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Earliest First-Person Fiction?
Meg Rosoff has been praising first-person narratives over on Facebook, but this got me to wondering: what is the earliest (extant) first person fiction?

By fiction, I mean presented-and-expected-to-be-received-as-such. I've no doubt that many of the Ozymandian boasts to be found on papyri, cylinders, tablets, etc. from the ancient Middle and Near East include a few stretchers, but they weren't presented as fiction.

Also, it must be first-person through and through. A first-person narrative embedded in a larger third-person narrative doesn't count, which rules out the epic of Gilgamesh, if I remember right.

I also rule out lyric poetry that presents generic situations (e.g. the lover is rejected and is feeling sad) that may or may not have actually occurred. We're talking stories here, in prose or verse.

I'm sure there will be many a borderline case, of course.

I haven't checked, but I think The Golden Ass is first person. Any advance on that?
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I can't go anywhere near back that far, but I've noticed that all the 18C or so novels I've seen that are first-person are epistolary. The idea that the character could just be telling the story didn't seem to have gotten hold yet; there had to be a plausible context.

The odd encrustations that have grown around first-person narrative in recent decades are another discussion entirely.

I can think of one earlier example off the top of my head: Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller. Probably there are others, but I can't name them.

Then there are traveller's tales like Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe that piggy-back on the genre of factual memoir much as your novels do on the epistle.

And Dante.

Oh yes. And that's once instance of a whole genre, of course, of visions and dream narratives. (Though some, like the Revelation of St John, are not presumably intended to be read as fiction. Where does something like "The Dream of the Rood" sit?)

A pattern seems to be being built up here of fiction parasitizing and colonizing non-fictional genres.

And that's once instance of a whole genre, of course, of visions and dream narratives.

The eighth-century Akkadian Erra epic is one of those—in the last section of the poem, the scribe Kabti-ilāni-Marduk identifies everything that has gone before as a dream that was revealed to him, not a line added, not a line taken away; it can now be published with the appoval of the gods whose story it recounts. (Among other reasons, the text states that it is a powerful charm against exactly the kind of devastating war described in the narrative and should therefore be disseminated as widely as possible.)

I would certainly see the 'The Dream of the rood' as a first person narrative along with some of the Saxon and Viking riddles (they've influenced some of my own writing as you know).

The Sagas such as Brennu Njal also contain much first person narrative.

Harlan Ellison did point out in THE DEATHBIRD that Genesis is told from the omniscient viewpoint....

The third-person omniscient, though!

But you can (I do) argue that any overt first person fiction is embedded in a third person narrative.

Kate Hamburger is great on these issues, in The Structure of Literature. She equates first person with lyric and third person with epic. The interesting thing she argues is that first person fiction is untrue in a far more thorough-going way than third person fiction.

Could you expand on those positions? If it can be done at LJ sort of length?

Well, quickly, and updated from Hamburger, the basic idea is that third person fiction isn't about our world, but about a fictional world. The narrator, someone in our world, is describing an alternative or possible world (nearby or far away) in which things not true here (Elizabeth Bennett marries Darcy) are true there. Third person fiction is generally something that could, right now, be non-fiction in a parallel world. But first person fiction is not true anywhere, because the person telling us stuff either isn't who they say they are (Brontë isn't Jane Eyre), or they didn't do what they said they did, or it isn't fiction.

Edited at 2015-05-14 02:24 pm (UTC)

Oh, I see - that's quite an interesting way of looking at it! But I don't see why first-person narratives couldn't have been smuggled into our world from the world in which they're true, using the same channels as those by which third-person narrators get their information about those same worlds.

In a more meta way, though, I'm struck that Hamburger (and I guess also you) share my own compulsion to give everything some kind of consistent ontological status and a truth-value to match. My impression is that such readers may be in the minority, for better or worse.

I haven't checked, but I think The Golden Ass is first person. Any advance on that?

(a) The Golden Ass is narrated in the first person throughout, so that's mid-to-late second century CE.

(b) Lucian of Samosata's True Histories is also narrated in the first person throughout, also mid-to-late second century CE. I don't know off the top of my head which was written first, or if there's even consensus, but I'll try to find out.

I know you're not looking for first-person narratives embedded in third-person frames, but would you count The Story of Sinuhe? The third-person frame is limited to three lines identifying Sinuhe by his titles and effectively handing him the microphone: "Sinuhe [of the bunch of titles] says . . ." The rest remains a first-person account to the end. If you're willing to accept that, you've got a standalone first-person narrative dating from the nineteenth century BCE.

Edited at 2015-05-13 05:16 pm (UTC)

Thank you for The Story of Sinuhe, which was entirely new to me! Yes, I think a few lines "handing him the microphone" is no more a frame story than a book-jacket puff or a dedicatory sonnet would be.

Thank you for The Story of Sinuhe, which was entirely new to me!

You're welcome! It was the oldest example I could think of, which doesn't mean there aren't even older ones (Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian) that I've failed to remember or just don't know. There are absolutely older fictional works attested; the question is whether and how they employ the first person.

Apuleius and Lucian are pretty near exact contemporaries, and we can't say which came first. (The Golden Ass is based on a text that is attributed to Lucian, but probably isn't by him). Anyway, both are beaten by Petronius' Satyricon, which is from the century before. I shall go and check out the possibility of earlier Greek novels.

Apuleius and Lucian are pretty near exact contemporaries, and we can't say which came first.

Thank you!

Anyway, both are beaten by Petronius' Satyricon, which is from the century before.

I got so distracted by Sinuhe, I didn't even think of the Satyricon. It does have a first-person narrator throughout the surviving sections. Good call!

I shall go and check out the possibility of earlier Greek novels.

All the Greek romances I know are contemporary or later. Chariton's Kallirhoe is mid-first century CE.

Edited at 2015-05-13 06:54 pm (UTC)

No, you're quite right, Achilles Tatius is CE, not BCE.

Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon (second century CE) has a first-person frame for another first-person narrative. I think there might be some Platonic dialogues that begin with a first-person introduction, but I am failing to identify them at present.

Edited at 2015-05-13 09:02 pm (UTC)

Beat me to Sinuhe ...

I love this thread.

Nine

It's lovely to have such a well-informed friends list!

Oh, so do I! Great fun!

Yes, The Golden Ass is certainly early, but Petronius's first-person Satyricon beats it - it was written in the time of Nero, while Apuleius's novel came about a century later. Both great books! :-) The Golden Ass has the story of Cupid and Psyche, a proto-Beauty and the Beast, while there's a werewolf story in the Satyricon, a bit of which I pinched for my own novel, Wolfborn. ;-)

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