html{font-size:100%;} @media(min-width:60em){html{font-size: 90%}} Before the Civil War

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College…and the rest of the story.
Making … or Breaking a Nation

Poe: Three Stories     Walt Whitman     Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin     The Beecher Family     The Man Without a Country    

Edgar Allan Poe represented in the new nation explored new ways of thinking and writing, investigating and inventing new genres— in poetry, horror/supernatural, adventure, and especially detective fiction.

The First Detective: Three Stories
(from the introduction) Poe was 32 years old when the first true detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” appeared in the April 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine. He was perhaps the most audacious writer in America, a poet, wit, literary critic, writer of horror stories, and aggressive magazine editor when he was given the chance. The literary landscape widened by his probing inventiveness. In the instance of the detective story, Poe’s achievement is unquestioned. “We are forced to the conclusion,” Brander Matthews said, “that if the writing of a good detective story is so rare and so difficult, if only one of Poe’s imitators has been able really to rival his achievement, if this single success has been the result of an acceptance of Poe’s formula and of a close adherence to Poe’s practice, then, what Poe wrought is really unique.”

These three stories are "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and "The Purloined Letter." They created the model for the detective genre as we know it, starting with the admission by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that Poe's structure was exactly the one that he used in the Sherlock Holmes series. Curiously, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" was drawn from a real unsolved case, though Poe moves the action to Paris, where his detective, C. Auguste Dupin, is located.

Walt Whitman broke a number of unspoken "rules" of poetry when he published, and helped to print, the first edition of Leaves of Grass. He didn't even claim it as poetry, or give his name in the book itself—just the title, and an engraving of himself sporting a jaunty hat on the cover. Fortunately, he had sent off a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who responded with a letter. Whitman used a single sentence from that letter on the next copies to be printed, and sales were assured—for the next forty years.

Leaves of Grass, Original Edition

    A distinctively American style had been developing in the new nation—folk tales by Washington Irving, Native American stories such as The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper—but the tie with European traditions really was broken by Walt Whitman, a sometime teacher, printer, journalist, politician, who decided to throw out all the poetry conventions— rhyme, rhythm, allegories, pastoral settings, metaphor, classic references—in order to describe America as he saw it in its varieties of people, his own openness toward pansexuality, with a celebratory outpouring of that particular American self-assuredness that drove the pioneers westward, the homesteaders to remake the landscape, the common folk to invent new ways of being. Walt Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 was issued without even including his name, just a jaunty picture of himself on the cover. Ralph Waldo Emerson liked it, and that launched the book into a 40-year career, expanding with each new edition.

The book remained Whitman's masterpiece, and he added new material over several decades. When the Civil War came just five years later, Whitman himself served as a nurse to wounded soldiers, for his humanity was too broad and all-encompassing to pick one side against the other. His most memorable pieces came in appreciation of Lincoln after his assassination at the War's end. until Leaves of Grass, the Final Edition runs over 600 pages, with his Lincoln poems, travels to the United States expanding westward, filled with perceptions and that distinctive American optimism.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe dealt with the spectrum of the American experience, focusing on whites, blacks,

Harriet Beecher Stowe dealt with the spectrum of the American experience, focusing on whites, blacks, mulattos, in the decade before the War broke out. She'd visited Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, and was helped by her brother Charles Beecher's direct observation of the New Orleans slave market; he brought back stories that Harriet incorporated into Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1853. An experienced writer of emotional Christmas annuals, she found humanity in every aspect of the situation, the kind slave owner, the half-black/half-white who managed an estate yet was a slave, the young Topsy who "jest growed," Eliza crossing the ice on her way to Canada— the slave market— but also the white traders and families, a whole culture unfamiliar to her Northern neighbors.

She wrote another novel, Dred in her careful but committed approach to the whole picture, just a few years later, located in South Carolina, with well over half the book devoted to describing the white characters, the poor whites who did not own land and were sidelined by the "free" slave labor, who were forced into merchandising, secondary jobs, slave-hunting, or just plain gambling or petty theft. The religious leaders found enough scriptural passages to affirm that slavery was an age-old tradition. The one upright lawyer eventually heads out-of-state. Dred, the fictitious title character living in the tidewater swamps, assisting runaway slaves, is presumed to be the renegade son of Nat Turner, whose revolt was thwarted before it unfolded (This Dred is not Dred Scott of the Dred Scott Decision).

Fannie Kemble adds credence to Harriet Beecher Stowe's accounts, from her personal observations.

Fannie Kemble's Journal

Another pre-War account, a journal of direct witness actually written in 1838 by Fannie Kemble, an English actress, about Georgia plantations, did not see publication until halfway through the Civil War. Her husband forbade her to reveal it on pain of never seeing her daughters again. Fannie actually waited until they were 21 and beyond their father's control, before publishing the Journal, a personal account of visiting her husband's inheritance of plantations in Georgia.

The Beechers…

The Beechers Through the Nineteenth Century

For a broader view of the whole era, The Beechers Through the Nineteenth Century is the script of a radio play of 26 episodes (audio available online). Many of the "conversations" are taken directly from family round-robin letters. This family of Lyman Beecher consisted of eleven children, most of whom gained national reputations in various ways. Harriet, of course, wrote memorable novels. Her brother Edward became a leading abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher had a congregation of 5,000, and was much in demand; he famously gave five speeches in Britain at the start of the War, eventually persuading the British textile millworkers not to force England to side with the cotton-growing American South, which was a significant achievement against great odds. Catherine Beecher, the eldest, spent her life on women's education, and made a call for thousands of women to go West to teach and create schools; James Beecher let a unit of black soldiers in the Civil War, Isabella Beecher Hooker was a leading feminist, Thomas K. Beecher re-created the "church" into the modern model of today, a social and cultural center of the community; Charles Beecher helped create the common hymnal, etc.

The Man Without a Country

The Man Without a Country

Edward Everett Hale's classic novelette, The Man Without a Country, in part based on a actual circumstances, follows the protagonist, who grew up in Texas (which was not officially a state at that time), but who had become peripherally involved in Aaron Burr's reported scheme to make the new Louisiana Purchase into a separate country before it would be cut up into various States. He famously cried out "Goddamnit, I don't want to hear the name of the United States ever again." And the court granted him his wish. He then spent 40 years on various U.S. vessels at sea, not as a prisoner, but absolutely cut off from any news of the new states as they came into the Union, or the amazing progress of the country. The book was issued in 1863, to affirm the fight for Union over disunity. Some plot elements parallel an actual person's circumstance.

Leaves of Grass, First Edition     

Uncle Tom's Cabin     Dred

Fannie Kemble's Journal       Hale

The Beechers…



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