37 5.1. American Literature 1789-1899

First American novels

It was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that the nation’s first novels were published. These fictions were too lengthy to be printed as manuscript or public reading. Publishers took a chance on these works in hopes they would become steady sellers and need to be reprinted. This was a good bet as literacy rates soared in this period among both men and women. Among the first American novels are Thomas Attwood Digges‘ “Adventures of Alonso”, published in London in 1775 and William Hill Brown‘s The Power of Sympathy published in 1791. Brown’s novel depicts a tragic love story between siblings who fell in love without knowing they were related. Thisepistolary novel belongs to the Sentimental novel tradition, as do the two following.

In the next decade important women writers also published novels. Susanna Rowson is best known for her novel, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, published in London in 1791. In 1794 the novel was reissued in Philadelphia under the title, Charlotte Temple. Charlotte Temple is a seduction tale, written in the third person, which warns against listening to the voice of love and counsels resistance. In addition to this best selling novel, she wrote nine novels, six theatrical works, two collections of poetry, six textbooks, and countless songs. Reaching more than a million and a half readers over a century and a half, Charlotte Temple was the biggest seller of the 19th century before Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although Rowson was extremely popular in her time and is often acknowledged in accounts of the development of the early American novel, Charlotte Temple is often criticized as a sentimental novel of seduction.

Hannah Webster Foster‘s The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton was published in 1797 and was also extremely popular. Told from Foster’s point of view and based on the real life of Eliza Whitman, this epistolary novel is about a woman who is seduced and abandoned. Eliza is a “coquette” who is courted by two very different men: a clergyman who offers her the comfort and regularity of domestic life, and a noted libertine. She fails to choose between them and finds herself single when both men get married. She eventually yields to the artful libertine and gives birth to an illegitimate stillborn child at an inn. The Coquette is praised for its demonstration of this era’s contradictory ideals of womanhood.

Washington Irving and his friends at Sunnyside

Both The Coquette and Charlotte Temple are novels that treat the right of women to live as equals as the new democratic experiment. These novels are of the Sentimental genre, characterized by overindulgence in emotion, an invitation to listen to the voice of reason against misleading passions, as well as an optimistic overemphasis on the essential goodness of humanity. Sentimentalism is often thought to be a reaction against the Calvinistic belief in the depravity of human nature. While many of these novels were popular, the economic infrastructure of the time did not allow these writers to make a living through their writing alone.

Charles Brockden Brown is the earliest American novelist whose works are still commonly read. He published Wieland in 1798, and in 1799 published Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Arthur Mervyn. These novels are of the Gothic genre.

The first author to be able to support himself through the income generated by his publications alone was Washington Irving. He completed his first major book in 1809 entitled A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.

Of the picaresque genre, Hugh Henry Brackenridge published Modern Chivalry in 1792-1815; Tabitha Gilman Tenney wrote Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventure of Dorcasina Sheldon in 1801; Royall Tyler wrote The Algerine Captive in 1797.

Other notable authors include William Gilmore Simms, who wrote Martin Faber in 1833, Guy Rivers in 1834, and The Yemassee in 1835. Lydia Maria Child wrote Hobomok in 1824 and The Rebels in 1825. John Neal wroteLogan, A Family History in 1822, Rachel Dyer in 1828, and The Down-Eaters in 1833. Catherine Maria Sedgwick wrote A New England Tale in 1822, Redwood in 1824, Hope Leslie in 1827, and The Linwoods in 1835. James Kirke Paulding wrote The Lion of the West in 1830, The Dutchman’s Fireside in 1831, and Westward Ho! in 1832. Robert Montgomery Bird wrote Calavar in 1834 and Nick of the Woods in 1837. James Fenimore Cooper was also a notable author best known for his novel, The Last of the Mohicans written in 1826.

Unique American style

Edgar Allan Poe portrait.

With the War of 1812 and an increasing desire to produce uniquely American literature and culture, a number of key new literary figures emerged, perhaps most prominently Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. Irving, often considered the first writer to develop a unique American style (although this has been debated) wrote humorous works in Salmagundi and the satire A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). Bryant wrote early romantic and nature-inspired poetry, which evolved away from their European origins.

