19th Century Literature Criticism
Explore the insightful world of critical commentary on authors and literature of the nineteenth century. This era, a time of tremendous change, saw the development of the novel—often released in serial installments—as a popular, accessible literary form. The focus of most literary expression during this period also shifted in substance and style from classicism to romanticism and then to realism as authors grappled with a host of troubling social problems associated with and influenced by rapid industrialization and urbanization in Europe and North America, along with imperial conflicts in many other regions of the world. Understanding nineteenth-century authors is important for two primary reasons: they provide valuable historical and cultural insights on their own unique times while adding voluminously to the collective body of work that captures the broad and universal nature of human experience.
Early in the 1800s, romanticism held sway, along with its emphasis on the individual, emotion, imagination, and nature. In the United Kingdom, Robert Burns joined the poets William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley as influential proponents of this literary style. Meanwhile, fictional novels gained steadily in popularity among an increasingly literate populace. Between 1811 and 1815, Jane Austen anonymously published three of her most highly regarded works, including Pride and Prejudice; three years later, Mary Shelley did the same with Frankenstein, now considered the first true science-fiction novel. By the 1830s, Russian writer Alexander Pushkin completed work on his verse novel, Eugene Onegin, which became the first of a string of nineteenth-century Russian classics.
The middle decades of the nineteenth century were highlighted by noteworthy literary achievements in many genres from poetry to essays to novels. Literature criticism that focuses on this period will feature analyses of James Fenimore Cooper and his American “Westerns”; the transcendental thoughts of Henry David Thoreau; Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories; Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and the Victorian novel; the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and on the European continent, the acclaimed fiction and scholarly nonfiction by Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac.
In 1862, Victor Hugo published one of the longest and most popular novels ever written: the historical fiction Les Misérables, charting the struggles of an ex-convict in the years leading up to the June Rebellion in Paris. Analysts of the works of this period will also give attention to important works by Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Russia, and Herman Melville in the United States. The shift to realism in later nineteenth-century fiction and poetry can be traced through the critical responses to and literary analyses of authors such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and American-born Henry James in Britain, and Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain in the United States. New literary genres came to the fore in the writings of Jules Verne, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells.
By the end of the nineteenth century, these new genres of fiction—among them ghost stories, Westerns, detective stories, children’s literature, science fiction, and fantasy—were firmly established. Exploring criticism of the many and varied works of this period opens the researcher to a fascinating array of literary styles and techniques, along with the remarkable history of an era that witnessed relentless and dynamic change on every possible front.