The literary aesthetic conventions and innovations practiced in American fiction writers' recourse to historical documentary materials falls within a documentary tradition associated with the generic development of the novel as well as with American religious typology as an interpretive mode which survived a shift from sacred to secular texts. The popularity of early American novels "founded on fact" attests to this transition but also to a crisis of values which forced some writers to question the demands of a culture where promises of liberation were tied to the fulfillment of its historical texts of truth. Charles Brockden Brown and William Dunlap enlisted the aesthetic power of human fancy into the service of fact for fictions that ironically belie their own premises of substantive truth. Hawthorne supposed that his fiction, if not truth, might penetrate to a native American mythology in his fictional responses to the historical records of the Puritans' "persecuting spirit." In his "Prefaces," Puritan tales, and The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's fear that his art is the product of his own inadequate imagination constrains him to attribute order and meaning to documentary sources while he transforms these same materials into fictions whose authenticity is actually dependent upon the free play of his own powers of fancy. In Melville's Benito Cereno, Israel Potter, and Billy Budd, the notion of documents as an historical ground for fiction as truth, or even as mythology, gives way to their treatment as unreliable yet powerful determinants of value and meaning--deceptive artifacts whose integrity is undercut by varying perspectives which exhaust historical forms of their truth as other than or different from his own documentary fiction. In their contemporary "metafiction," writers like John Barth and Robert Coover return to the literary sensibility of Hawthorne and Melville as a means for assaulting the thresholds and borders of their own inherited modes of expression; they return to a distinctively American literary aesthetics where notions of continuity, veracity, coherence, and form continue to be a patchwork fabric "made up" by the self-conscious play of human fancy.
Turner, Alden Rolfe (1982). The documentary experience : Hawthorne, Melville and the aesthetics of fancy. Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Libraries.
Available electronically from https : / /hdl .handle .net /1969 .1 /DISSERTATIONS -515404.