American Literature–Gilded Age: 1865-1914
American Literature Between the Civil War and WW I
Significant Historical Dates:
1868: 14th Amendment to Constitution (declares all U. S. born people U. S. citizens)
1870: 15th Amendment ensures right to vote to citizens of all races
1877: Federal troops removed from southern states (end of Reconstruction, less protection for rights of African Americans in southern states)
1890: Massacre at Wounded Knee
1895: Booker T. Washington gives Atlanta Compromise speech
1896: Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case upholds principle of separate but equal (allowing racial segregation)
1898: Spanish-American War (USS Maine sunk, Dewey captures Philippines)
1906: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle published; Pure Food and Drug Act (created the FDA)
1909: NAACP founded
1914: WW I begins (Archduke Ferdinand assassinated)
American Literature from 1865-1914: Some Highlights
This list includes many highlights from these years of American literature, but of course there are many more works from this era very much worth reading. Do you have a work in mind that you think belongs on this list? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll consider your suggestion!
Emily Dickinson. Poems.
Emily Dickinson is one of America’s most important poets. Dickinson lived from 1830-1886. She wrote nearly 1800 poems, only about ten of which were published in her lifetime, and those were heavily edited to reflect stylistic preferences of the day. How to choose among 1800 works? I will have to content myself with listing a few of the most famous ones, and urging you to explore her work further. Dickinson’s work is challenging, wry, irreverent, and intellectually bold. Her style is edgy, vivid, and, even today, iconoclastic. For ideas on how to approach Dickinson’s poetry, see my post interpreting “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain.” In addition, check out these poems: “Success is counted sweetest,” “’Faith’ is a fine invention,” “I taste a liquor never brewed,” “Wild nights – Wild nights!,” “I Like a Look of Agony,” “A Bird, came down the Walk –,” and “The Soul selects her own Society-.”
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, 1868.
If you have never read this book, well, you just have to! Besides being a sweet account of the childhood and youth of four lively but thoughtful, intelligent sisters, this classic novel submerges readers in an American time and culture that has largely been forgotten. You may be surprised at how many Christian religious references there are, and how much talk about morality—not at all unusual for folks living in the American 19th century. It’s a trip back into American time: take it!
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemons). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885.
Twain’s writing can be terrifically funny, caustic, satiric, even prophetic. Most readers won’t be disturbed by reading about the sentimentalized adventures of all-American scamp Tom Sawyer. But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a more important work, may make painful reading because of the frequent use of the “N” word and other racist descriptions, causing it to be banned today from many school reading lists and libraries. I would urge readers to overcome that barrier and read this very important American work, approaching it with the understanding that Twain is not endorsing racism; instead, he is reporting and criticizing it. Huckleberry Finn satirizes the narrow, immoral views that average people widely accepted in his day. The point, theme, and purpose of Twain’s book is to show that slavery and racism are profoundly, morally wrong.
The book also illustrates the characteristic American idea that a whole society and culture may be less morally enlightened than one young, “uncivilized,” yet simple loving heart. Huck’s journey down the Mississippi with his friend Jim, the escaping slave, is by turns funny, sad, maddening, harrowing, and heartbreaking. But overall it is a journey toward Huck’s moral understanding. Huck’s journey is our American journey. If we are not all the way there yet, this book shows we have at least come some way since it was published in 1885.
Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings-The Folklore of the Old Plantation. 1880
Before the Civil War, Joel Chandler Harris was a journalist who spent time on Turnwold Plantation, owned by his mentor and boss Joseph Addison Turner. Harris got to know some of the slaves who lived and worked there. Harris admired the way the African American people told stories, noting especially the way they focused on clever trickster figures like “Brer Rabbit” who could use their wits and their story-telling abilities to thwart the villains who seemed more powerful than they were. Years later, Harris wanted to preserve this rich story-telling culture, and strove to write down the tales he heard exactly the way they were told, including the dialect, acting in the role of a folklorist. Today it is not easy to read the dialect the way Harris wrote it down, but if you push through that barrier, you will encounter some charming and meaningful stories.
