THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade): By Mark Twain; with One Hundred and Seventy-Four Illustrations. Charles L. Webster and Co., 1885.

 

Twain began work on Huckleberry Finn in 1876, eleven years after the American Civil War ended. The year 1876 also marked a change in conditions in the South. During Reconstruction—the period in which the rebel states were brought back into the Union—the region had experienced some progress. Congress, for example, passed a civil rights act in 1875 that guaranteed to all races equal use of trains, hotels, and other public places. Dominated by race-conscious white Southerners from pre-Civil War days, however, the old Democratic Party resumed control of the Southern states in 1876. Under its control, the new civil rights act was widely ignored, and the states began passing Jim Crow laws that required blacks to use separate schools, trains, bathrooms, drinking fountains, and other public facilities. (The name Jim Crow probably dates back to minstrel entertainer Thomas Rice, who in 1830 invented a famous song and jig in imitation of a misshapen old black man whom he saw dancing and singing a ditty that included the words “I jump Jim Crow.”) In 1883 the Supreme Court declared the civil rights act of 1875 unconstitutional, which meant that it was lawful for private businesses to practice segregation. 

Officially, blacks were free citizens after the Civil War. Yet deeply ingrained prejudices persisted, and it became lawful to ban black people from hotels, theaters, schools, and restaurants that catered to whites. Twain's novel ends with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn overcoming various obstacles to rescue the captured slave Jim. In the misadventures that follow, Jim learns that his owner, Miss Watson, had died after he fled and in her will had released him from slavery. Huck and Tom, it seems, had been trying to free a black man who was already free. Looking back at the Jim Crow laws and other post-Civil War curbs on Southern blacks, the idea of freeing the freed slave described a very real need. But the parallel was probably unintentional on Twain's part, for in a notice at the beginning of the novel, the author warns readers not to look for a moral in this story.

Adapted from: Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s). Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997

 

LAST OF THE MOHICANS

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757: By the Author of "The Pioneers.". Vol. 2, H. C. Carey & I. Lea, 1826.

 

While some critics found fault with aspects of The Last of the Mohicans, such as the numerous dangers and narrow escapes that mark the novel, the public embraced it. By drawing from the folklore of the day, Cooper's work did much to influence the growth of American literature, including his use of two settings that were to become trademarks of American literature: the frontier and the sea. Cooper's novel, while accepted by intellectuals, remained rooted in the essence of folk culture, especially in terms of plot and theme. He created almost mythic characters who confronted and conquered terrible odds while simultaneously living up to a strict code of morals and values. 

Holding values that in some respects differed greatly from traditional European values, the character of the frontiersman helped establish a view that was distinctly American and a voice through which the United States could speak to the rest of the world. Cooper also depicted Indian characters that were either noble or wickedly savage. Later writers would model their Indians on his, and although historians called his characters unrealistic, they became commonplace stereotypes held by whites of his time. In any case, Cooper's descriptions of North American Indians were apparently more realistic than those that had appeared in earlier romances and works of poetry.

Adapted from: Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 1: Ancient Times to the American and French Revolutions (Prehistory-1790s). Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997


 

MOBY DICK

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale..: Herman Melville. Harper & Brothers, Publishers; Richard Bentley, 1851

 

Critics have argued that Moby Dick presents a uniquely American style because of the novel's innovations that are unconnected to European literary traditions. In the novel, Melville experiments with a wide variety of narrative techniques. Some chapters simply use prose to describe the events aboard ship, but there are also elaborate descriptions of whales and the whaling industry, resembling an article in a scientific journal or factual book rather than a novel. Several chapters of Melville's novel even portray events in the form of a drama, with each character coming forward to offer their own soliloquy about the pursuit of Moby Dick. This wide variety of methods showed readers of Melville's day that American literature was far from constrained by more rigid European literary traditions.

There were some good reviews of the novel, but many critics were simply confused and many were disappointed by Moby Dick. One disparaging critic, Henry F. Chorley, wrote: “[The Whale by Herman Melville] is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition”. Another critic, George Ripley, considered the novel a great success. He wrote: “[In] point of richness and variety of incident, originality of conception, and splendor of description, [Herman Melville's Moby Dick] surpasses any of the former productions of this highly successful author”.

Adapted from: Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s). Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997

 

THE SCARLET LETTER

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: A Romance: Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1850.

 

Upon its publication, The Scarlet Letter was almost universally praised by critics, who lauded Hawthorne's ability to portray the deepest passions of his characters. E.P. Whipple, a widely read and influential critic of the day, gave Hawthorne abundant praise, writing that the book “bears on every page the evidence of a mind thoroughly alive, watching patiently the movements of morbid hearts when stirred by strange experiences”.

On the other hand, some critics were taken aback by the scandalous subject matter of The Scarlet Letter. They felt that the topic of the novel was revolting, an opinion that found its way into reviews of the day. Hawthorne also received quite a bit of backlash at home in Salem. The backlash was attached mainly to the introductory essay, “The Customs House.” The veiled critical references in the essay to the politicians of the town did not go unnoticed, and he received quite a bit of negative response from the citizens of Salem. 

Adapted from: Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 1: Ancient Times to the American and French Revolutions (Prehistory-1790s). Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997

 

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly: By Harriet Beecher Stowe. Vol. 2, J. P. Jewett, 1852.

 

Stowe's novel unleashed a storm of responses. Some antislavery supporters objected to its apparent support for colonization in Liberia and claimed that it made demeaning generalizations about blacks as a race. The London Times warned that it would “keep ill blood at the boiling point” and make slavery more difficult to abolish. Southerners cursed the novel, and in a flood of reviews, articles, and books of their own, raged that it was slanderous, a “wild and unreal” portrayal. They complained that Stowe's slaves were impossibly idealized, that she had portrayed them as if black skin automatically graced a person with beauty, nobility, and goodness. They also railed against its “unladylike” qualities, contending that no decent woman would have her characters speak in dialect or refer to the unmentionable topics of sexual relations and prostitution. Nationally, some readers praised its realism. Others criticized it as artistically sloppy.

To critics who stormed about the novel's inaccuracy, Stowe marshaled together instances from her own experiences along with new evidence to create a book much lengthier than the novel. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853) cited laws, legal cases, books, and newspaper articles that supported her claim that her novel depicted slavery in a realistic way. 

Adapted from: Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s). Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997

 

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