faltering search for new styles, coherent characters and satisfactory endings uncovered experiences of blunder and inadequacy hidden in the culture at large. Through Jones's treatment, these American writers emerge as the great theorists of failure who discovered ways to translate their own social insecurities into complex portrayals of a modern self, founded in moral fallibility, precarious knowledge and negative feelings.

About the Author

Gavin Jones is the Frederick P. Rehmus Family Professor of the Humanities at Stanford University. He specializes in American literature of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. With a B.A. from Oxford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University, he also held a three-year fellowship in Harvard University’s Society of Fellows before coming to Stanford in 1999 as an assistant professor.

His three published books explore the power of literature to embody complex social problems and to uncover difficult ideas that often remain hidden in the culture at large. His first book, Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America (California 1999) investigates the craze for dialect among post-Civil War American writers, a craze that gave us Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a host of other works that focus on the vernacular varieties of American English, stretching from Maine to Louisiana and beyond. Jones shows how this turn to dialect, rather than an act of regional nostalgia, translated cultural anxieties in a nation facing the challenges of increased immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and racial conflict. His second book, American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945 (Princeton 2007), turns from culture to society by highlighting the ideological dilemmas created by the persistence of poverty amid American myths of mobility and success. Reading writers from Herman Melville in the antebellum era to Richard Wright in the Great Depression, Jones shows how literary discourse became a powerful means to understand the plight of the poor, hence placing poverty at the center of national debates about social justice, citizenship, and minority identity. His third book, Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History (Cambridge 2014) moves from the cultural and social concerns of the first two books to focus on the human self, particularly the feelings of personal failure that obsessed many nineteenth-century American authors. Jones notes the faltering styles, incoherent characters, and messy endings that run through even the best-known novels, and shows how, through these textual problems, American writers become the great theorists of failure. Ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah Orne Jewett, these writers found ways to translate their own insecurities into complex portrayals of a modern self, one founded in moral fallibility, precarious knowledge, and negative feelings.

In other projects, Jones has edited a new edition of the nation’s only “transcendental novel,” Sylvester Judd’s Margaret: A Tale of the Real and Ideal, Blight and Bloom (1845). He has published diverse essays, ranging in subject from antebellum “pro-slavery” novels to more recent diasporic writing by African American women. He has recently completed a fourth book manuscript, Race, Species, Planet: John Steinbeck's Curious Experiments, which explores Steinbeck's tremendous variety and complexity as a writer to establish Steinbeck -- beloved by general readers but reviled by literary critics -- as a timely if problematic thinker about issues ranging from ecological catastrophe to racial injustice and global inequality. Jones is planning to edit (with Michael Collins of King's College London) The Cambridge Companion to the American Short Story, and he is beginning a new monograph titled The Secret History of the Short Story.