Charles Chestnutt, “The Goophered Grapevine,” 1887
Chestnutt was an African American lawyer and fiction writer, born in Cleveland, Ohio of free black parents two years before the Civil War. Chestnutt was the first African American writer to be published in The Atlantic Monthly, and was one of the first fiction writers to deal with problems of race after the Civil War. In this story, a Northern couple encounters a former slave on a southern vineyard they want to buy, who tells them a story that he says occurred on the site when a “conjure woman” was hired to put a curse on the vineyard. Mr. Julius MacAdoo tells the couple a very good tale, while Chestnutt’s story as a whole gives readers a sense of how the culture was evolving in the post- Civil War era.
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, 1881; The Bostonians, 1886; The Ambassadors, 1903; and The Wings of the Dove, 1902.
Prolific, varied, accomplished, and complex, James is one of America’s most important classic writers. He has written so many wonderful novels and tales, it is hard to choose from among them; this list includes a range of celebrated works and illustrates the evolution of the famous Henry James style. These novels all also showcase James’s ability to probe the psychology of many kinds of minds. James can convey every nuance of thought of major characters as they try to break through communication defenses to figure out what the other characters are thinking and planning. James conceives of almost every conversation as a conflict in which people maneuver for power and psychological control through their speech. The tone of James’s novels is also complex, varying from comic to tragic and back again. Thus none of these books are “quick reads,” but all are fascinating, in-depth profiles of different kinds of Americans:
Portrait of a Lady: Isabel Archer, young, innocent, and full of life, comes to Europe to shape her own destiny. But after unexpectedly becoming an heiress, she falls prey to two American expatriates who want to fool her out of her money, and her freedom.
The Bostonians: Focusing on the feminist movement in Boston in the 1880s, the novel tells the story of an inspired young speaker on the rights of women, Verena Tarrant, and the two people who fall in love with her and try to control her: Olive Chancellor, an older Bostonian also dedicated to the feminist movement, and Basil Ransom, a conservative southern gentleman.
The Wings of the Dove: Set in London and Venice, this novel focuses on a sweet young American lady who develops a serious disease. What effect does her generous, brave spirit have on those around her? Do the people who surround her want to help her or prey on her?
The Ambassadors: Lambert Strether is an American man in his 50s whose experience has been restricted mostly to one small Massachusetts town and the elite social set with whom he socializes. When his rich fiancée demands that he go to Paris to persuade her grown son to return home to Woollett to run the family business, Strether takes on the task, realizing his success is a condition of their marriage. However, when the insulated American gets a whiff of a more sophisticated European culture, what happens?
Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” 1883
This poem was written as part of a fundraiser to construct the pedestal for the new Statue of Liberty in 1883. Years later, Lazarus’s friend Georgina Schuyler campaigned to have the poem put on the pedestal wall, where now it can be found. For many, the poem expresses the ideals of the American nation.
William Dean Howells. The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885; A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1890.
As the longtime editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, an important publisher of American fiction during this era, Howells’s influence on American style was large. He lectured and wrote articles advocating realism in fiction, meaning that characters should have both bad and good qualities, just like real people, and should come from the ranks of ordinary folks from the middle and working classes. Plots should be neither all comic nor all tragic, and should feature probable, typical events, not extraordinary or fantastical ones. He followed his own rules in his own fiction.
The Rise of Silas Lapham tells the story of a businessman in the paint business who becomes wealthy through his aggressive business practices, but loses it all through pride, developing a better character in the end. It also describes, with sensitivity, the difficulty experienced by the whole family in moving from their working class background to the culture of the rich in New York City. A Hazard of New Fortunes follows a family’s move from insular Boston to the livelier international city of New York, where the father, Basil March, goes to assume the editorship of a brand-new magazine. The story examines the social and economic issues in New York City at the end of the 19th century as the family slowly, carefully explores the big city.
Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, 1890
A tale of Civil War daring and tragedy, and an examination into the marvels of the mind when pushed to extremity.
