Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Amy J. Elias

Committee Members

Thomas Haddox, William Hardwig, Jeri L. McIntosh


This dissertation examines the technique of archaism as it has been practiced in the historical novel since that genre’s origins. By “archaism,” I refer to a variation of the strategy that Jerome McGann calls textual “literalism,” whereby literary texts use “thickly materialized” language and bibliographic forms to foreground their own “textuality as such” (Black Riders 74). Archaism is distinguished from Blake’s, Pound’s, or Robert Carlton Brown’s literalism by its imitation of older literary idioms, yet the specifically historical quality of its intertextuality also seems different from primarily formal imitations such as pastiche and parody.

Although archaism appears to have originated as part of the special language of romance, this study focuses on the technique as a representational strategy within historical fiction. Thus I begin by interpreting Thomas Chatterton’s faux-medieval forgeries (ca. 1770) as a kind of poetic antiquarianism, after which I trace the legacy of Chattertonian archaism in nineteenth-century historical novels including Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852). The last two chapters address the twentieth-century return to archaism in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth: A Sea Trilogy (1980-1989), and William T. Vollmann’s Argall (2001).

Throughout, I rely extensively upon Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel (1937), approaching the latter novels as historical fiction rather than as specimens of such post-1960s genres as Linda Hutcheon’s “historiographic metafiction” or Amy J. Elias’s “metahistorical romance.” Lukács is especially useful because of his sense that historical fictions are animated by the mimetic imperative to represent historical “reality.” Furthermore, the historical novel frame of these novels often serves to historicize literary form, disciplining both the simulation and the metafictionality that exemplify postmodern cultural praxis. Ultimately, I argue that archaism within the historical novel models a historical “real” that is always constructed in a manner analogous to the construction of literary texts, positing a historicity in which imaginative literature offers a key figuration of social experience. Unlike Hutcheon, who advances similar claims for historiographic metafiction, I contend that these novels often use archaism to represent their historical referents as reality—a practice that recalls the “classical” historical fiction of the nineteenth century.

By drawing equally on historical novel theory and on Hutcheon, Elias, and Fredric Jameson’s analyses of post-1960s historical fiction as a representative form of aesthetic postmodernism, I synthesize two theoretical discussions which have typically been seen as incompatible. Similarly, this study emphasizes the continuity between old and new forms of historical fiction, expanding on Elias’s salient observation that “postmodern historical fiction stands in the refracted light of nineteenth-century historical novels” (Sublime Desire 6). Concepts of theoretical and aesthetic continuity, therefore, shape both the argument and the organization of this dissertation.

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