Author's Honors

March 31, 2005

 

Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America

Eighteen years ago, Cathy Davidson "invented the eighteenth century." At least that's the conclusion of President Richard H. Brodhead, who participated in a November panel discussion celebrating the reissue of Davidson's book, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America.

The discussion at the John Hope Franklin Center was both academic and personal as colleagues and former students described the significance of the book to the academy and also expressed appreciation for Davidson personally.

Davidson, the Ruth F. DeVarney professor of English and vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, was nearly speechless when she stood up at the end, saying later that "the panel discussion was one of those events where I felt like I was two people at once."

"One of those people learned so much from the other speakers. It was intellectually thrilling," she said. "The other part of me was almost numb with humility: it is humbling to have people one admires speak so warmly and eloquently about one's work."

Priscilla Wald, a Duke English professor on the panel, said the book, which came out when she was in graduate school, showed her that literature mattered. "I remember the excitement it generated. [It] shook the foundation of the field and the discipline."

Brodhead, an American literature scholar, said he remembered the time of year and even the chair he sat in when he first read the book--in about three sittings.

"For many years, Cathy Davidson was, to me, the author of this book," Brodhead said. "You gave us the eighteenth century as an interesting area of study."

Revolution and the Word was an academic best seller, and still is used in many courses across the country. In it, Davidson examines the American relationship with the novel after the American Revolution. She looks at the writings in the margins of the books, as well as diaries and reviews, to examine how a culture of words was established. She also argues that the widespread availability of books allowed all people--especially women and the lower classes--to gain literacy, thus strengthening the burgeoning democracy.

The book, with a new introduction from Davidson, has been reissued by Oxford University Press, an event that has been celebrated at other institutions as well as Duke. In her remarks at the Franklin Center, Davidson recalled searching in attics and old bookstores to find what had been regarded as literary "detritus." She said she had wanted to refute the notion that serious reading had devolved into cheap entertainment that no one took seriously. The readers and writers took their books seriously, she said. The novel was popular, yet feared, a fear that reflected the conflict over democracy in the new nation. She drew a parallel to current fears about dissent in the U.S. "You cannot have democracy without dissent," she said.