Five books from the 19th century that will help you understand modern America better



Harriet Jacobs, writer of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Wikimedia

Jillian Spivey Caddell, University of Kent

There’s a reason why one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), begins with an epigraph by the writer Herman Melville and an allusion to the ghosts who haunted Edgar Allan Poe.

If you want to understand anything about the US in the 20th and 21st centuries, you need to know 19th-century American literature. The 19th century was when many, if not most, of the problems and ideologies that define American culture were codified, and literature of the period shows creative responses to this change.

For the first half of the 19th century, a lot of ink was spilt worrying whether the US would ever have a literature of its own. Many famous writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, urged Americans to leave English literature behind and take up specifically American themes, peoples and spaces.

At the same time, indigenous and enslaved Americans such as Harriet Jacobs, William Apess and Frederick Douglass used their pens and their rhetorical might to urge the US government to end race and ethnicity-based persecution and genocide.

After the American Civil War (1861-1865), writers rarely worried about whether the country had a literature and whether it was any good (it quite obviously was). They had innovated new genres (think of Emily Dickinson’s spare and searing verses) and turned their attention to issues of inequality embedded in American culture, as in Kate Chopin’s proto-feminist novella The Awakening and Charles Chesnutt’s exposure of racism and white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South.

The following five works embody both the beauty of 19th-century American literature as well as its ability to change hearts and minds.

1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)

Jacobs’ slave autobiography may not be the earliest written or the most famous, but it’s a devastatingly effective piece of storytelling that reads like a novel. Jacobs’ story of surviving slavery is so remarkable a narrative that sheds a rare light on the female experience of slavery.

Written under a pseudonym (Linda Brent), for a long time scholars assumed it must be fiction written by a white abolitionist. It wasn’t until African-American and feminist scholars unearthed the true identity in 1987 of Harriet Jacobs that the truth of her life story was accepted. Her narrative has since become a classic text of resistance, and it’s an essential read for understanding how white supremacy continues to function in America today.

2. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855; last new edition 1881)

Engraving of Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass.
Wikimedia

Walt Whitman was a virtually unknown journalist and printer when the first edition of Leaves of Grass thundered upon the American literary world. The strange book listed no author and contained a casual engraving of Whitman with hand on hip and head cocked to the side. Most importantly, it included poems like the world had never seen before. Poems with long cascading lines and little rhyme or metre to be found. Whitman continually added to and edited Leaves of Grass over the course of his life, crafting his biography in poetry that we now recognise as revolutionary in both form and content. It made Whitman a touchstone for 20th-century poets like Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich.

3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-69)

If you’ve seen the most recent movie adaptation of Little Women (or any of the many previous adaptations), you’ll know that there’s something about Alcott’s novel (originally two novels, now published as one) that strikes a chord. Written in the shadow of the Civil War, Little Women draws upon Alcott’s own remarkable family life among famous Transcendentalist writers and thinkers in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a skillfully crafted book about how the dreams of childhood do and, more often, do not come to fruition.

4. The Conjure Woman by Charles Chesnutt (1899)

First edition book cover of The Conjure Woman.
Wikimedia

In the late 19th centuries, a genre called “local color” dominated American literary magazines. These stories introduced areas of the increasingly expanding United States to those living in urban centres. African-American writer Charles Chesnutt turned this genre on its head in his series of “conjure” stories – tales of magic and cunning told by a formerly enslaved man named Julius to entertain a white northern businessman. Julius’ stories weave together African-American folklore and Southern Gothic ambience to expose white supremacy in the south before the Civil War. These stories indirectly comment on the racism that continued to haunt the post-Civil War US under a different guise.

5. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville (1855)

While these days Melville’s gargantuan 1851 novel Moby-Dick may be more famous (and
you should definitely read that too, when you have a few months to spare), nothing packs a punch quite like the novella Benito Cereno. Based on the story of a real slave revolt on board a ship, the text is paced like a horror story and full of ambivalences and doubled meanings. It reveals the true horror of race-based chattel slavery and anticipates the eruption of violence that would tear apart the United States within a few short years.The Conversation

Jillian Spivey Caddell, Lecturer in nineteenth-century American literature, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Bookshop’ in the USA


The link below is to an article that takes a look at ‘Bookshop’ in the USA, which is taking on Amazon in the book selling space.

For more visit:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/24/little-book-sellers-that-could-how-coalition-indie-stores-managed-take-slice-amazon-business/

Five books from the 19th century that will help you understand modern America better



Harriet Jacobs, writer of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Wikimedia

Jillian Spivey Caddell, University of Kent

There’s a reason why one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), begins with an epigraph by the writer Herman Melville and an allusion to the ghosts who haunted Edgar Allan Poe.

