McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel

McKeon, Michael. “Introduction: Dialectical Method in Literary History.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 1-24.

In the introduction to The Origins of the English Novel, McKeon spends some time establishing the problems with (then) current understandings of how the novel as a genre came into existence and gained popularity. While he praises Watt’s work, he notes that critics have had two major problems with the work: (1) the difference between the romantic genre and the novel is not absolute, the boundary between the two is not distinct (in that way the formal characteristics of the novel are vulnerable) and (2) Watt does not provide sufficient evidence that the middle class really “rose” in the 18th century.

McKeon suggests that a focus on genre theory may be helpful in addressing and solving these problems in the understanding of the novel. However, he continues by pointing out the ways in which the models of genre theory have not fully accounted for the novel in the most effective manner. He analyzes the work of Levi-Strauss and Northrop Frye, suggesting that archetypalist theory of genre doesn’t really account for the problems because it formulates genre as the calcification of myth. I.e., it does not allow for an examination of the historical properties of the novel and the generic impulses in history.

After this setup, McKeon turns to a discussion Bakhtin’s theorization of genre (heteroglossia).Describing Bakhtin’s understanding of genre as layered discourse, “a process of heteroglot development,” McKeon notes that “the generic capacity of a work is defined both by its intertextual affiliations with some works and by its intertextual detachment from others” (12).

Ultimately, McKeon argues that:

Genres provide a conceptual framework for the mediation (if not the ‘solution’) of intractable problems, a method for rendering such problems intelligible. The ideological status of genre, like that of all conceptual categories, lies in its explanatory and problem-‘solving’ capacities. And generic form itself, the dense network of a conventionality that is both elastic and profoundly regulative, it is the prior and most tacitly powerful mechanism of the explanatory method of genre. And when they change, it is part of a change both in the need they exist to fill and in the means that exist for its fulfillment. (20)

Further developing this thread, McKeon notes that “the novel comes into existence in order to mediate” a change in attitudes about “truth” and “authenticity,” “and it therefore is not surprising that it should seem a contradictory amalgam of inconsistent elements” (20-1).

In sum, McKeon outlines a process that he will further develop in subsequent chapters:

  1. There is a stratified social order supported by aristocratic ideology
  2. That social order begins to change and consequently aristocratic ideology is attacked/subverted by progressive ideology
  3. Progressive ideology gives birth to its own critique, simultaneously more radical and more traditional: conservative ideology.

The rest of the book traces this double-reversal in which aristocratic ideology (AI) shifts to progressive ideology (PI) which shifts to conservative ideology (CI).

—. “The Destabilization of Generic Categories.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 25-64. Print.

In the first chapter, McKeon argues that the origins of the novel as a form/genre lie in the generic destabilization that occurred during the 17th and early 18th centuries in regard to what he calls “questions of truth.” He identifies and explores, that is, a cultural navigation of categories such as “fact” and “fiction,” “history” and “romance,” arguing that discursive negotiations of truth and perceived truth led to formal and stylistic changes that laid a foundation for novelistic form and technique.

In order to make this argument, McKeon examines the ways in which narrative authenticated itself as well as the ways in which readers determined whether or not a text was “authentic” or “true” or “authoritative.” Within this examination, McKeon identifies what he calls three periodizing perspectives which, shifting across time, enact a double-reversal:

  1. Aristocratic Ideology / Romance
  2. Progressive Ideology / Naïve Empiricism
  3. Conservative Ideology / Extreme Skepticism

About the time of the Renaissance, people began periodizing history. Initially, they recognized a classical period to be distinguished from their contemporary moment. There was a romantic (universalizing, traditional) attitude toward authority and truth. With the advents of the printing press, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment, “the differentiation of history into periods encourages an optimistic ambition to construct the positive laws of universal history” using empirical evidence (41).