In 1832, Poe began writing short stories – including “The Masque of the Red Death“, “The Pit and the Pendulum“, “The Fall of the House of Usher“, and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” – that explore previously hidden levels of human psychology and push the boundaries of fiction toward mystery and fantasy. Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales about Natty Bumppo (which includes The Last of the Mohicans) were popular both in the new country and abroad.

Humorous writers were also popular and included Seba Smith and Benjamin P. Shillaber in New England and Davy Crockett, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson J. Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and George Washington Harris writing about the American frontier.

The New England Brahmins were a group of writers connected to Harvard University and its seat in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The core included James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), an ex-minister, published a startling nonfiction work called Nature, in which he claimed it was possible to dispense with organized religion and reach a lofty spiritual state by studying and responding to the natural world. His work influenced not only the writers who gathered around him, forming a movement known as Transcendentalism, but also the public, who heard him lecture.

Emerson’s most gifted fellow-thinker was perhaps Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), a resolute nonconformist. After living mostly by himself for two years in a cabin by a wooded pond, Thoreau wrote Walden, a book-length memoir that urges resistance to the meddlesome dictates of organized society. His radical writings express a deep-rooted tendency toward individualism in the American character. Other writers influenced by Transcendentalism were Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, and Jones Very.

Just as one of the great works of the Revolutionary period was written by a Frenchman, so too was one of the great works about America from this generation, viz., Alexis de Tocqueville‘s two-volume Democracy in America, which (like the colonial explorers) described his travels through the young country, making observations about the relations between democracy, liberty, equality, individualism and community.

The political conflict surrounding abolitionism inspired the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his paper The Liberator, along with poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her world-famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These efforts were supported by the continuation of the slave narrative autobiography, of which the best known examples from this period includeFrederick Douglass‘s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Harriet Jacobs‘s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

At the same time, Native American autobiography develops, most notably in William Apess‘s A Son of the Forest and George Copway‘s The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh. Moreover, minority authors were beginning to publish fiction, as in William Wells Brown‘s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, Frank J. Webb‘s The Garies and Their Friends, Martin Delany‘sBlake; or, The Huts of America and Harriet E. Wilson‘s Our Nig as early African American novels, and John Rollin Ridge‘s The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit, which is considered the first Native American novel but which also is an early story about Mexican American issues.

In 1837, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) collected some of his stories as Twice-Told Tales, a volume rich in symbolism and occult incidents. Hawthorne went on to write full-length “romances”, quasi-allegorical novels that explore such themes as guilt, pride, and emotional repression in his native New England. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, is the stark drama of a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery.

Hawthorne’s fiction had a profound impact on his friend Herman Melville (1819–1891), who first made a name for himself by turning material from his seafaring days into exotic and sensational sea narrative novels. Inspired by Hawthorne’s focus on allegories and dark psychology, Melville went on to write romances replete with philosophical speculation. In Moby-Dick, an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggle against the elements.

In another fine work, the short novel Billy Budd, Melville dramatizes the conflicting claims of duty and compassion on board a ship in time of war. His more profound books sold poorly, and he had been long forgotten by the time of his death. He was rediscovered in the early decades of the 20th century.

Anti-transcendental works from Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe all comprise the Dark Romanticism subgenre of literature popular during this time.

American dramatic literature, by contrast, remained dependent on European models, although many playwrights did attempt to apply these forms to American topics and themes, such as immigrants, westward expansion, temperance, etc. At the same time, American playwrights created several long-lasting American character types, especially the “Yankee”, the “Negro” and the “Indian”, exemplified by the characters of Jonathan, Sambo and Metamora. In addition, new dramatic forms were created in the Tom Shows, the showboat theater and the minstrel show. Among the best plays of the period are James Nelson Barker‘s Superstition; or, the Fanatic Father, Anna Cora Mowatt‘s Fashion; or, Life in New York, Nathaniel Bannister‘s Putnam, the Iron Son of ’76, Dion Boucicault‘s The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana, and Cornelius Mathews‘s Witchcraft; or, the Martyrs of Salem.

