United States (19th Century)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

United States (19th Century)

Shirley Samuels

Writing about the nineteenth-century novel in the U.S. in 1957, a moment of the consolidation of the canon of American literature, Richard Chase drew a firm distinction between the novel and the romance: unlike the romance, he declared, the “novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail” (12). He cites the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851): “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel” (18). The implication here is that the canonical works of nineteenth-century U.S. literature such as Hawthorne's are not, in fact, novels at all: just as it was held in the mid-twentieth century that the history of the U.S. was an “exceptional” case, so, apparently, was its literature. For all the influence Hawthorne has had on the form of the novel, such a distinction has not persisted in the critical analysis of nineteenth-century fiction. Rather, scholars have come to recognize a rich diversity of forms and genres of the novel in use in this period, and their engagement with the complex social and political issues of this moment. They have also returned to a historical context in which questions of readership challenge conventional assumptions such as Chase's about literary value and canonicity.

Hawthorne, whose novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) had a limited readership at publication, later achieved canonical status, a detail that would have shocked professors in his New England college. In their moment, popular fiction was represented by, among other genres, the sensation fiction of George Lippard, George Thompson, and E. D. E. N. Southworth, exposés of urban crime that advanced the motif of class transgression, which also appeared later in the century in Horatio Alger's popular novels of newsboys who rose to riches from the streets of Boston and New York (see DETECTIVE). Some of the most popular novels of the nineteenth-century U.S. focused on religion. Prime examples are The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan B. Warner; The Gates Ajar (1868) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps; and St. Elmo (1866) by Augusta Evans. But the religious virtues these writers celebrated were not compatible with a later concept of great literature based on aesthetic values. Such values became separated from the polemical circumstances that influenced many nineteenth-century novels in the U.S.

The relation of polemics to the role of the novel in the nineteenth-century U.S. influences the approach taken in this entry. In particular, the claims authors make as they negotiate boundaries for the projects of the novel appears here in my attention to the complexity of the novel's many claims on a believable relation to historical events. Specifically, the edge between historical realities and fictional constructions frequently becomes blurred and this entry pays close attention to the times when the novel crosses boundaries.

Writers in the nineteenth-century U.S. found themselves busy responding both to political changes in national boundaries and to market changes in producing fiction. Witnessing such dramatic historical shifts as the Civil War and the end of slavery, their fiction created a shift in the related concepts of the nation and the novel. Indeed, the formal construction that came to be known as the American novel emerged from an early attempt to document historical change in the new nation. To consider how the novel evolved during the nineteenth century, we must look at the formatting of genre within, for example, the epistolary, gothic, sensation, sentimental, and historical novel. The epistolary and gothic novel forms were fading by the early nineteenth century. Novels of sensation and sentiment held sway until mid-century, when the Civil War produced a gloomier reading public whose appetite for realist and naturalist fiction was honed through the rise of urbanization and industrial capitalism (see NATURALISM, REALISM). Historical fiction, however, remained popular throughout the nineteenth century.

The Place of Polemic in the Nineteenth-century Novel

That nineteenth-century writers used fiction to compel action emerged from a history of significant public uses of narrative. In New England, for example, the earlier practices within a state-sanctioned church to publicly declare religious conversion in effect produced identity as the proper business of narrative. To tell a public story about private identity, within a community that presents the narrative formation of a self as fundamentally important, began as a condition for joining a religious community. The community of readers that emerged in the nineteenth-century U.S. began by reading novels that emphasized interiority. In relating private reading and public action, such novels also related reading and political mobilizing, transforming at once public spaces and interior spaces, the space of the mind and the heart, through narrative declaration. Conversion narratives were popular well into the nineteenth century, yet they were eclipsed by captivity narratives, typically depicting escape from an Indian raid. These accounts of compelled errands into the wilderness became transformed into origin stories for other forms of American identity. Stories about escape from captivity were joined by escapes from slavery, emancipation narratives that fused racial differentiation with the progressive enlightenment associated with Christianity (see AFRICAN AMERICAN). Learning to read in these accounts provides access to freedom. In the nineteenth century, such accounts overlap with the historical romance to forge national narratives into courtship dramas. These travels through time further supplement travel narratives that produce vicarious existence and also reinforce the concept of “home.”