Eventual socio-cultural response to empirical history acknowledged that even such data can produce wildly different accounts of historical events, and as a result becomes skeptical: “promoting the chastened belief that every historical period is singular and perhaps unknowable from without” (41). McKeon simplifies this pattern in the following way: The naïve empiricism of the claim to historicity purports to document the authentic truth; the extreme skepticism of the opposing party demystifies the claim as mere ‘romance’” (47). Finally, McKeon suggests that “once the problem of belief is raised with sufficient insistence, ‘romance’ tends toward the status of ‘antiromance,’ and ‘antiromance’ tends in turn to become also ‘antihistory’” (47).

—. “The Evidence of the Senses: Secularization and Epistemological Crisis.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 65-89. Print.

In the second chapter, McKeon examines the double reversal in discourses of “truth” or “authenticity” with more focus on the period between the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. He turns, first, to Baconian New Philosophy, which he argues contained two contrary movements:

  1. An “optimistic faith in the power of empirical method to discover natural essences” (66).
  2. A “wary skepticism of the evidence of the senses and its mediating capacity” (66).

He contends that “Protestant belief became so intertwined with the evidence of the senses that in the end the truth of Scripture itself seemed to require vindication as the truth of ‘true history’” (76).

—. “Histories of the Individual.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 90-129. Print.

In this chapter, McKeon discusses spiritual autobiography (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), the picaresque novel and the criminal biography, travel narratives, and other genre forms to examine how each negotiates questions of authenticity, authority, and truth in a way that led to formal changes initiating novelistic technique. He sketches a trajectory in which print’s authority begins to take hold, but also notes that from divine authority, texts shift to more empirical, stylistic, and other authentication strategies.

His discussion focuses on early problems faced by genres needing authenticity (for example, the travel narrative). Things like editorial selectivity, style and tone, chronology, attention to detail, and etc., could be critical in whether or not an audience responded to a text as believable and true. According to his close-reading, “common means by which the claim to historicity is deployed in travel narrative” include things like original documentation (people became increasingly obsessed with documentation-as-authority, particularly in terms of things like signatures, contracts, written testimonies, etc.); confirmation of truth by other travelers; eyewitness accounts in general; the (positive, healthy) psychological profile of the author; the (moral, upstanding) character of the author; the disinterestedness of the author; and, oddly, plainness of style (which, it seems, audiences took as a lack of artifice) (108).

In this same vein, McKeon notes that there was a tendency to read odd, exotic accounts as “strange, therefore true” (111).

Finally, he concludes that “the evidence of this chapter…contradicts the general view that the practical origins of the novel were unsupported by any self-conscious critical theory, stylistics, or ‘poetics.’ In fact, the conceptual bases of naïve empiricism and extreme skepticism are explicitly elaborated at the same time that they are experimentally put into practice” (118). Which is just to say that authors were consciously and directly grappling with problems of narrative, historicity, verisimilitude, and authority or truth.

—. “The Destabilization of Social Categories.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 131-75. Print.

In the fourth chapter, McKeon uses the pattern of the double reversal to turn toward questions of honor and virtue (social questions) rather than questions of truth and authenticity (formal / generic questions). He argues that aristocratic ideology conceived status as “derived from the personal possession, or nonpossession, of honor” (131). In this configuration, honor is both internal and external, it is a “function of ancestry” of “lineage, wealth and power” and also of virtue—or, “[the] unity of outward circumstances and inward essence” (131).

Coincident with the prevalent notions of aristocratic ideology, however, was a social destabilization centering on systems of inheritance. Put briefly and more simply, the patrilineal system was failing because one could not guarantee the birth (or the survival) of male children, so patriline repair systems had to be put in place to make sure that one did not lose control of one’s fortune upon death. New systems of development had to be put in place, and inheritors could be distantly related men, the husbands of one’s daughters, or a randomly ‘adopted’ man of some sort. Women could sometimes inherit, too, but usually it was only a transitional thing… Think Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

Anyway, in light of this not-necessarily-direct-descent system of inheritance, honor and status began to look a lot less like natural endowments and a lot more like arbitrarily inherited ones (who woulda guessed?).