If you want to understand anything about the US in the 20th and 21st centuries, you need to know 19th-century American literature. The 19th century was when many, if not most, of the problems and ideologies that define American culture were codified, and literature of the period shows creative responses to this change.

For the first half of the 19th century, a lot of ink was spilt worrying whether the US would ever have a literature of its own. Many famous writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, urged Americans to leave English literature behind and take up specifically American themes, peoples and spaces.

At the same time, indigenous and enslaved Americans such as Harriet Jacobs, William Apess and Frederick Douglass used their pens and their rhetorical might to urge the US government to end race and ethnicity-based persecution and genocide.

After the American Civil War (1861-1865), writers rarely worried about whether the country had a literature and whether it was any good (it quite obviously was). They had innovated new genres (think of Emily Dickinson’s spare and searing verses) and turned their attention to issues of inequality embedded in American culture, as in Kate Chopin’s proto-feminist novella The Awakening and Charles Chesnutt’s exposure of racism and white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South.

The following five works embody both the beauty of 19th-century American literature as well as its ability to change hearts and minds.

1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)

Jacobs’ slave autobiography may not be the earliest written or the most famous, but it’s a devastatingly effective piece of storytelling that reads like a novel. Jacobs’ story of surviving slavery is so remarkable a narrative that sheds a rare light on the female experience of slavery.

Written under a pseudonym (Linda Brent), for a long time scholars assumed it must be fiction written by a white abolitionist. It wasn’t until African-American and feminist scholars unearthed the true identity in 1987 of Harriet Jacobs that the truth of her life story was accepted. Her narrative has since become a classic text of resistance, and it’s an essential read for understanding how white supremacy continues to function in America today.

2. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855; last new edition 1881)

Engraving of Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass.
Wikimedia

Walt Whitman was a virtually unknown journalist and printer when the first edition of Leaves of Grass thundered upon the American literary world. The strange book listed no author and contained a casual engraving of Whitman with hand on hip and head cocked to the side. Most importantly, it included poems like the world had never seen before. Poems with long cascading lines and little rhyme or metre to be found. Whitman continually added to and edited Leaves of Grass over the course of his life, crafting his biography in poetry that we now recognise as revolutionary in both form and content. It made Whitman a touchstone for 20th-century poets like Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich.

3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-69)

If you’ve seen the most recent movie adaptation of Little Women (or any of the many previous adaptations), you’ll know that there’s something about Alcott’s novel (originally two novels, now published as one) that strikes a chord. Written in the shadow of the Civil War, Little Women draws upon Alcott’s own remarkable family life among famous Transcendentalist writers and thinkers in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a skillfully crafted book about how the dreams of childhood do and, more often, do not come to fruition.

4. The Conjure Woman by Charles Chesnutt (1899)

First edition book cover of The Conjure Woman.
Wikimedia

In the late 19th centuries, a genre called “local color” dominated American literary magazines. These stories introduced areas of the increasingly expanding United States to those living in urban centres. African-American writer Charles Chesnutt turned this genre on its head in his series of “conjure” stories – tales of magic and cunning told by a formerly enslaved man named Julius to entertain a white northern businessman. Julius’ stories weave together African-American folklore and Southern Gothic ambience to expose white supremacy in the south before the Civil War. These stories indirectly comment on the racism that continued to haunt the post-Civil War US under a different guise.

5. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville (1855)

While these days Melville’s gargantuan 1851 novel Moby-Dick may be more famous (and
you should definitely read that too, when you have a few months to spare), nothing packs a punch quite like the novella Benito Cereno. Based on the story of a real slave revolt on board a ship, the text is paced like a horror story and full of ambivalences and doubled meanings. It reveals the true horror of race-based chattel slavery and anticipates the eruption of violence that would tear apart the United States within a few short years.The Conversation

Jillian Spivey Caddell, Lecturer in nineteenth-century American literature, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Impact of coronavirus on Bookshops in Washington State


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the impact of coronavirus on bookshops and bookstores in the US state of Washington.

For more visit:
https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/coronavirus-diaries-bookstore-sales-impact-washington-state.html

The Literary Community in the US During the Coronavirus Pandemic


The link below is to an article that considers the literary community in the US in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

For more visit:
https://lithub.com/editors-note-literary-community-in-a-time-of-global-pandemic/

The Impact of Coronavirus on US Libraries


The link below is to an article that looks at the impact of coronavirus on US libraries and their services.

For more visit:
https://goodereader.com/blog/digital-library-news/thousands-of-libraries-are-cancelling-events-or-closing-completely

The Impact of Coronavirus on US Indie Publishers and Booksellers


The link below is to an article that considers the impact of coronavirus on independent publishers and booksellers in the USA.

