You might think that a study of early 19th-century American fiction, focusing largely on half-forgotten books, should be the natural purview of a university press. Why, then, would Farrar Straus & Giroux publish a work of seemingly arcane literary history as a trade title? After all, outside of upper-level university classes, who now reads George Lippard’s “The Quaker City” or W.S. Mayo’s “Kaloolah” or Frank J. Webb’s “The Garies and Their Friends” or Elizabeth Stoddard’s “The Morgesons”? The answer may be surprising: Even before you finish “Truth’s Ragged Edge,” you’ll be searching your library, bookstore or the Internet for copies of them all.

Philip F. Gura, professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has produced an enthralling work of literary recovery. There’s nothing at all fuddy-duddy about the books he discusses. Those novels just mentioned and many others are collectively replete with violence, seduction, incest, serial murders, insanity, betrayal and revenge, personality disorders, orgies and much that is simply very, very strange. Yet all these appealingly lurid plot elements underpin complex examinations of class and caste and race and spiritual angst. If you tend, perhaps unconsciously, to dismiss American novels before “Moby-Dick” (1851) as largely earnest, moralizing tales written in fustian English — as essentially James Fenimore Cooper at his worst — or if you think that academics now write only for one another, this book will come as a revelation.

Gura, who knows the literary and intellectual life of 1790-1865 inside out (see, for further proof, his “American Transcendentalism: A History”), points out that the most persistent theme in our nation’s early fiction is “the contest between civic duty and individualism,” between the strictures of social or religious norms and fidelity to one’s own self and impulses. Susanna Rowson’s best-selling “Charlotte Temple” (1791) makes clear, in Gura’s words, that “capitulation to one’s feelings without proper rational reflection could lead not only to personal tragedy but to a breakdown of social mores.”Just consider what happens in Charles Brockden Brown’s “Wieland,” (1798) when the title character hears the voice of God commanding him to murder his wife and children.

In Robert Montgomery Bird’s “Sheppard Lee” (1836) — recently republished by New York Review Books — the protagonist, after accidentally killing himself, becomes a disembodied spirit who is able to enter and reanimate the corpses of the recently dead. He first takes over the body and the life of a rich squire, then a Quaker philanthropist, and eventually an African American slave. Lippard’s novel implicitly asks: Is the self fixed or malleable? Whenever Lee “inhabits other people’s bodies, he begins to act like them.” How, then, do we know that anyone truly is what he or she seems? As Melville writes in “Moby-Dick”: “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” In Bird’s “Nick of the Woods” (1837), a devout Quaker, professing love and pacifism, is in fact a split personality. At night he becomes the Jibbenainosay, a crazed killer who brutally slaughters Indians and hacks the sign of the cross on their chests.

“Strike through the mask!” famously orders Ahab. In “The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime” (1844), Lippard does just that by imagining an American equivalent of the Hell-Fire Club. “The sinful actions of the large cast of Monk Hall regulars,” writes Gura, “include seduction, rape, incest, cannibalism, murder, counterfeiting, robbery, drunkenness, opium use — all indulged in by Philadelphia’s finest and described in graphic detail. Albert Livingstone, a regular visitor at the hall, finds his social-climbing wife, Dora, asleep naked on a divan with her lover, a man masquerading as an English lord. The Reverend F.A.T. Pyne drugs and tries to rape a young woman named Mabel, whom he has raised as a daughter. The reader learns that she is the illegitimate child of Devil Bug, a feral African American who is the chief pimp at Monk Hall.”

Such gothic excess mirrors the sinful desires lurking in all our souls and thus, somewhat paradoxically, our common humanity. But what is sinful? The Utopian socialist Charles Fourier imagined communal societies founded on the gratification of every desire, and many American followers attempted to create versions of his “phalansteries.” In Mayo’s “Kaloolah” (1849), which combines exotic travel narrative with Lost World romance, the intrepid hero discovers a perfectly harmonious civilization a la Fourier hidden deep in the heart of Africa.

Throughout “Truth’s Ragged Edge,” Gura offers potted biographies of his various authors, followed by interpretative summaries of their most notable books. Because so many of these novels are autobiographical, especially those by women and African Americans, it can sometimes be easy to confuse an actual life with its transformation into a novel’s plot. When Gura mentions Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, an ardent follower of Fourier, one might take him to be fictional, but he’s not. He frequented the salon of Mary Gove Nichols, whose autobiographical novel “Mary Lyndon” (1855) closes with the heroine’s dramatic insistence on her personal agency:

“In a marriage with you,” she tells her husband-to-be, “I resign no right of my soul. I enter into no compact to be faithful to you. I only promise to be faithful to the deepest love of my heart. . . . If my love leads me from you,” she warns, “I must go.” She also insists on keeping her name and having a room of her own. Like a proto-Virginia Woolf, Nichols is just one of the many novelists of this period who take up the question: How is a woman to realize herself as a human being and not just as a wife and mother?

One long chapter of “Truth’s Ragged Edge” looks at novels about slavery, the color line and racial tension: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852) naturally, but also, among others, William Wells Brown’s “Clotel” (1853, about an illegitimate daughter of Thomas Jefferson’s); Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself” (1861); and Webb’s “The Garies and Their Friends” (1857), in which free Philadelphia blacks, hardworking and admirable, are cruelly tormented by their racist white neighbors.

While Gura’s book discusses some familiar names, such as Hawthorne and Melville, it is most valuable in creating excitement for the work of, say, Stoddard, whose novels are pioneering works of both psychological fiction and social realism. As Cassandra, the protagonist of “The Morgesons” (1862), proclaims: “Hidden among the Powers That Be, which rule New England lurks the Deity of the Illicit.” Stoddard’s books boldly show us women as sexual beings. Cassandra falls in love with a married man, who is accidentally killed before they can consummate their passion. To his widow she unashamedly says, “I must tell you that I hunger now for the kiss he never gave me.”

In his acknowledgments, Gura writes that his book was partly inspired by Edmund Wilson’s magisterial “Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War.” Future scholars will be comparably inspired by “Truth’s Ragged Edge.”

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.