Although McKeon goes into great detail and at great length to describe more specifics,  his main point here is that “the novel emerged in early modern England as a new literary fiction designed to engage the social and ethical problems the established literary fictions could no longer mediate—which is to say both represent and conceal—with conviction” (133; my emphasis). He adds:

The origins of the novel and of its associated ideologies must be seen as the culmination of an extended preexistence, and the truly innovative status will become intelligible only against a backdrop that highlights both the continuity and difference of what came before. (133)

McKeon then traces this thread from the Greek Enlightenment through the 18th century, to illuminate the shift from aristocratic ideology (which conceived of honor as always already bound up in status), to progressive ideology (which, simultaneously with the rise of class status and the destabilization of titled status, said, hey, wait a minute, honor and status are necessarily connected—otherwise, how come all of these inheritors who aren’t related to actual nobles by blood can be considered honorable???), to conservative ideology (which noticed that, while honor and status might not be inherently connected, there sure were a lot of people suddenly considering themselves honorable and challenging one another to duels and dying violently and say, hey, maybe there is a correlation between honor and status because at least the nobility was usually well behaved in public).

McKeon concludes the chapter with some more direct gestures toward what all this means for the novel:

The social significance of the novel at the time of its origins lies in its ability to mediate—to represent as well as contain—the revolutionary clash between status and class orientations and the attendant crisis of status inconsistency. The novel gives form to the fluidity of crisis by organizing it into a conflict of competing interpretations. Progressive ideology ascribes the state of crisis to the social injustice inherent in aristocratic rule, whose arbitrary assignment of rewards to the well-born institutionalized the division of status and virtue as a tradition. Progressive ideology would overcome this crisis by means of the destruction of genealogical inequities, thereby liberating merit to reestablish status consistency by winning its just desserts. Conservative ideology, also mindful of aristocratic injustice, is yet more mindful of its modern replacement by progressive ideology and the rise of the ‘new aristocracy’ of the undeserving [think Fielding’s Jonathan Wild the Great]. This is the crisis that truly confronts the modern world; but if conservative ideology is supremely confident in its negation of the progressive view, it is less certain of the terms in which the reign of status consistency—the alternative to both progressive and aristocratic injustice—might be posited. (174)

—. “Absolutism and Capitalist Ideology: the Volatility of Reform.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 176-211. Print.

In this chapter, McKeon traces social forms from late Feudalism to early capitalism, spending an extensive amount of time considering the implications of absolute monarchy:

Within the framework of [absolutism], the feudal relation of monarch and baron was transformed into the bureaucratic and administrative relation of royalty and nobility, the supreme head of state and its loyal servants. (117)

Really, this chapter just considers the social change gestured at in the previous chapter at greater length, looking specifically at things like Calvinism, The English Reformation, the Act of Supremacy, and the Puritan Revolution in order to consider honor and virtue more fully.

McKeon notes that Protestant thought revolutionized the way people thought about honor and virtue because in Protestant doctrine, good works do not equal inner grace. He states, “because the doctrine of election, like the emerging class orientation, cut across old categories of prescribed status, Calvinist Protestantism helped transform the argument of true nobility in the seventeenth century from a traditionalist commonplace into a subversive doctrine” (191). I’m reminded of Clarissa, here, because despite her loss of virginity and her fall from social graces, we are told that she is truly noble—her nobility transcends earthly status. This is a direct subversion of British (and worldly in general) notions of status and symbol, a dangerous challenge to the social system of the day. Oddly, it wasn’t necessarily read as such.

Anyway, because of the Puritans, honor became analogous to conscience, and interiority was really emphasized because it was impossible to know if you were one of the elect if you didn’t spend SO MUCH TIME searching your heart and conscience. (Even then, still really impossible to know. But your chances go WAY down if you aren’t scouring your conscience on the reg.)

So, connecting things back to his double-reversal, McKeon goes on to explain that changing the way one could be categorized as honorable or virtuous from an aristocratic model to a more progressive, individual, and empirical one has a bit of a backlash because “the discrediting of external authority, whether Aristotelian or Roman Catholic, only makes more self-conscious and problematic the question of how—and on what grounds—we give credit to what we are willing to accept” (194). I.e., it is still hard to ask questions like “what is a gentleman?” or “who is a saint.” Even harder, in fact, because the “authority” to answer such questions has been, in a sense, individualized. This progressive ideology, once freed from (or distinct from) religious determining factors, lead to CAPITALISM. Or mercantilism, technically. Anyway. Individuals still determine value in this model, but as a form of consumer demand (which McKeon refers to as appetite).