Fiction written before and after the U.S. Civil War presents different accounts of violence. In particular, nineteenth-century fiction refers to wars such as the American Revolution, the Mexican—American war, Indian warfare, and concepts of borderlands. Later in the century, realist and naturalist fiction describes the failure of reconstruction and the tactics associated with lynching, in novels such as Contending Forces (1900) by Pauline E. Hopkins. The very foregrounding of the color red in novels such as The Scarlet Letter and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) emphasizes the color of blood as the color of shame and belonging at once. These novels, long taken as markers of U.S. adolescent passages, as well as staples of the literature classroom, produce value through allusions to blood. Novels frequently use killing to motivate movement of characters and plot and mobilize identities through staving off interracial sex and, indeed, any chance of reproduction. Such tactics appear in almost all of James Fenimore Cooper's novels.

Although the Civil War continues to serve as a momentous dividing line between the understood antebellum and postbellum novels, it scarcely ever appears as a subject in the postbellum world of fiction. Before the war, troops declared themselves to be inspired by the bestselling Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. During the war, Northern troops sang “John Brown's Body” and “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” to the same tune. Southern troops read Augusta Evans's Macaria (1864), which was dedicated to the “Glorious Cause” (and secretly read in the North). A less known postwar exception to the great silence in fiction about the war experience is John DeForest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). DeForest was said to have issued the call for the great American novel and is credited as the first to use the term. Yet the major novel associated with the Civil War had to wait a generation. Crane's The Red Badge of Courage formulated for the warriors who survived an account of fear and cowardice, as well as heroism, that has seldom been equaled.

The Historical Novel

Many of the novels most often associated with the nineteenth-century U.S. are historical novels, presenting episodes from U.S. history through the lens of the author's nostalgic retelling of past trauma. Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville analyzes the whaling industry as it went into decline; The Scarlet Letter revisits Puritan judgments about sin two centuries later; and Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain reenacts the crisis of slavery decades after the Civil War had ended the practice.

The best-known of the early practitioners of the historical novel was James Fenimore Cooper, whose Leatherstocking Tales—The Deerslayer (1841), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), and The Prairie (1827)—were popular in his day, and remain canonical. Cooper was charged with imitating the famous historical novelist across the Atlantic, Walter Scott. Such an anxiety of influence makes it even more difficult to see early historical novelists such as the prolific southern author William Gilmore Simms, the Maine author John Neal, or the Border States' John Pendleton Kennedy as other than imitators of Cooper. Gestures of dominance and subordination recur in descriptions of women authors as well. Although ranked as a peer by her contemporaries, Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote historical fiction whose reputation gradually dimmed in relation to that written by Cooper.

Anxieties about cultural value still pervade critical descriptions of authors such as Cooper, Sedgwick, Neal, or Lydia Maria Child. Some of this has to do with the difference in contemporary sensibilities toward the raw facts of American history, as when novels engaged readers (and citizens) in defending the atrocities of border warfare. In Hope Leslie (1827), for example, Sedgwick's prefatory remarks at once declare her reliance on original records and call attention to the domestic nature of her concerns. Sedgwick's narrator allows the historical record to speak tellingly; she cites the seventeenth-century Massachusetts governor John Winthrop, who called it a “sweet sacrifice” when his troops burned Pequod women and children. Nevertheless, this, and other historical romances like the Leatherstocking Tales, Neal's Logan (1822), and Child's Hobomok (1824), offered to do for America what Scott had done for Scotland: provide a heretofore colonized country with a history (see NATIONAL).

While these authors produce an American identity through historical romances patterned on classical or Shakespearean themes, they also produce dramas whose crises reach the most difficult edges of the American landscape. These dramas include controversial topics: Indian—white marriage or progeny, incursions or excursions west or south, and the sexual vulnerability of women. Delineating the boundaries of such topics provided the U.S. novel with its hardest challenge.

Readers and Writers

The vicarious experiences that formed part of the novel's appeal depend in part on the development of a middle class, that class of persons that emerged from the novel- reading practices of a leisure class once chided for the conspicuous consumption of idle time. The relation between class formation and the novel was affected by the changes in agriculture made possible by urbanization and industrialized labor. Increases in the production and consumption of novels in the early U.S. accompanied the emergence of the middling classes.

