Because fiction illustrates so many aspects of the past, it can contribute significantly to an understanding of social history. For times preceding sound recordings and film, it is a primary source for much of what is known about the way earlier Americans lived. Many novels, then as now, possess dubious literary merit, but it can be argued that they constitute history in and of themselves, providing a contemporary view of events, circumstances, customs, dress, manners, morals and popular attitudes of bygone days.
The fiction collection at the American Antiquarian Society spans the better part of a century, from 1789 through 1876. The first truly American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, was printed in Boston by Isaiah Thomas in 1789. The essential guide to the genre remains Lyle H. Wright's three-volume checklist, American Fiction, published in the nineteen-sixties. Of the nearly 3,000 entries in volume one (1774-1850), AAS holds over three-quarters. Of a similar number of entries in volume two (1851-1875), the Society holds over sixty per cent. Even in volume three, which begins at the end of the Society's time period, the library holds a high proportion of the titles published in the centennial year.
The student of James Fenimore Cooper will find at AAS the world's finest collection of Cooper's printed works, from his first appearance in print with Precaution in 1820, through approximately 1991. First editions, critical editions, translations, dramatic adaptations, and collections of illustrations are included, published both in the United States and abroad. Since 1967, the Antiquarian Society and Clark University have co-sponsored the definitive edition of Cooper's works. The collaboration has proceeded under the leadership of AAS members Kay S. House and Lance Schachterle, successors to the late James Franklin Beard (also a member of the Society). In an effort to bring this enormous mass of Cooper material under bibliographical control, staff have re-cataloged the entire collection, more than 1,300 volumes. These records are now available online.
Also useful to researchers are dozens of twentieth- and twenty-first-century critical studies, which provide glosses on and interpretation of hundreds of authors of great or modest talent.
- Anne C. Moore