American Literature-American Romantic or Antebellum Era: 1800-60
Significant Historical Dates:
1804: Lewis and Clark expedition of American West
1812: Congress declares war on Britain (War of 1812)
1820: Missouri Compromise (allowed slavery in Missouri but banned in much of Louisiana territory—an attempt to keep number of slave and free states equal)
1830: Indian Removal Act: leads to forced removal of several tribes from their homes in the southern states and territories to Oklahoma (“Trail of Tears”)
1848: First Women’s Rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY
1849: California Gold Rush
1850: Fugitive Slave Act: Declares that runaway slaves must be returned to masters, even from Northern States
1857: Dred Scott Case—Supreme Court ruled that no slave or descendent of slave could be a U.S. citizen
1861-1865: American Civil War
American Literature from 1800-60
Red Jacket, “Reply to the Missionary Jacob Cram,” 1805.
While many Native Americans became Christian converts, others declined. Here is a famous reply of one Native American to a missionary’s plea for conversion.
Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle,” 1819.
Irving became an internationally known author by cleverly re-setting old-world folk tales within the settings and culture of his contemporary America. “Rip Van Winkle” is worth a read, first for the humor and the supernatural elements. But also see how Irving uses his story to comment on how much American culture changed over the short 20 years while Rip was sleeping. The story is a “before and after” picture of small town life surrounding the Revolutionary War. Before, Rip’s village is sleepy and familiar, content to talk over month-old newspapers over a pint at the pub. “After,” no one seems sleepy and everyone is political. The first question the villagers ask the newly-awakened “stranger” Rip is what party he votes for!
William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis” and “To A Waterfowl,” 1821.
These poems are from the volume that made Bryant famous in both England and America. Both poems are early American expressions of an idea that would become a central tenet of later American Romantic writers. They portray Nature as a source of moral teaching and spiritual connection for people.
James Fenimore Cooper, either The Pioneers, 1823, or The Last of the Mohicans, 1826.
Cooper is not known for his sparkling style, but his novels are worth at least sampling. For one thing, Cooper was original in bringing American characters and settings to Sir Walter Scott’s newly-invented novel genre, historical romance. In spite of his awkward prose, Cooper created some archetypal and memorable American characters, especially Natty Bumpo, a.k.a. “Hawkeye,” a frontiersman born of white parents and raised by Native Americans, skilled in the use of the long rifle. (The MASH TV show’s “Hawkeye Pierce,” played by Allan Alda, got his nickname from this character.)
Catharine Maria Sedgewick, Hope Leslie, 1827.
Sedgewick’s novel, set in the mid-1600s in her native Massachusetts, focuses on the clash between Puritan settlers and Native Americans and their widely varying cultures. The treatment of Native Americans is sympathetic, and the woman characters are strong and multi-dimensional, unlike some portrayals of women during this period.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” 1836, and “Self-Reliance,” 1841.
Ralph Waldo Emerson began his career as a Unitarian minister, but later became an American thinker, writer, and lecturer. His thought about the spiritual relationship between the Individual and Nature is loosely defined as “Transcendentalism.” These ideas became central to a whole movement that did not wholly pass away with the end of the American Romantic era; they persist and revive periodically and strongly within the evolving American culture. “Nature” might seem somewhat abstract, though a very good introduction to Emerson’s thought. If that proves to be heavy going, pick up “Self-Reliance,” a landmark argument for, and celebration of, American individualism.
Lydia Maria Child, “The Quadroons,” 1842.
Lydia Maria Child was a journalist, novelist, and editor who wrote passionately and tirelessly against slavery. This is a short example of one influential work in the anti-slavery cause.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Too many great works to list. . .
. . . But to get a good taste of Hawthorne, I’d recommend starting with “Young Goodman Brown, 1835, “The Birth-Mark,” 1843, and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” 1844. Each of these three stories shows Hawthorne wrestling with the Transcendentalist romantic idea, then current among some American thinkers and writers, that Nature is a positive spiritual force. In these three stories, Nature, both human and inhuman, is the source of something more primitive than positive.
Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven,” 1845; “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839; “The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1843.
Like Hawthorne, Poe does not present Nature as a clear boon to man, or to woman either. He does, however, probe the nature of Human Nature, especially the impact of negative emotions such as fear, grief, and loss. Note: when you read “The Raven,” notice the intricate rhythm and rhyme scheme. Poe thought Beauty was one of the main aims of poetry, and therefore gave much attention to sound and form in his poetry.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life,” 1838; “The Slave Singing at Midnight,” 1842; “The Children’s Hour,” 1860; “Paul Revere’s Ride,” 1860.
Here are some short poems of Longfellow’s to start with, but if you like them, try one of Longfellow’s longer narrative poems. I like Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, 1847, which tells the heart-breaking story of the French Acadians who were expelled from their home village by British soldiers in 1764. The meter of this poem, dactylic hexameter, is unusual and hard to write in English. It is a triple meter, which means that accents (hard beats) occur every third syllable rather than every other syllable, as is more typical of American poetry. The sound when read aloud is dignified and elegiac.
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845.