Novels display new understandings of what it is to have a separate and private identity that accompanies a desire for the privacy that might be necessary for reading them. That is, at the same time that they market and display this identity, novels encourage reading practices that will aid and abet it. In so doing, novels reinforced class stratification at a time when newspapers were available everywhere and novels initially an expensive reading pastime.

Many early novels are epistolary, presenting their plots through a series of linked letters, as in The Coquette (1797), by Hannah Foster, or through the conceit of an extended letter, as in Wieland (1798) or Edgar Huntly (1799), by Charles Brockden Brown. The essentially mobile quality of the letter as a device, as a piece of writing designed to be mobile, reflects the mobility of the population as well as the increasing mobility of the novel as an object. Early nineteenth-century novels could be carried around in pockets. The epistolary nature of these novels may also allude to the way they take up the private space in the home that might also have been occupied by letters and letter writing.

Novels in the early U.S. republic emphasized the training for citizenship that reading might confer. Novels that empowered forms of thinking were favored, whereas those that encouraged bodily sensations were viewed with suspicion. Like other guilty pleasures, however, they were nonetheless pursued. Contemporary critics expressed anxiety about corrupting young women by fiction, yet they also pressured writers to produce national romances (see DEFINITIONS). Some of these tensions were addressed by authors like Tabitha Tenney, who presented a burlesque of the novel-reading heroine Dorcasina Sheldon as a “true history” in Female Quixotism (1801). Similarly, writers of historical fiction such as Sedgwick and Child also wrote numerous domestic fictions and works for children. When he began to write, Cooper, the most famous creator of fictional men in the wilderness, still understood his audience to include women readers.

Space and Domesticity

Attention to the Americanness of fiction became blended with the staging of national drama through adventures of courtship and marriage. Historical romances thus energize the cultural work performed by the novel by engaging emotional attachment to a nascent nation. This attachment frequently operates through correlations between the destinies of women and the destinies of national movements. In many novels, romance and marriage are related to the transmission of property. Thus, while mid-twentieth-century critics celebrated the autonomous male “hero in space” (Lewis) and the encounter with “virgin land” (Smith), plots of early novels frequently focus on women's bodies. In other words, issues of seduction, courtship, and marriage become ways to talk about the nation's destiny.

Enforcing as well as enacting relations between public and private spaces, the novels of the rapidly expanding U.S. bring landscapes home. For example, A New Home, Who'll Follow? (1839) by Caroline Kirkland critiques but also uses the language of opportunism as it promotes a class that could appreciate the landscape (as possible purchasers); hence, the novel works at once as a satire and as a sales pitch. Tracing domestic life at the frontier of Michigan, the novel asks how reading practices persist when readers must negotiate between romance and land contracts. The romance appears as various fantasies that have inspired new settlers; the contract intrudes as they try to survive collisions with corrupt land speculators.

As the popularity of novels increased and as methods of production and distribution improved, the contents of novels shifted. During the early national period, the nascent ideologies of the early U.S. nation were necessarily caught up with embodiments—such as the charged rendition of bodies in domestic spaces characteristic of the gothic novel. To speak of how bodies appear in domestic spaces, whether in historical fiction or novels by women, also calls attention to the novel's investment in moving between interiors and the natural world. Whether looking at women at home or men in the wilderness, early republican novels produce attention to spaces that are at once gendered, classed, and racialized (see GENDER, CLASS, RACE). That is, through attention to the invasion or destruction or abandonment of homes, the question of who may be permitted to be at home in the new nation is repeatedly and dramatically lived out.

The texture and detail of being displaced from a home dominate the best early novels as they move from landscapes like the maze of wilderness facing Cora and Alice Monroe in Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans to the streets of Philadelphia wandered by Arthur Mervyn in Charles Brockden Brown's eponymous novel. Solitary bodies repeatedly stand out against these backgrounds. In Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, the Pequod Magawisca jumps from a great height to interpose her arm for the neck of her beloved Everett, the son of white settlers; in Cooper, the dark figure of Magua, felled by the rifle of the ambiguously white Hawkeye, topples over a precipice; in another eponymous Brown novel, the beleaguered Edgar Huntly crouches in a cave, gnawing the raw flesh of a panther.

