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Reading the American Novel 1920-2010

ISBN: 978-1-118-51289-0
280 pages
April 2013, Wiley-Blackwell
Reading the American Novel 1920-2010 (1118512898) cover image


This astute guide to the literary achievements of American novelists in the twentieth century places their work in its historical context and offers detailed analyses of landmark novels based on a clearly laid out set of tools for analyzing narrative form.

  • Includes a valuable overview of twentieth- and early twenty-first century American literary history
  • Provides analyses of numerous core texts including The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, The Sound and the Fury, The Crying of Lot 49 and Freedom
  • Relates these individual novels to the broader artistic movements of modernism and postmodernism
  • Explains and applies key principles of rhetorical reading
  • Includes numerous cross-novel comparisons and contrasts 



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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Reading the American Novel, 1920–2010 1

1 Principles of Rhetorical Reading 23

2 The Age of Innocence (1920): Bildung and the Ethics of Desire 39

3 The Great Gatsby (1925): Character Narration, Temporal Order, and Tragedy 61

4 A Farewell to Arms (1929): Bildung, Tragedy, and the Rhetoric of Voice 85

5 The Sound and the Fury (1929): Portrait Narrative as Tragedy 105

6 Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937): Bildung and the Rhetoric and Politics of Voice 127

7 Invisible Man (1952): Bildung, Politics, and Rhetorical Design 149

8 Lolita (1955): The Ethics of the Telling and the Ethics of the Told 171

9 The Crying of Lot 49 (1966): Mimetic Protagonist,
Thematic–Synthetic Storyworld 193

10 Beloved (1987): Sethe’s Choice and Morrison’s Ethical Challenge 213

11 Freedom (2010): Realism after Postmodernism 237

Index 261

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Author Information

James Phelan is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English at Ohio State University, USA. His wide-ranging research in narrative theory includes influential studies of literary character, narrative progression, unreliable narration, and the ethics of reading as well as significant fresh interpretations of numerous twentieth-century American and British novels and short stories. The editor of Narrative, the journal International Society for the Study of Narrative, Prof Phelan is also a prolific author and editor whose credits include the prize-winning Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration (2005), the Blackwell Companion to Narrative Theory (2005) and the collaboratively written Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012).
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“It is an excellent book.”  (Primary Health Care,1 March 2015)

“Reading the American Novelis also a rich experience, both in terms of the novels discussed and in terms of their literary-critical examination.”  (Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas,13 January 2014)


"In these fine rhetorical readings of novels by Hurston, Faulkner, Nabokov, Morrison and others, James Phelan offers a capacious view of the development of the American novel from the twentieth century to the twenty-first.  With characteristic clarity and precision, Phelan considers the many ways in which imaginative vision and acts of reading coalesce as they reflect the experience of living in the modern world.  This is an essential contribution to the understanding of the American novel in our time."—Patrick O’Donnell, Michigan State University

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