After escaping slavery as a young man, he eventually moved to Massachusetts where he became involved in William Lloyd Garrison’s Antislavery movement, travelling widely with Garrison to deliver speeches in the Abolitionist cause. This work is a moving and factual account of Douglass’s experience as a slave, as well as an articulate argument against slavery.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851, and “Bartleby the Scrivener, a Story of Wall Street,” 1853.
First, on “Bartleby”: Before there was Office Space or The Office, there was “Bartleby.” The familiar film and TV show are well-known recent critiques of office life and business values, but they were hardly the first. “Bartleby the Scrivener” asks, when your job is your whole life, what kind of life do you have? Not much, according to Melville’s parable, which shows what happens when the “perfect employee” just prefers not to do a job, any job, anymore. Melville speculates that a life given only to business (“busy-ness”) results in little more than loneliness. Also, humorously, he shows how NOT to manage an office staff.
Now, on Moby Dick: like many, I adore this novel, finding it thrilling every time I read through it again. But I know a lot of smart people who have had a hard time getting a toehold into this work. For one thing, it does explain more things about the whaling trade than most people really want to know. I think the key to enjoying and understanding this novel is to fall in love with the vast, miscellaneous mind of Herman Melville, revealed in this most idiosyncratic novel as brilliant, humorous, emotional, goofy, rational, philosophical, questing, and intellectual. In Moby Dick Melville explores every way he can think of to try to discern truth and meaning in the world “out there” (represented, of course, by the hunt for Moby Dick, the white, mysterious and ultimately un-interpretable whale).
Melville also experiments how to communicate insights through different ways of using words, from drama, essay, pseudo-scientific prose to high drama. In reading this novel, relax, take your time, and just enjoy or ponder whatever wacky, thoughtful, humorous, sad, or interesting stuff is in front of you at the moment. Then escape, like Ishmael at the novel’s end, to tell us what you saw in there this time.
Sojourner Truth, “Speech to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio,” 1851.
Sojourner Truth was an emancipated slave who spoke frequently in the cause of Abolition and Women’s Rights. Check out YouTube for recordings of actresses portraying this famous speech. I like this portrayal by Pat Theriault.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852.
Stowe’s 19th century sentimental portrayal of the suffering of African-American slaves may seem tinged with racism to 21st century readers, but this novel helped win many northerners to the abolitionist cause. The novel was an international bestseller, eventually translated into 22 languages.
After its publication, Stowe wrote to Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist whose autobiography had inspired some of her portrayals of slavery in her novel. She asked him for ideas of how she could help “free colored people” of the United States. Douglass agreed to help, and thanked her for helping the Anti-Slavery cause by writing this novel:
. . . I desire to express, dear Madam, my deep sense of the value of the services which you have already rendered my afflicted and persecuted people, by the publication of your inimitable book on the subject of slavery. That contribution to our bleeding cause, alone, involves us in a debt of gratitude which cannot be measured; and your resolution to make other exertions on our behalf excites in me emotions and sentiments, which I scarcely need try to give forth in words. (http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-harriet-beecher-stowe/)
Henry D. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” (formerly known as “Civil Disobedience”), 1849; Walden, or Life in the Woods (check out Chapter 1 and 2), 1854.
Thoreau was an essayist who adopted and sought to apply Emersonian Transcendentalism to the way he lived his life. “Resistance to Civil Government” makes the argument that the true patriot is not the soldier or legislator, but the person who challenges immoral actions by the government.
Walden presents his experiences and reflections on a time he spent living in a rude shack at the edge of a pond in a wood, seeking to live a wholly authentic individual life in full connection with the spirit of nature. As a child of the 1970s, I watched a huge revival of interest in Walden—it seemed like everybody was walking around with a tattered paperback copy stuck in their raveling jeans pockets. Many of Thoreau’s ideas remain deeply woven into American culture. Take a peek into the book to see some of his ideas, and whether you recognize any of them.
Walt Whitman “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” 1855, and Song of Myself, 1855 and 1881.
In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “The Poet,” calling for Americans to create a new kind of poetry to reflect the new kind of free, bold person Americans were becoming. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a volume of poetry published in 1855, was his direct answer to Emerson’s call. For his poetry, Whitman developed a very original style with open, loosely rhythmic, chant-like lines, based partly on Biblical prophecy.
Whitman’s subject matter spells “democracy” with a capital D, featuring the common people of America and Whitman’s sense of his oneness with each diverse individual. He also celebrates the individual’s mystical relationship to the universe as a whole, especially to the natural world. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman ponders the commonality of experience of every person who has, or who will, cross on the ferry to the great city of Manhattan. In Song of Myself, Whitman explores his role as prophet of a democratic American people. He celebrates not only himself but every soul within American borders. He published the first version of this poem in 1855, and revised it several times over a long period. The version most often read is the 1881 version, but I include Whitman in this part of the timeline because these two works so perfectly fit the Transcendentalist temper of the era.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861.
Harriet Jacobs was a slave in North Carolina until she escaped to the North in her early 30s. She wrote this account of her experiences as a slave to explain to the public what it was really like to be both a slave and a woman. She deals more directly than was then customary with the threat to female slaves of sexual exploitation by their owners.