 

Walt Whitman, 1856.

See also: American poetry

The Fireside Poets (also known as the Schoolroom or Household Poets) were some of America’s first major poets domestically and internationally. They were known for their poems being easy to memorize due to their general adherence to poetic form (standard forms, regular meter, and rhymed stanzas) and were often recited in the home (hence the name) as well as in school (such as “Paul Revere’s Ride“), as well as working with distinctly American themes, including some political issues such as abolition. They included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier,James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.. Longfellow achieved the highest level of acclaim and is often considered the first internationally acclaimed American poet, being the first American poet given a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.

Walt Whitman(1819–1892) and Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), two of America’s greatest 19th-century poets could hardly have been more different in temperament and style. Walt Whitman was a working man, a traveler, a self-appointed nurse during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and a poetic innovator. His magnum opus was Leaves of Grass, in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. Taking that motif one step further, the poet equates the vast range of American experience with himself without being egotistical. For example, in Song of Myself, the long, central poem in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me …”

Whitman was also a poet of the body – “the body electric,” as he called it. In Studies in Classic American Literature, the English novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote that Whitman “was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something ‘superior’ and ‘above’ the flesh.”

Emily Dickinson , on the other hand, lived the sheltered life of a genteel unmarried woman in small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. Within its formal structure, her poetry is ingenious, witty, exquisitely wrought, and psychologically penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, and little of it was published during her lifetime.

Many of her poems dwell on death, often with a mischievous twist. One, “Because I could not stop for Death“, begins, “He kindly stopped for me.” The opening of another Dickinson poem toys with her position as a woman in a male-dominated society and an unrecognized poet: “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody too?”

American poetry arguably reached its peak in the early-to-mid-20th century, with such noted writers as Wallace Stevens and his Harmonium (1923) and The Auroras of Autumn (1950), T. S. Eliot and his The Waste Land (1922), Robert Frost and his North of Boston (1914) and New Hampshire (1923), Hart Crane and his White Buildings (1926) and the epic cycle, The Bridge(1930), Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and his epic poem about his New Jersey hometown, Paterson, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes, in addition to many others.

Realism, Twain and James

Mark Twain, 1907.

Mark Twain (the pen name used by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910) was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast – in the border state of Missouri. His regional masterpieces were the memoir Life on the Mississippi and the novels Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s style – influenced by journalism, wedded to the vernacular, direct and unadorned but also highly evocative and irreverently humorous – changed the way Americans write their language. His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, and regional accents.

Other writers interested in regional differences and dialect were George W. Cable, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock), Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Henry Cuyler Bunner, and William Sydney Porter (O. Henry). A version of local color regionalism that focused on minority experiences can be seen in the works of Charles W. Chesnutt (African American), of María Ruiz de Burton, one of the earliest Mexican American novelists to write in English, and in the Yiddish-inflected works of Abraham Cahan.

William Dean Howells also represented the realist tradition through his novels, including The Rise of Silas Lapham and his work as editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

Henry James (1843–1916) confronted the Old World-New World dilemma by writing directly about it. Although born in New York City, he spent most of his adult years in England. Many of his novels center on Americans who live in or travel to Europe. With its intricate, highly qualified sentences and dissection of emotional and psychological nuance, James’s fiction can be daunting. Among his more accessible works are the novellas Daisy Miller, about an enchanting American girl in Europe, and The Turn of the Screw, an enigmatic ghost story.

Realism also influenced American drama of the period, in part through the works of Howells but also through the works of such Europeans as Ibsen and Zola. Although realism was most influential in terms of set design and staging—audiences loved the special effects offered up by the popular melodramas—and in the growth of local color plays, it also showed up in the more subdued, less romantic tone that reflected the effects of the Civil War and continued social turmoil on the American psyche.

The most ambitious attempt at bringing modern realism into the drama was James Herne‘s Margaret Fleming, which addressed issues of social determinism through realistic dialogue, psychological insight and symbolism; the play was not a success, as critics and audiences alike felt it dwelt too much on unseemly topics and included improper scenes, such as the main character nursing her husband’s illegitimate child onstage.

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