Mary Wilkins Freeman, A New England Nun and Other Stories, 1891
Though largely ignored in literary histories until recently, the bestselling writers of the American 19th century were women. Names like Fanny Fern and E.D.E.N. Southworth would have been familiar to every Gilded Age American reader, but are almost unknown now. The work of Mary Wilkins Freeman is one example of women’s writing that is enjoying a resurgence of attention. If you sample some of her short stories, you will meet sympathetic women characters who struggle bravely for more independence and control of their own lives than 19th century society often allowed them. (Description of “The Revolt of Mother” in this post.)
Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893; The Red Badge of Courage, 1895; and “The Open Boat,” 1897.
Such a sad loss that one of the best writers American has known died early at age 28 of tuberculosis. Stephen Crane’s clean, lean prose is characterized by irony and understatement and vivid imagery, which later inspired Modernists like Hemingway. Crane’s work is also characterized by American Naturalism, a cluster of beliefs that interpret the human position in the universe as a difficult one. For Naturalists, Nature is not a benign source of life and morality, but a hostile, indifferent force that outclasses people in its strength. Naturalists see people as driven by the environment and by unconscious, psychological forces. The storytelling that results from these premises is usually sad but powerful, and often vividly real.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets tells the story of the sad downward path of a poor girl from the Bowery. Thrown out of her home by her two drunkard parents after she dates a friend of her brother’s, bartender Pete, she loses her “character” and must move in with him. He deserts her, and the story goes downhill from there—sad, but probably true for too many girls of that era. The Red Badge of Courage follows the path of Private Henry Fleming, a soldier in the Civil War. He loses courage in the field of battle and flees; the novel is the tale of his search for redemption. It was much praised in its day for the realism of the battle scenes. “The Open Boat” (more information in this post) is the slightly fictionalized account of an event that really happened to Crane, when he endured the aftermath of a shipwreck when he was on the way to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War for a newspaper. These plot summaries may sound somewhat depressing, but I encourage you to read one or all of these works anyway, as well as the great story “The Blue Hotel.” Crane’s writing is powerful and beautifully descriptive. The stories he tells provide unrivaled, realistic glimpses into the lives of some typical 19th century Americans. They also testify to Crane’s belief in human strength and nobility that may come out only in the face of unbeatable odds.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” 1892, and Herland, 1915.
Perkins Gilman was a strong feminist; “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a protest against the social assumptions that women are child-like beings who must be lovingly controlled by their husbands for their own good. Herland is an interesting example of Speculative Fiction, in which she imagines an isolated world where a group of women have become able to reproduce without men, and live in a completely male-free society. What happens when three men climb a range of mountains and come upon this isolated feminist society? Not surprisingly, Perkins Gilman thinks the women were getting along much better without the men. Take a peek at this interesting work.
Edward Arlington Robinson, “Richard Corey,” “Miniver Cheevey,” and “Mr. Flood’s Party,” 1897.
Robinson could be considered the first of America’s 20th century poets, or the last of the 19th. His poetic forms are traditional, with recognizable stanza and rhyming patterns. His themes, however, are more Modernist, with his focus mostly on characters who feel alienated from their lives and times.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask,” “Sympathy,” and “Frederick Douglass,” 1899.
Hailing from Dayton, Ohio, Paul Laurence Dunbar was a classmate of Wilbur Wright (the co-inventor of the airplane). Wright published a newspaper on black issues that Dunbar edited while still in high school. Dunbar later became one of the first African American poets and novelists to gain national fame, with poems published in The New York Times, and poetry collections favorably reviewed in Harper’s Weekly. Over the years, I have found that today’s students are deeply moved by Dunbar’s poetry, especially “We Wear the Mask,” one of the poems students most frequently chose to write about for class assignments. Clearly, Dunbar’s themes are still very relevant.
Kate Chopin, “The Story of an Hour,” 1894, “Desirée’s Baby,” 1893, The Awakening, 1899
Popular for a while in her own time, Kate Chopin’s writing became largely unknown until rescued by feminists seeking to uncover forgotten women writers from America’s past. Contemporary readers are the gainers, since her writing is very striking and skillful, almost hypnotic to read. Many of her works, including The Awakening, are set in late 19th century Louisiana, where she lived for 16 years with her husband, a Louisiana native. They capture beautifully the French lilt of Cajun speech, and movingly plead for greater scope for women than they were offered in nineteenth century society. I think Chopin is one of America’s truly great writers who tends, still, to be underrated. The beauty, poignancy, even humor of her style is wholly her own. Try some of her work, and see for yourself.
