Over the course of the 19th century the country progressed from an agricultural economy concentrated on the Eastern coast to an industrialized nation all over the continent. This new situation provoked changes and the country faced the problem of creating its own literature based on American issues and imaginations.
A newspaper reporter and editor, Walt Whitman, in the early 1850s began experimenting with a mixture of the colloquial diction and prose rhythms of journalism; the repetitions and catalogues of the Bible; and the musicality and drama of popular opera. He wanted to write a democratic poetry, that gave voice to all the variety of 19th-century American culture.
In 1855 Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the book he will revised and expanded for the rest of his life. The first edition contained only 12 untitled poems. The longest poem, “Song of Myself,” is one of the most discussed poems in all of American poetry. In it Whitman constructs a democratic “I,” a voice that celebrates itself and its senses experiencing the world. “I” represents the creative potential of every individual in a democratic society. Emerging from a working class family, Whitman was one of the first working-class American poets and one of the first writers to compose poetry that draws its energy from the busy, crowded, varied streets of the city.
Whitman later addeds poems about affection between men and about the experiences and sufferings of soldiers in the Civil War (1861-1865).
Whitman’s work was initially more successful in Britain than in the United States. An influential 1872 anthology, American Poems, published in England and edited by English literary critic William Michael Rossetti, was dedicated to Whitman.
Emily Dickinson, along with Whitman, was one of the most original poets in American literature. Living her whole life in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson composed nearly 2,000 short, untitled poems. Despite her productivity, only few of Dickinson’s poems were published before her death in 1886.
Dickinson used images and experienced different variations within her simple form. She used imperfect rhymes, subtle breaks of rhythm, and personal syntax and punctuation to create fascinating word puzzles, which are still producing contradictory interpretations.
She was fascinated by a variety of subjects and emotions: death, and afterlife, faith in God and disillusionment. Many of her poems record moments of bitter paralysis that could be death, pain, doubt, fear, or love. She remains one of the most private and cryptic voices in American literature.
Fiction developed following the new trends already emerged at the beginning of the century. The adventure novels were enriched with symbols and became allegories of the eternal man’s struggle towrds the truth.
Herman Melville based several novels, like Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), on his first voyages and experiences as a sailor on a number of ships after his father’s financial ruin and death.. His masterpiece is Moby Dick (1851), an adventure novel rich with symbols and images.
He also worked on several whaling ships and witnessed the violence of life at sea. These tales of exotic travel adventures brought Melville early success. Ironically, Melville’s popularity dropped after the publication of the book now considered a masterpiece of American fiction, Moby Dick (1851). Moby Dick was dedicated to Hawthorne, and like Hawthorne’s work was darkly metaphysical, symbolic, and complex. The story of the captain of a whaling boat, Ahab, and his inexorable hunt for one whale, Moby Dick is also about the mysterious forces of the universe that overwhelm the individual who tries to confront and struggle against them. Written in a powerful and varied narrative style, the book includes a magnificent sermon delivered before the ship’s sailing, soliloquies by the ships’ mates, and passages of a technical nature, such as a chapter about whales.
Melville, better known as a novelist, showed his powerful poetry in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866)about the Civil War. Later he wrote a long and mysterious poem, Clarel (1876), about his search for faith, his struggle with doubt, and his anxiety about the decline of civilization.
In the period of the civil war numerous writing about slavery started being published written by black people, now freemen.
The first African American novels are William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859). In their works they point out the distance between American ideals of liberty and the actual living conditions of American black people, and focus on the injustices faced by free blacks in the North.
The sentimental novel was born as a respons of white writers to the abuses of slavery. The most famous and historically most significant work of American sentimental fiction is Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sentimental fiction aimed to arouse pity for the oppressed and offered a natural form for novelists writing about the evils of slavery. In Stowe’s novel and in novels that followed in this tradition, pity for the oppressed did not necessitate revolutionary change but evidenced “Christian” sympathy demonstrating how the slave system violated the most basic bonds of humanity, such as that between mother and child.
President Abraham Lincoln described Stowe as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin was powerful as propaganda and expressed the deep antislavery feelings of the North. Lincoln himself was among the greatest American orators of the 19th century and can be included among the significant American writers. Moved to despair by the tragic conflict of the Civil War (1861-1865), he used inspirational simplicity in his 1863 Gettysburg Address and in his second inaugural address in 1865. Few other American public figures have equalled Lincoln’s command of forceful, precise, and inspiring prose.
Two movements became increasingly important in American fiction after the Civil War: regionalism and realism.
As the country expanded in area and population, regional differences became more apparent while increasing urbanization and the expansion of the railroads made more of the country accessible.
Realism emerged as a literary movement in Europe in the 1850s. In reaction to romanticism, it emphasized the everyday and through detailed description re-created specific locations, incidents, and social classes.
Toward mid-century, regional voices had emerged from newly settled territories in the South and to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. In many of these works local dialects, sayings, and spellings were used for humorous effect.
Mary Wilkins Freeman, best known for A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), and Sarah Orne Jewett, best known for Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), both wrote about rural northern New England.
Tales of the West also became a popular form of regional writing and created frontier outlaws and heroes, such as Billy the Kid. These tales were especially suited to the short-story form.
