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Our Stories Begin

The forgotten growing pains of American fiction.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
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Not all early American literature was pioneering grotesquery, of course; politics were frequently near to the sphere of fictional concern. Simms soon took up historical romances glorifying the Southern cause. Susan Rowson’s work had echoed Federalist fears about Jeffersonian tumult. James Fenimore Cooper’s work expressed an increasing horror at the Jacksonian rabble’s corruption of American ideals: His The Crater; or Vulcan’s Peak (1847) is an anti-egalitarian parable about an island settlement inspired by New York’s anti-rent wars. 

Early American literary publishing arose hand-in-hand with political affiliations, as the Whig journal Knickerbocker published Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Cooper; and the Democratic Democratic Review and Arcturus ran works by Catherine Sedgwick, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau, in an era when artists identified with different parties. The Knickerbocker was staunchly Anglophile, publishing works by Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth; the Democratic Review embraced German and French literature, publishing Honoré de Balzac and George Sand.

Such outlets also publicized uniquely urban, emerging literature. Cornelius Matthews, an Arcturus contributor, wrote a number of early novels about New York urban corruption: The euphoniously titled The Career of Puffer Hopkins (1842), according to Gura, was the “first American novel to examine the local ward politicians of New York as they oiled their patronage machine, the dupes who worked for them, and a whole American system, from the city slums to the highest reaches of the government, that reeked of corruption and was poisoning American democracy.” George Lippard, a Philadelphia crime reporter, left journalism to write The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1844), a novel in which the city’s social elite gather in Monk Hall for “seduction, rape, incest, cannibalism, murder, counterfeiting, robbery, drunkenness, [and] opium use.”

More prosaic, if still real, dangers cropped up in an evolving breed of factory-girl novels by a wide range of (frequently female) authors. Some offered straightforward messages of Christian duty; others featured developing notions of female independence and individual spirituality. Martha W. Tyler’s A Book Without a Title: or, Thrilling Events in the Life of Mira Dana (1855) offered the first novelistic portrait of a labor strike. Mary Gove Nichols’s Mary Lyndon; or, Revelations of a Life: An Autobiography (1855) offered a portrait of a Fourierian experiment sunnier than Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852), complete with “vegetarianism, water cure, and calisthenics.” Sara Payson Willis Parton channeled her own successful literary career into her most notable work, Ruth Hall (1855), in which, after a succession of misfortunes, a woman forges a writing career in 1850s New York: 

In a dark narrow street, in one of those heterogeneous boarding-houses abounding in the city, where clerks, market-boys, apprentices, and sewing girls, bolt their meals with railroad velocity; where the maid-of-all-work, with red arms, frowzy head, and leathern lungs, screams in the entry for any boarder who happens to be inquired for at the door; where one plate suffices for fish, flesh, fowl, and desserts; where soiled table-cloths, sticky crockery, oily cookery, and bad grammar, predominate; where greasy cards are shuffled, and bad cigars smoked of an evening. 

Hawthorne noted of Parton, “This woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman writes anything worth reading.” He asked his publisher to “let her know how much I admire her book.” 

Hawthorne, of course, is here, too, as is Herman Melville, with particular attention to Melville’s neglected Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) and The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857). And yet, you’ve probably heard of them. Not so, I imagine, William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), the first novel by an African American. (The topic? Thomas Jefferson’s illegitimate children.) Or The Garies and Their Friends (1857), a novel written by a free black author, Frank J. Webb, and published in Great Britain, featuring a mixed-race couple who move to Philadelphia and face rejection from both blacks and whites—and get caught up in a neighbor’s scheme to incite riots in black neighborhoods to drive down property prices.