Zitkala Sa, Impressions of an Indian Childhood, 1900
Also known as Gertrude Simmons, Zitkala Sa was a Native American Sioux whose mother had survived the Trail of Tears, finally settling in South Dakota. Simmons had a happy childhood, which she relates in this engaging memoir, until she was persuaded by Quaker missionaries at age 8 to go with them to a boarding school they had founded for Native Americans in Wabash, Indiana in 1884. Eventually she became a teacher, a writer, a violinist, a speaker, and an activist on behalf of Native American causes. Her memoir is winsome, moving, and informative.
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, 1900
Sister Carrie is the story of a small-town girl who goes to seek her fortune in the big city of Chicago. Her good looks, good humor, and not over-nice morals help her to win her way to the top, ultimately becoming a New York actress. On her way up, she doesn’t hesitate to discard her lovers when they become liabilities or stop moving up, but Carrie always seems to land on her feet. Dreiser’s novel is interesting for its picture of city life in this era. It also provides an example of American Naturalism or Social Darwinism, the idea that society is just another aspect of primitive nature where the “law of the jungle” prevails. People must fight to survive, and only the fittest and most ruthless will be able to.
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, 1901
As a slave who was a young child when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Booker T. Washington has an amazing story to tell about an important part of American history: what happened to African Americans when they finally acquired freedom? Washington tells what life was like as a slave, then describes his family’s journey north to find work after Emancipation. He then details his struggle to find someone to teach him to read, and eventually how he became a teacher who went on to help found Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to help young minority men learn marketable trades. Washington’s views on civil rights seemed too conciliatory to his critics such as W. E. B. Du Bois, since Washington advocated the importance of getting stable jobs before fighting for full civil rights, a view that was later superseded. That notwithstanding, Washington was an important African American leader whose book witnesses what the struggle after Emancipation was like for many African Americans.
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
W. E. B. Du Bois was a scholar and professor of history and of other fields, and an activist who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He edited the organization’s journal, The Crisis, from 1910 – 1934. The Souls of Black Folk is a scholarly examination and a collection of essays on the social consciousness of African Americans at the beginning of the 20th century. The work begins with these portentous lines, suggesting how relevant the work remains today: “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Later in Chapter 1, Du Bois explains the experience of Black Americans as a feeling of “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. . .. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Take a look at this important and seminal work.
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, 1905
Many of Edith Wharton’s works chronicle the battle for survival within the upper echelons of American society toward the end of the 19th century. Like her fellow fictional character, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Lily Bart has all the qualities needed to rise to the top of the social heap by using her charm and beauty to snag a rich husband. She begins the novel by maneuvering to do just that. But unlike Carrie, she has a couple of inconvenient qualities she just can’t put aside: a moral sense, and a desire for true love. How will these qualities serve within the heartless social system in which she desires to belong?
Willa Cather, O Pioneers! 1913
Just like the characters in this novel, Willa Cather and her family settled on the bleak grasslands of Nevada when Cather was nine. O Pioneers! (which takes its title from a poem by Walt Whitman) depicts the fortunes of the Swedish Bergson family who begin farming on the Nebraska frontier. The novel asks and answers the question, “What qualities are needed to make a successful pioneer?” pioneers being such an important type of American character. Not only does the novel answer this question, it asks and answers another: “What happens when those qualities belong to a woman and not to any male members of the family?” This lyrical descriptive novel shows that not only environmental but also social conditions can be harsh when you step outside of normal expectations. Yet with courage and vision, and the ability to bear loss along the way, obstacles can be overcome.
Huckleberry Finn book cover. By E. W. Kemble (1861–1933) – illustrator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry James. By John Singer Sargent (died 1925) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
William Dean Howells. By Photographer unidentified (Google Books) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman. By Published by Small, Maynard & company, Boston, 1898. (In This Our World) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Kate Chopin. By Published by Small, Maynard & company, Boston, 1898. (In This Our World) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
W. E. B. Du Bois. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Edith Wharton. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.