Antebellum America, 1784-1865

 

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Authors

Genres

  • allegory 
  • genteel poetry 
  • Gothic short story 
  • lyric poem 
  • narrative poem 
  • Old Southwestern humor 
  • romance 
  • satirical essay
  • sentimental novel
  • slave narrative 
  • sonnet 

Movements

  • Romanticism
  • Transcendentalism

Updated July 12, 2001
Mark Canada, 2001
mark.canada@uncp.edu

Literature

By Mark Canada
Professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Between the official end of the Revolutionary War against England in 1783 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, American literature grew up. Like the colonial writers who had preceded them, the first writers in antebellum America largely followed British models. Joel Barlow, for example, wrote epic and mock epic poetry in the tradition of English writers such as John Milton and Alexander Pope, and Royall Tyler's play The Contrast closely resembles British Restoration comedies by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Congreve. Meanwhile, Susanna Rowson and Charles Brockden Brown wrote sentimental or Gothic novels that could have passed for British productions. An early milestone in the history of a truly American literature came in 1819, when Washington Irving published the first installments of The Sketch Book, a collection of essays and stories, including "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." A year later, fellow New Yorker James Fenimore Cooper published his first novel. While the works of these two writers also looked British in many ways, their work demonstrated two important developments in American literature. First, each writer, particularly Cooper in his Leatherstocking Tales, capitalized on American settings and American themes. Second, both Irving and Cooper were more than inferior proteges; rather, they were as talented as many of the English masters and even earned the respect of English readers. The next milestone came in 1837 when Ralph Waldo Emerson of Massachusetts delivered a lecture called "The American Scholar," which fellow writer Oliver Wendell Holmes called America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence." For the next two decades, American writers such as Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, T.B. Thorpe, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Herman Melville produced scores of essays, nonfiction narratives, poems, short stories, and novels that formed a distinctive American literature.

Much of this literature still showed signs of British or at least European influence. Most notably, Poe wrote Gothic stories and set many of them in European locales, and Longfellow, a professor of Romance languages at Harvard, borrowed verse forms and even subject matter from Europe. Still, Poe, Longfellow, and their great contemporaries were clearly American writers in both form and content. In the areas of form and technique, for example, Poe--along with Thorpe, Hawthorne, and others--shaped a distinctively American short story, and Whitman departed from European poetic models by developing free verse. Both Hawthorne and Melville wrote symbolic, even ethereal novels that differed from the works of their English contemporaries. In content, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Longfellow, Whitman, Cooper, Stowe, and Melville not only set works in American locales, but drew heavily on American themes, issues, and identities--including exploration, democracy, individualism, slavery, native Americans, frontiersmen, and Cajuns--while also lending their American perspectives to eternal subjects, such as nature, religion, and truth.

Study Questions

  1. What forces combined to make writing a somewhat profitable profession in this century? What worked against the profitability of literature? Which writers were most successful at making a living through their writings?
  2. Thanks largely to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the short story became an important form between 1830 and 1860. What conventions characterize the short story? Compare Poe's and Hawthorne's approaches to the short story.
  3. This period was a time of both expansion and division in the United States. Cite some historical evidence of these movements and show how they show up also in the literature of the time. In particular, consider works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.
  4. Many of the American writers of this era knew one another and interacted both professionally and socially. Identify some of these literary relationships and comment on how they shaped the writing of the time.
  5. The presidency of Andrew Jackson is associated with a growth in democratic sentiment in America. Where does this celebration of democracy show up in the literature of the time?
  6. By far the most popular poetry of the nineteenth century was genteel poetry like that published by William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. What are the major characteristics of genteel poetry, and how did Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson rebel against them?