Studies in American Fiction
In his essay "James K. Paulding and the Foundation of American Realism," Louis D. Owens suggests that in the important essay "National Literature" as well as elsewhere Paulding argues for the kind of realism William Dean Howells hoped to develop at the end of the nineteenth century.1 Certainly Paulding's "National Literature" calls for America to write its own fiction. He attacks those authors who "have overlooked our own rich resources, and sponged upon the exhausted treasury of our impoverished neighbours,"2 and he condemns those who argue that America has no materials for "romantic fiction."3 Although Paulding admits that America is without the "fairies, giants, and goblins" which are the stuff of "mere romance-writers," he notes that the history of the founding of America is "amply sufficient for all the purposes of those higher works of imagination, which may be called Rational Fictions":4 The best and most perfect works of imagination appear to me to be those which are founded upon a combination of such characters as every generation of men exhibits, and such events as have often taken place in the world, and will again. Such works are only fictions, because the tissue of events which they record never perhaps happened in precisely the same train, and to the same number of persons, as are exhibited and associated in the relation. Real life is fraught with adventures, to which the wildest fictions scarcely afford a parallel; and it has this special advantage over its rival, that these events, however extraordinary, can always be traced to motives, actions, and passions, arising out of circumstances no way unnatural, and partaking of no impossible or supernatural agency."5 Paulding's comments here speak unarguably for a fiction that adheres more closely to life than that of "mere romance-writers." At the same time, however, his description of the uses to be made of life is strikingly like those of professed romancers who saw their art as, essentially, shaping history to make its meaning readily understandable to the reader. As John Caldwell Stubbs has written, "the nineteenth-century romancer's professed goal was to order the random happenings of experience into artful patterns so that the reader could comprehend the experience-either intellectually or emotionally."6 Such a writer "should consider his 'neutral ground' bounded by historical facts. But within this boundary he may imaginatively picture his conception of human experience."7 Paulding's high praise of Charles Brockden Brown's fiction in "National Literature" makes it clear that he does not oppose romance as a form;8 rather, he opposes extreme or absurd forms of the romance and wishes fiction to be more closely "bounded by historical facts."
Winston, Robert P. “Paulding’s The Dutchman’s Fireside and the Early American Romance.” Studies in American Fiction 11, no. 1 (1983): 47-59.