And yet, though the plots of these novels often depend on what will happen to a woman alone in a house or a man alone in the woods, the protagonist is not merely alone. The spectatorial function of the reader and the presence of the author (often highlighted by asides) are mimetically engaged by a hidden observer, usually in the form of an alien presence. From the ventriloquist Carwin hidden in Clara Wieland's closet to the murderous lurking of Magawisca's father in Hope Leslie, from the malevolent vigilance of Magua in The Last of the Mohicans to the designs of the seducer in Female Quixotism, or even the comic bumbling of Teague O'Regan in the extended production of Modern Chivalry (1792—1815) by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, such lurking figures are usually Irish or Native American. The conspiracies these figures portend serve to highlight a whiteness at once vulnerable and inept (in contrast to the abilities of the onlooker) and yet resourcefully resilient (implicitly because American). The very vulnerability of the main characters might be said to produce Americanness as embodied. And even as they suggest equivalence between whiteness and vulnerability, these novels ruthlessly identify and exclude exceptions. But in excluding the alien from the newly constituted nation, novels like Edgar Huntly internalize alienation. After a dreamlike search through the wilderness, Edgar Huntly wakes assailed by a thirst so powerful that he imagines drinking his own blood. Instead, he first drinks the blood of a panther and then kills so many Native Americans that the blood soaks his skin and hair. He thus wakes to violence that makes the wilderness into a national home, the site of the incorporation and domestication of a savagery that can no longer be projected elsewhere.

Crossing Borders

Anxieties about border crossings pervade the nineteenth-century U.S. novel: the boundary of the ocean, the nation, the alien territory. Even the boundary line between animal and human comes to seem a national border, possibly to be crossed, suspiciously and repeatedly to be named and described. Paragraphs appear in Cooper's frontier fiction to explain which appearances are human and which are animal for the benefit of confused interlopers from white settlements. The domestic enclosures or temples of rural retreat that appear in the fictions of Brockden Brown tend to be safest in England: transplantation to the new world means violation. In short, the business of America often appears as the violation of the expected boundaries between animal and human, Indian and white (see RACE).

Such violations of boundaries include confusion about boundary crossing. Race and sexuality, for example, often stand in for each other. If Cooper writes fictions that provide a wilderness foundation for the national sense of self, he also writes foundational nightmares that propose that to shed blood in the wilderness might enable certain forms of socially approved marriage. By producing a phenomenally engrossing figure like his hero Natty Bumppo, who repeatedly stalks into the wilderness in ambiguous relation to a male Native American companion, Cooper also opens the door to figures like Nick Slaughter, created by the southern novelist Robert Montgomery Bird. In Nick of the Woods (1837), the goal of avenging the death of his family motivates often indiscriminate and grotesque carnage against Native Americans.

This gothic tale, like Cooper's, also relies on a plotting of inheritance, stolen birthright, and courtship with a suspiciously dark heroine to resolve the matter of alien boundaries. And however much it may flirt with racial mixing, like The Last of the Mohicans, the novel ends with the marriage and retreat of the racially palest characters. Even in gothic fiction like Brown's Wieland, forms of miscegenation threaten national identification—of the nation or of citizenship as a racial category. Perhaps through the novel's preoccupation with the maintenance of order, sexuality becomes racialized. Moves to legislate the boundaries of race and identity subsume or merge with land claims that depend on courtship narratives. Notably, contests about identity seem to invoke a valorizing in which, for example, class trumps gender, sexuality trumps class, and race trumps sexuality. Each seems to gain ground, as it were, at the expense of another. The relation between possessive individualism and the individual's possessions—whether in land or in bodies—appears as part of the founding gesture of the republic.

In crossing the boundaries that the New World presented, the increasingly popular form of the novel provided an uneasy but enduring form for the romance of America. As the generation of the 1820s turned to writing the story of the American Revolution fifty years later, the romance of the nation and the romance of the family collided. The intangible business of locating national identifications through novels emerged through material questions of landownership and women's bodies. In novels, rewriting the revolution as a founding moment could subsume the tensions caused by expanding immigrant populations and the new territories claimed in the name of a coherent nation. At the same time, as a political investment in national narrative began to take form in the novel, the founding stories of families were uneasily located in the tense relation between property and women's bodies.

