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19C american literature

Washington Irving
Fig. 1  Washington Irving (1783 - 1859)

Early in the 19th century, Washington Irving gained European recognition as America's first genuine man of letters.  A History of New York (1809) is a whimsical satire of pedantic historians and literary classics.  His best-known tales, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which was published serially in 1819-20.  William Cullen Bryant emerged in the 1820s as a poet of international stature. His "Thanatopsis" (1817), influenced by the English Graveyard Poets, linked American literature to the emerging English romanticism.  Still, despite European influences, American writers attempted to create a distinctive literature during a time of rising literary nationalism.  Noah Webster contributed An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), in which he insisted that the country possessed its own language.  The nationalist theme was echoed by William Ellery Channing, Edward Everett, and most memorably by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard, "The American Scholar" (1837), which Oliver Wendell Holmes called "our intellectual Declaration of Independence."

James Fenimore Cooper was the first important American novelist to succeed with subjects and settings that are largely American.  Cooper achieved international prominence with his second novel, The Spy (1821), a tale of the Revolution.  His many novels blending history and romance resulted in his being called "the American [Sir Walter] Scott," a title that put him in the company of one of the period's most popular and respected authors.  Cooper became best known for his Leatherstocking Tales, five novels that run from The Pioneers (1823) to The Deerslayer (1841).  Cooper's settings capture the American idea of nature, and his hero, Natty Bumppo, expresses the self-reliant, pioneering spirit of America.

James Fenimore Cooper
Fig 2.  James Fenimore Cooper (1789 - 1851)

Much of Cooper's sense of America was caught by the Fireside Poets, who celebrated American history and a benign American nature.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow displayed his skill at telling a story in verse in Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Evangeline (1847). But Longfellow and his contemporaries succeeded best in public poetry intended for recitation.  Still powerful are Longfellow'sThe Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1863), John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Freitchie" (1863), and Oliver Wendell Holmes's "Old Ironsides" (1830).

Edgar Allan Poe stood apart from literary nationalism and represented a gloomier side of romanticism.  As a reviewer, he was a harsh critic of second-rate American writing, but he dabbled in many popular sensationalistic forms.  His often technically complex poetry uses commonplace romantic themes but gives them a philosophical and mystical application.  Many of his short stories remain internationally famous, and he may be said to have invented the detective story.  In "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe perfected the tale of gothic horror.

Edgar Allan Poe

Fig. 3  Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849)

American Renaissance
The American renaissance, also known as the American romantic movement, began with the maturing of American literature in the 1830s and 1840s and ended with its flowering in the 1850s.  During the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson established himself as the spokesman for transcendentalism, first set forth in his essay Nature (1836).  The group known as the transcendentalists that gathered around him in Concord, Mass., included Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and William Ellery Channing, who joined with Emerson in the publication of The Dial magazine (1840-44).  They subscribed to Emerson's faith that all people are united in their communion with the oversoul, a postreligious equivalent of God. Each individual, Emerson said, finds his or her own way to transcendence through self-knowledge, self-reliance, and the contemplation of nature.

Henry David Thoreau came closest to putting Emerson's ideas into practice.  After two intermittent years at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., he wrote Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854).  In this book, Thoreau observes nature from the viewpoint of a naturalist-philosopher reflecting on the quiet desperation of humanity and the transcendental solace of the natural world.  No less consciously indebted to Emerson was Walt Whitman, who dedicated the first edition of his poetry, Leaves of Grass (1855), to him.  Whitman celebrated an untrammeled communion with nature with overtones of sensuality that appeared shocking even though his poetry expressed sound transcendental doctrine.  Whitman also took seriously Emerson's appeal for American originality; he devised a loose, "natural" form of versification that seemed unpoetic and jarring to his contemporaries.  After the Civil War, Whitman gained wider acceptance with his elegy on the death of Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" (1865). Whitman's prose works include Democratic Vistas (1871), containing his philosophy of American democracy along with prophecies of its future greatness and the coming greatness of its literature, and Specimen Days (1882), an account of his Civil War experiences as a volunteer nurse.

Unknown to the public, another American innovative poet, Emily Dickinson, was writing in Amherst, Mass.  Her poems, written mostly from the late 1850s through the 1860s, were unconventional and deceptively simple lyrics concerned with death, eternity, and the inner life.  Few were published in her lifetime, but when her poems were rediscovered in the 1920s, Dickinson took her place as a major American poet.

Nathaniel Hawthorne represents American romanticism with its roots firmly planted in the Puritan past.  His stories were collected in Twice-Told Tales (1837), which established his importance as an American writer. Some were tales of the Puritans and of early American history; others used a mixture of symbolism and allegory that, together with certain recurrent themes, was carried over into Hawthorne's novels.  His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850), is a symbolic romance set in Puritan New England.  Hawthorne had been attracted to Emerson's thought but rejected its optimism both here and in The Blithedale Romance (1852), a novel based on the transcendentalists' utopian experiment, Brook Farm.