McKeon roughly sums this up as follows:

  • Progressive ideology: tied to monied interest but nervous about its insubstantial and subjective nature. That is, honor is connected to money and begins to feel imaginary (205).
  • Conservative ideology: considers monied interest inseparable form progressive ideology, a “flagrant expression of its general will to institutionalize a brutal social injustice, unsoftened by useful fictions of social authorization,” thinks at least the brutal injustice of the aristocracy came with pretty stories and wonderful dreams. And unicorns, probably. (205-7)

—. “Stories of Virtue.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 212-71. Print.

The beginning of this chapter is primarily summary and then, finally, McKeon gets to making connections between this enormous work of historicization he’s done and the novel. He does so by tracing aristocratic, progressive, and conservative ideology as it manifests in narrative.

So, according to McKeon, an outline of Progressive Narrative would look something like this:

  1. Mutability becomes explained as status inconsistency and social injustice of aristocratic order (rather than the change and decay caused by sin, etc.)
  2. Social mobility of unworthy aristocrats and worthy commoners is represented in progressive narrative to overcome (above stated) status inconsistency.

And, Conservative Narrative, primarily a reaction to this narrative arc, showed a more skeptical arc in which “[the] rise of upstarts coincides with [the] decline of ‘betters’” (228-9). McKeon explains, “the major movement of the conservative narrative consists in a retrograde series of disenchantments with all putative resolutions. In more traditional narrative, such a movement would prepare for the final recourse to mutability and divine unreadability. In conservative plot it is more likely to generate a desire for the return of an earlier order whose vulnerability has now by one means or another become more resistant to skeptical reduction” (231).

If progressive narrative moved to the city (and away from country estates), conservative narrative returned to the country. In this way, it has a distinct utopian project.

McKeon suggests that “another important narrative strategy is to focus not on the poignant fall of “the deserving” but on the fraudulence and depravity—and sometimes the eventual failure—of those who rise” (232).

McKeon concludes this discussion of narrative form by suggesting that “in the formulation of novelistic narrative, the most important narrative model was not another ‘literary’ genre at all, but historical experience itself” (238). He then talks a bit about how, nevertheless, genres like the picaresque and travel narrative and utopia did influence the development of the novel.


McKeon designates a portion of the chapter to a consideration of how gender fits into all of this social change he connects to the novel. He states that, “over time the profound alliance between the virtuous industry of commoners and the virtuous chastity of women is remarked and exploited by a developing progressive ideology, and interest shifts to the conflict between aristocratic seducers and constant women” (255). Clarissa, that’s all…

In fact, McKeon suggests, “virtue in the guise of female chastity becomes powerfully normative in progressive narrative, emblematic of the honor that has been alienated from, and is yet pursued by, a corrupt male aristocracy” (255-6).

Not to be outdone by progressive narrative, “conservative narrative, too, soon learns to deploy its own version of the struggle between female common virtue and aristocratic male corruption, to regender ideology so that it subverts rather than supports the progressive argument” (256). Conservative plots often critique the naiveté of love, parody love and the love of money, and etc.

—. “The Institutionalization of Conflict: Fielding and the Instrumentality of Belief.” The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 382-409. Print.

In this chapter, McKeon applies his double-reversal argument to Fielding. I’ll just provide a few highlights here:

McKeon begins by discussing Jonathan Wild the Great, and its “critique of old, romancing histories supplemented by the critique of ‘new romances’ of naïve empiricism” (383). He then discusses mock-heroic movement, in which “the modern example is negative and the positive norm used to critique it is ancient history, which in turn becomes vulnerable to similar attack” (384).

  • “Fielding’s ideology is the issue of a double critique: first of aristocratic ideology by progressive ideology, then of progressive ideology by conservative” (385).

Basically, Fielding problematizes everything and leaves himself and his readers with nowhere to go but the gallows…

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