In addition to the novel's attention to transatlantic migrations and, famously, to the whale trade, the internal migrations, along the rivers and inland waterways of the U.S., preoccupy its characters. These internal migrations along the geographic terrain markers of such waterways accompany migrations internal to the body, such as that of blood. Concepts of sacrifice draw on a contract, a compact sealed with blood sacrifice, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac. The gesture of substitution also asks about the founding move of the nation as a city on a hill understood to be the compact, the “visionary compact” once proposed by John Winthrop that would allow other substitutions.

Such relations appear in the most prominent fiction writers of the mid-nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Each published a momentous novel between 1850 and 1852. In Stowe's bestselling Uncle Tom's Cabin, the central concepts of property and bodies become a network shuttling in between the matters of slavery and reproduction. In short, the novel asks and answers, “What is it to have a child under a system of slavery?” It is to have offspring who are also property. The question of children born into a Puritanical New England addressed by Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, published the previous year, might appear far from the political crisis of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet the two works both investigate the close interweaving of religion and politics in determining what rights women have to their children.

Other Hawthorne novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables (1851), insist on the importance of inherited property in determining the identity of families. For Melville, the mobility of property separates it from women's bodies and reproduction in novels like Moby-Dick. Such attention to the relationship between property and women's bodies shows up throughout the nineteenth century, even in novels about the west, such as María Ámparo Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don (1885) and Who Would Have Thought It? (1872).

The pattern of increased urbanization later in the nineteenth century saw novelists turning to the structure of social class as they presented marital prospects. The formidably loquacious Henry James led the way for observers of social manners with novels like The Bostonians (1886) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In Portrait, the crisis faced by the new heiress Isabel Archer takes place on European soil, yet it becomes an American story by virtue of her American suitors and her American past. In The Bostonians, the quirky habits of an upper-class Boston culture formed in abolition and the movement for women's suffrage are observed from the perspective of Basil Ransom, a gentleman from the defeated South. The crisis of marital prospects is bound up in Portrait with the cultural conflicts between the elites of Europe and America; in The Bostonians, they serve to imaginatively resolve the conflicts among members of this class in the American North and South.

However, some topics could only begin to be addressed in the nineteenth century. The consequences of racial oppression appeared in novels such as Our Nig (1859) by Harriet Wilson. Wilson's subtitle, “Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story White House, North,” suggests its aims. When Wilson asserts that slavery's shadow falls in the North, she brings the entire country together in the question of race and sexuality. Similarly, in Clotel (1853), William Wells Brown explored the extreme misery of light-skinned women sold into sexual slavery, with the provocative assertion that his title character was the mixed-race daughter of the former president Thomas Jefferson. The popular humorist who called himself Mark Twain started out with a boy's book, Tom Sawyer (1876), and then complicated readings of race and identity in the U.S. with the problematic story of runaways—one a white boy and the other a slave—on a raft headed down the Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain revisited the questions raised by Clotel about racially mixed children whose ability to control their own futures is fatally compromised by slavery in his dark comic novel Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). Such novels view the U.S. as a country conceived in liberty but repeatedly caught up in the proposition that its dedications engage slavery. To view fiction as a path to freedom persuasively carries these novels toward the twentieth century.


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2. Chase, R. (1957), American Novel and Its Tradition.

3. Davidson, C. (1986), Revolution and the Word.

4. Fiedler, L. (1966), Love and Death in the American Novel.

5. Fisher, P. (1985), Hard Facts.

6. Harris, S. (1990), 19th-Century American Women's Novels.

7. Lewis, R.W.B. (1955), American Adam.

8. Samuels, S. ed. (2004), Companion to American Fiction, 1780—1865.

9. Smith, H.N. (1950), Virgin Land.

10. Tompkins, J. (1985), Sensational Designs.

11. Wald, P. (1995), Constituting Americans.

12. Warren, J., ed. (1993), (Other) American Traditions.