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The Victorian Age  in American Literature

(from "Fields of Vision" by D.Delaney)

Historical and Social Background

North American History 1823-1900

 North and South

Having put the struggle for independence behind it, the new nation could now concentrate on developing its political infrastructures and the economy. While the economy did thrive in the nineteenth century, it proved much more difficult to bring about national political unity.

Rivalry between the north and south emerged as a burning issue which eventually led to a war that threatened to split the United States in two.

People and society (Immigration)

Whether in the north or south, there was no let up in the dynamic growth of American society. Immigrants continued to flow in from Europe in search of a new life. Up until the last decade of the century, when new arrivals started to come from southern Europe, immigrants came mainly from Britain, Ireland and northern Europe. A large influx of Chinese alarmed the authorities so much that in 1882 a law was passed banning all immigration from China. Despite the fact that cities began to grow thanks to industrial development, and that New York, with half a million inhabitants in 1850, was becoming the country’s main metropolis, by 1900 only for percent of the population lived in towns.


The economy (Industrial Revolution)

The dramatic success story that was the American economy continued. The North-east underwent an industrial revolution based on iron and steel production, while the South exported cotton to the world. People rushed west to California, Oregon and Alaska in search of gold, while Texas became home to huge cattle ranches.

To aid trade, the transport network was developed with the building of roasts and railroads. An ingenious feature of the transport revolution was the use of steamboats. These picturesque craft shuttled up and down the big rivers carrying people and goods from south to north and back again. Technological innovations like the mass production of motorcars, pioneered by Henry Ford, and inventions like that of the telephone in 1876 by Alexander Bell, gave further impetus to an economy that was becoming a key player on the world market.


International Division (North and South)

A dynamic society and a buoyant economy could not, however, hide the growing rift between the north and south of the country. The two areas were different in various ways. Firstly, the climates were very different and consequently people’s lifestyles differed. Secondly, the north was more industrialized and, thanks to greater access to public schools, had a higher level of education. Thirdly, and most importantly, slavery was practised in the south but had been abolished in the north.

The issue of slavery was to provide the spark that ignited the Civil War. Northerners were becoming increasingly intolerant of a system they regarded as being out-of-date, while southerners argued that cheap black labor was essential to maintain profitable cotton production.

Civil War

With no compromise in sight, on December 20th 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Other states followed until open war was declared in April 1861. A fierce and bloody conflict dragged on for four years until the South surrendered. The hero of the hour was the leader of the northern states, Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated  just as the war ended.


Main Events: North America 1823-1900

1860   South Carolina secedes from the Union

1861–1865 The presidency of Abraham Lincoln

1861 Civil War starts

1865  Civil War ends

Abraham Lincoln assassinated

1865-1869    The presidency of Andrew Johnson

1865  The Fourteenth Amendment outlaws all forms of discrimination

1866  Alaska bought from Russia

1869-1877  The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

1870   The Fifteenth Amendment gives the vote to blacks as well as whites

1876   Alexander Bell invents the telephone

1882   Immigration from China stopped

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North American Literature


The mid-nineteenth century was a period of astonishing literary creativity in American literature. In the short space of six years, four monumental literary works were published: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)., Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). This period witnessed the highest literary expression of the Puritan tradition and the emergence of a new cultural and philosophical movement, Transcendentalism.

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Although the American frontier was being pushed westward, Massachusetts and Virginia, the Puritan strongholds in the east, remained the center of cultural activity.

The Puritan heritage is clearly evident in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote about the conflict between good and evil set in the dark, Puritan, New England past. In his masterpieces The Scarlet Letter (1850) he uses a mixture of fantasy and realism, symbols and allegories to explore one of his constant themes: the relationship between the individual and society.

Herman Melville dedicated his greatest work, Moby Dick (1851), to Hawthorne, in recognition of his friendship and the contribution he had made in revising the first draft of the novel. When it first appeared, Moby Dick was described as a ‘wild and mad novel’, but it was quickly recognized as an important development in the novel genre. The metaphysical and symbolic style, the juxtaposition of tones and the innovative narrative technique make it a rich and complex work which encompasses many themes, including the battle between man and nature, the conflict between good and evil and man’s quest to live in a largely hostile world.

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The emergence of the Transcendentalist movement in New England in the middle years of the century marked a significant break from the Puritan tradition. Influenced by English Romanticism and German and Eastern philosophies,  the Transcendentalists exalted feeling and intuition over reason. They rebelled against the materialism of contemporary society and rejected the established Church. Unlike the Puritans, they believed that man was fundamentally good and should be allowed to develop free from rules and restrictions. The most influential figures in the Transcendentalist school were the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and the novelist Henry David Thoreau.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was the spokesman for the movement, wrote several influential essays including Self-Reliance and The Over-Soul (1841-1844). He visited England and met Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle. His work was widely read in the United States and Britain and he was among the first writers to urge his fellow countrymen to abandon European models and create a distinctly American literature with its own themes and style.

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Henry David Thoreau applied the Transcendentalist philosophy to his life and to his writing. In 1845 he effectively left civilization and went to live in a small hut on the edge of Walden Pond, a small lake in the Massachusetts countryside. Thoreau spent two years there, working the land, walking, observing nature, reflecting on life and keeping a detailed journal which he later developed into Walden (1854), his most celebrated work.

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East coast dominance of the American literary scene was broken by Mark Twain, the pen-name of Samuel Longhorne Clemens. Twain, who grew up in Missouri along the banks of the Mississippi, wrote about cowboys, stagecoach drivers and low-life criminals – people living in the West. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876),  he paints a realistic picture of the life of two young boys growing up in the Mississippi river area. The themes of childhood and nature recur in Twain’s masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). In both these works Mark Twain shows his deep distrust of ‘respectable’ society and his sympathy for social outcasts and the common man. He uses humor to criticize the practice of slavery and the hypocrisy and prejudices of his time. In his characterization he displays a penetrating insight into human psychology.

Mark Twain’s use of language is also strikingly original. The stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are told from the point of view of the young protagonists and contain slang, regional dialect and illogical sentence constructions that make the dialogue come to life. As a writer Twain did not emulate European models; he created a distinctly American literary style. Many critics agree with Ernest Hemingway’s claim that "all modern American fiction comes from Huckleberry Finn”.   


Transcendentalism  was represented in poetry by the work of Walt Whitman. The first of nine editions of his collection of poems Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855 to little public recognition, although it did win the admiration of Whitman’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his poems Whitman celebrates America, its natural beaty, its people and its spirit of democracy. He also explores himself, his feelings, perceptions and intuitions. Many contemporary readers were shocked by his celebration of the body and the theme of love between man and man which led to rumors about his homosexuality. Whitman was a highly experimental poet who believed that poetry should not be bound by rules and restrictions. He tended to avoid the use of metaphors or similes and his poetry is often strongly declarative and non-figurative.

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The poetry of Whitman’s contemporary, Emily Dickinson, was even more strikingly original. Born in New England, Dickinson spent most of her life in quiet isolation detached from the events of her time. Her poems are extremely personal and intimate. Recurring themes include nature and death and, although she had rejected orthodox religion, much of her work contains a strong sense of spirituality. Many of her poems, however, are ironic and witty suggesting that their creator was a woman of great humor. Dickinson’s style was completely unconventional and showed a total disregard for standard poetic forms. Her technique is so innovative that her work was considered unacceptable for publication. Apart from a few poems, most of her work was published posthumously. 


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