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Born Yesterday

Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel

Between the emergence of the realist novel in the early eighteenth century and the novel's subsequent alignment with self-improvement a century later lies a significant moment when novelistic characters were unlikely to mature in any meaningful way. That adolescent protagonists poised on the cusp of adulthood resisted a headlong tumble into maturity through the workings of plot reveals a curious literary and philosophical counter-tradition in the history of the novel. Stephanie Insley Hershinow's Born Yesterday shows how the archetype of the early realist novice reveals literary character tout court.

Through new readings of canonical novels by Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen, Hershinow severs the too-easy tie between novelistic form and character formation, a conflation, she argues, of Bild with Bildung. A pop-culture-infused epilogue illustrates the influence of the eighteenth-century novice, as embodied by Austen's Emma, in the 1995 film Clueless, as well as in dystopian YA works like The Hunger Games.

Drawing on bold close readings, Born Yesterday alters the landscape of literary historical eighteenth-century studies and challenges some of novel theory's most well-worn assumptions.

About the Author

Stephanie Insley Hershinow is an assistant professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Reviews

"Hershinow makes a compelling claim that the character of the novice represents a high point in the art of the novel. What makes her argument compelling is how she inhabits the novels at the level of the sentence, taking her vocabulary from the novelists."

- Critical Inquiry

"Ultimately, to read this book was to confirm my suspicion that the best close readers are the best writers of literary criticism. The good reader takes pleasure in nuance and complexity; the good writer tends to repeat the qualities that inspired that pleasure. Hershinow's readings, in other words, are filled with the insights of discerning study; her prose is filled with wit and humor, always intellectually serious but also gracefully playful in a way uncommon in academic writing... Brimming with possibility—both as a whole and even at the level of the sentence—this book embodies the spirit of the vibrant characters it studies."

- LA Review of Books

"The really radical implication of Born Yesterday is that character change itself is simply the wrong way to think about the category of experience in the novel... Hershinow does not shy away from pop-culture references, in part to challenge a conception of literary culture that is dismissive of girls and their aesthetic preferences. The payoff is as much stylistic as polemical. Lively and brimming with wit, Born Yesterday conveys through voice the impression of its author as a savvy and companionable guide to a selection of canonical novels she loves without apology."

- Eighteenth-Century Studies

Endorsements

"Intelligent and sharply stylish. Born Yesterday confirms my impression that Hershinow is one of the very brightest and most interesting of her cohort."

- Jenny Davidson, Columbia University, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

"In a series of sophisticated, worldly-wise readings of the novice figure in eighteenth-century fiction, Born Yesterday challenges the usual alignment of the novel with Bildung and enlightenment. The result is an exciting, original reassessment of the relationship between plot and character in realism and of eighteenth-century novelists' ethical commitments."

- Deidre Shauna Lynch, Harvard University, author of Loving Literature: A Cultural History

"The finest study of literary character in a generation, Hershinow's book demonstrates exactly what close reading and hard thinking can bring to the study of the eighteenth-century novel. In lean and sculpted prose, Born Yesterday examines how novels thought about experience without committing themselves to development. It is a must read for students of the novel and of eighteenth-century literature and for anyone interested in what what the methods of literary studies can illuminate about culture and ideas."

- Jonathan Kramnick, Yale University, author of Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness

"Hershinow brings an important new critical voice to the ongoing discussions of the eighteenth-century English novel. She provides an important theoretical intervention into the critical assumption that both plot and character are driven by a developmental telos."

- Shawn Lisa Maurer, College of the Holy Cross, author of Proposing Men: Dialectics of Gender and Class in the Eighteenth-Century English Periodical

"Engaging, innovative, and refreshing. Born Yesterday is an important, absorbing, cannily situated, and justifiably confident study that will be of interest to eighteenth-century literary scholars, as well as to narrative and genre theorists. An admirable piece of debut criticism, this book will be read, used, and built upon."

- Jayne Lewis, University of California, Irvine, author of Air's Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660–1794

"Stephanie Insley Hershinow deftly lays out an argument that is both straightforward and dazzlingly complex, and which opens out onto myriad aspects of novel studies, from the complex ways that eighteenth-century fiction combines a drive toward mimetic realism with a tendency to idealize, to more fundamental questions of how we understand the relationship between plot and character... This exciting and invigorating work of scholarship will doubtless prove beneficial both to researchers and to teachers, for its economical, spirited chapters lend themselves beautifully to classroom use. Born Yesterday gives us new frameworks to think about the texts it examines, but it also invites us to revisit our ideas of character, plot, and adolescence in powerfully creative ways."

- Katarzyna Bartoszyńska - Eighteenth-Century Fiction
Johns Hopkins University Press
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