Herman Melville
Fig. 4  Herman Melville (1819 - 1891)

Herman Melville also rejected Emerson's philosophy.  His first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), based on his own adventures after deserting his ship while on a whaling voyage, challenged the spiritual substance of Christianity. Melville continued to write of the sea and adventure but now with increasing philosophical complexity and a mixture of allegory and symbolism comparable to Hawthorne's.  The culmination of his growth came in Moby Dick (1851).  This philosophical adventure satisfied the age's aspiration for a great epic of nature and America, yet its greatness was not recognized at the time.  Certainly it came nowhere near the success of the great best-seller Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  After the failure of Melville's next novel, Pierre (1852), Melville continued to write, but he became increasingly discouraged with his inability to reach an audience.  At his death in 1891 he was virtually unknown.  He left behind poetry on Civil War themes, notably Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), and the short, unfinished novel Billy Budd.  These and other late manuscripts, neglected for many years, were rediscovered in the 1920s by critics and scholars, whose reassessments established Melville as a superior American writer.

Post-Civil War Literature
The post-Civil War period is roughly the period from the rise of realism to the advent of naturalism, up to World War I.  The war itself affected literature less than did the industrial expansion that followed it.  Nevertheless, the war was the basis for poetry by Melville, Emerson, Lowell, and Whitman, and of significant autobiographical accounts by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Charles Francis Adams Jr., and Ulysses S. Grant.

Mark Twain's aesthetic was formed by the sketches of the Old Southwestern humorists who published their accounts of hunting, drinking, gambling, courting rituals, horse races, assorted cons, and "low life" pranks in newspapers such as William T. Porter's Spirit of the Times, the New Orleans Delta and Picayune, the St. Louis Reveille, and the Cincinnati News.  The Old Southwest, the western sections of the eastern states and what is now roughly the Midwest, proved a congenial turf for tales that pitted the elevated, "proper" diction of a gentleman narrator against the vivid vernacular speech of a ring-tailed roarer.

The result was an unabashedly masculine humor, one that, by our standards, often seems politically incorrect.  Characters such as George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood were thoroughgoing misogynists, racist to their bones, anti-Semitic, and just plain ornery.  In their rough frontier environment, a good joke maimed a person, a great joke killed him.

Mark Twain
Fig. 5  Mark Twain, aka as Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835 - 1910)

The choice of the pen name Mark Twain by Samuel Clemens followed the general practice common among Old Southwestern humorists who wrote between 1820 and 1850: Joel Chandler Harris as Uncle Remus, David Ross Locke as Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, and Charles Farrar Browne as Artemas WardTwain, however, raised their level of humor to new heights, first by leading the movement away from the romanticism typical of the American renaissance to a worldly realism that dealt with actual places and situations; and then by developing a style that produced equivalents of American speech never before attempted.  What various local colorists did to nearly unreadable excess, Twain perfected into an idiom that was simultaneously the illusion of actual speech and a vehicle for deeply American tales.

Twain drew extensively from his personal experiences: on his own travels for The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Roughing It (1872), on his days as a riverboat pilot for Life on the Mississippi (1883), and on his youth for his boyhood stories Tom Sawyer (1876) and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).  Huckleberry Finn is considered by many critics to be the first modern American novel; it is undoubtedly one of the great American literary achievements.

As novelists and critics, William Dean Howells and Henry James contributed to the shift from romance to realism.  Howells'sThe Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) concerns an ordinary farmer who becomes wealthy and moves to Boston but whose spiritual rise comes about only when he loses his wealth.  Despite a prolific output, Howells's significance rests mostly on his literary criticism and his opposition to provincialism in American literature.  James departed even further from the provincial scene.  He portrayed expatriate Americans in a European setting in Daisy Miller (1878) and in his triumph of psychological realism, The Portrait of a Lady (1881).  Conversely, James presented the reactions of Europeans to a New England background in The Europeans (1878).  In The Bostonians (1886) he satirized New England reformers and philanthropists.  As prolific as Howells, James was also a self-conscious critic and an advocate of realism.  In his last novels, notably The Golden Bowl (1904), James created a new, complex language and symbolism for the novel that heralded the age of modernism.

Regionalism, the literature of particular sections of the country, flourished, however.  Many authors who used this form of realistic local color were women, among them Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Ellen Glasgow, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Edith Wharton.  Other writers of the period who are thought of as regionalists are Ambrose Bierce, Hamlin Garland, and Bret Harte.  Much of the literature of African Americans was regional in setting, by force of circumstance. Charles Chesnutt and William Wells Brown were early black novelists.  In Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), the poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar used dialect and humble settings in a blend of pathos and humor.  Some of the most powerful writing by black Americans has been autobiographical; in the post-Civil War period, works depicting the experiences of black Americans include The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Up from Slavery (1901) by Booker T. Washington, the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson, and The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W. E. B. Du Bois.


Fig. 6  Stephen Crane (1871 - 1910)

In the 1890's novels emphasizing a harsher view of reality began to appear, marking the beginnings of American naturalism. Stephen Crane's, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) was little noticed, but his Red Badge of Courage (1895) was immediately recognized as a classic. Frank Norris more nearly exhibited the features of naturalism than did Crane, especially in McTeague (1899), The Octopus (1901), and The Pit (1903).  Norris's works, often concerned with the Darwinian struggle for survival, focus upon human greed, depravity, and suffering.  Theodore Dreiser created the most striking naturalistic works, beginning with Sister Carrie (1900) and culminating in An American Tragedy (1925).  Dreiser's works reflect compassion and an understanding of human motivations in analyzing the dilemma of the individual in contemporary society.