Foremost among writers who contributed to legends about the West was Bret Harte, especially in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870), a collection of stories about California.
Beginning in 1860 the publishing house of Beadle and Adams introduced dime novels—inexpensive tales with exciting plots intended for popular consumption.. Dime novels may be seen as precursors of the Western, a genre that would reach the height of its popularity in the first half of the 20th century.
In the second half of the 19th century, issues specific to the industrial city also engaged writers of fiction, who portrayed the sometimes hidden struggles of city life.
Kate Chopin built her reputation on regionalist stories of Louisiana, for example, in the collection Bayou Folk (1894). She is, however, best remembered for writing one of the first important feminist novels, The Awakening (1899). The book realistically depicts Creole life in Louisiana as it tells the story of a young woman in a suffocating marriage who discovers a new sense of self when she takes a lover.
Realism entered American literature after the Civil War, soon followed by naturalism, an extreme form of realism. Naturalism added to realism a dimension of predetermined fate that rendered human will ultimately powerless.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is sometimes considered a regionalist for his vivid portrayals of Southern character and dialect. But he is surely among the great American realists because his works include many sides of life and human nature.
He published from 1865 until 1910, but his literary fame was firmly rooted in the 19th century with its problems of racism, class conflicts, and poverty. Twain’s works also include some of the best American humor, starting with the short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which was published in a newspaper in 1865. Twain’s best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), are apparently simple stories that show corruption at all levels of society. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer celebrated boyhood and revealed the workings of small-town America—small-minded at times, generous in spirit at other times. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered Twain’s masterpiece. In it, the boy Huck Finn learns about human nature’s evil side as well as its kind side. As a result of his close friendship with a black man who is escaping slavery, Huck also must confront the conflict between individual intuition about what is right and the prevailing views of society on the subject.
Psychology and moral development are characteristics also of Little Women (1868-1869), a novel by Louisa May Alcott that records the moral and intellectual coming of age of four young women. Alcott was the daughter of transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. Her still-popular novel is one of a series of works that show her serious concern with childhood and adolescence.
William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris are other notable late-19th-century writers in the realist or naturalist traditions.
Howells, a noted literary critic and novelist, was a friend of Twain’s and along with him pioneered realism in American literature. The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is the study of a self-made businessman who is ruined financially by his determination not to compromise his integrity.
Despite an early death at the age of 29, Crane published several brilliant although grim stories. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), the story of a young woman’s life in a New York City slum, is so sad that Crane had difficulty finding a publisher. His second work, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), is an intense examination of the psychology of fear and the state of the human mind during war; it met with immediate success.
Norris’s best-known works were McTeague (1899), a portrait of the effects of greed, and The Octopus (1901), which depicts the conflict between farmers and the railroad over land and power in California. His works reflect his concern with social and economic forces and their effect on human lives.
A less well-known writer in the realist tradition at the end of the century was Frances E. W. Harper, an African American woman born free in the former slave state of Maryland. An early black activist, Harper was a successful and frequent public speaker on behalf of the rights of blacks and of women. Her novel Iola Leroy, or The Shadows Uplifted (1892) tells the story of a woman of mixed racial ancestry who is freed from slavery, serves as a nurse during the Civil War, and is eventually reunited with her family after the war.
Henry James was a key figure in American literature’s transition from the 1800s to the 1900s. Although more of his novels were published before 1900, his style is characterized by psychological realism, and his themes seem a long way from much of 19th-century American literature. He uses American and European subject matter and perspectives, and perceives the complexities of both individual and cultural history. Like many of his characters, Henry James lived an international life, and his novels moved away from American settings. A sort of complex conflict between the attraction of the old European culture and the young American idealism animates many of his novels. This interplay is present in such novels as The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903). In his later novels, such as The Golden Bowl (1904), he became increasingly concerned with the mysteries of human passion.
Edith Wharton was another key figure at the turn- of-the-century. Many of her novels take place among the wealthy and worldly elite of New York City and focus on social definition and convention. Two of her best-known works, The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), examine these conventions and their tragic consequences. In the love story Ethan Frome (1911), written from a man’s perspective in a severe, rural New England, Wharton studied the mental and emotional traps that limit people’s desire and ability to change.
A vogue for so-called Indian plays began in the 1820s and continued through the 1840s. Metamora, or The Last of the Wampanoags (1829) by John Augustus Stone written for the American actor Edwin Forrest, is a melodrama set in an earlier period of frontier history (the 1670s). Metamora is viewed as natural but uncivilized; he lives in harmony with nature but is unfamiliar with European civilization. Metamora’s death is inevitable as he is the representative of a displaced race that cannot survive with the white man.
By mid-century the importance of Indian plays started declining as it is shown in Metamora, or the Last of the Pollywogs by Irish-born playwright John Brougham (1847). It is a musical burlesque that makes fun of the idealized and earnest original.
Also in the 1820s an African American acting troupe called the African Theatre was organized in New York City by dramatist William Henry Brown. The troupe produced plays by Shakespeare as well as African American plays, including The Drama f King Shotaway (1823) written by Brown. but no copies survived.