For more visit:
https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/82667-coronavirus-impact-begins-to-spread.html

A must-read list: The enduring contributions of African American women writers



Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen are on this short list of enduring must-read writers.
Left to right: Nobel Prize, U.S. Library of Congress, Yale archive

Nancy Kang, University of Manitoba

In Mules and Men (1935), anthropologist, creative writer and Harlem Renaissance upstart Zora Neale Hurston relays the evocative folktale “Why the Sister in Black Works Hardest.” Fatigued after the work of Creation, God casts a massive bundle onto the earth. Intrigued by the mysterious object, a white Southern woman during the antebellum era asks her husband to retrieve it. Reluctant to tote the load himself, the master instructs a slave to fetch it.

Soon wearied of the task, the slave then commands his wife to shoulder the burden. She does so, excited at the prospect of exploring the contents. When she opens the package, however, what leaps out at her and Black women for all posterity is none other than hard work.

Ann Petry (right) was interviewed after she won a fiction award for ‘The Street.’
All-American news 4 / All American news IV / All-American news reel no. 4/Library of Congress

African American women writers have tackled the hard work of representing a diverse spectrum of lived and imagined experiences, including and especially their own. This labour occurs against the backdrop of centuries-long struggles with racist oppression and gender-based violence, including — but not limited to — slavery’s culture of endemic rape, forced or interrupted motherhood, infanticide, concubinage, fractured families and egregious physical and mental abuse.

Hard work as groundwork

Renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalls in his 1845 slave narrative how witnessing the serial whippings of his Aunt Hester impacted him “with awful force.” He explains, “it was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle.”

These ordeals also emerge in slave narratives by women. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) emphasizes such travails. A target of relentless sexual harassment by her much-older master, Jacobs laments, “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.”

Once emancipated, African American women still faced staggering impediments when pursuing educational, entrepreneurial and employment opportunities. Political participation meant restrictions on voting rights both as women and as people of colour. Racist caricatures impugned everything from a woman’s intelligence and moral capacity to her skin color, texture of hair and body shape. Stereotypes like the docile Mammy, the Tragic Mulatta, the clownish Topsy, the oversexed Jezebel, the greedy Welfare Queen, the amoral Hoodrat and the Mad Black Woman (still prevalent today) remain testaments to a history of disrespect and erasure.

Hurston’s tale symbolizes the enduring social struggles Black women have faced living in what feminist critic bell hooks has termed white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In addition to influential autobiographers like Maya Angelou, dramatists like Lorraine Hansberry and poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, fiction writers have consistently demonstrated how imaginative art can simultaneously inform, persuade, entertain, catalyze social change and address individual as well as collective concerns.

Here is a short list of pivotal texts by African American women from the past century. These writers are but a small sample of the artists and intellectuals whose output resisted the force of what contemporary feminist critic Moya Bailey has termed misogynoir, or the corrosive fusion of anti-Blackness and misogyny prevalent in popular culture today. These women have completed the groundwork — and hard work — of envisioning a more just, inclusive society going forward.

Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen

These novellas follow mixed-race women whose uneasy status on the colour line (including the lure of passing as white) complicates their lives in dangerous, even fatal ways. Passing is revolutionary for its depiction of homoerotic tension between two upper-middle-class Black women. Quicksand offers insight into the exoticization of African American women abroad and the contest between art and domesticity as viable avenues for a fulfilling life.


Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

This story is the lyrical account of thrice-married Janie Crawford who finds a mature vision of love and fulfillment amid incessant gossip and a difficult family history. The all-Black township of Eatonville, Fla., and the rich “muck” of the Everglades contribute to a portrait of community health, daily striving and resolute self-awareness.


The Street (1946) by Ann Petry

This social realist novel follows single mother Lutie Johnson as she attempts to make a life for her young son in a predatory urban space. Weathering sexism, racism, classism, poverty and intense personal frustration, Lutie attempts to resist the brutality of the environment that gives the novel its loaded name.


The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison

This book is a searing portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age and eventual undoing in the years following the Great Depression. Tumultuous family dynamics, psychological trauma and incest, the quest for compassion and self-love, and the toxic myth of Black ugliness coalesce in this first novel by the Nobel Laureate and author of neo-slave narrative Beloved (1987).


Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler

Oscillating between the 1970s and the early 19th century, this science fiction odyssey (re)connects a contemporary Black woman writer and her white husband with her ancestors on a Maryland plantation. The novel is buoyed up by the dramatic tension of time travel and the juxtaposition of the pre-civil War Antebellum-era with Civil Rights-era racial attitudes, including those about interracial love and allyship.


The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor

Structured like a narrative quilt, these interconnected experiences of seven women span different generations, professions, class backgrounds and understandings of their place in the world. The eroded apartment complex that links them is the backdrop for unbearable pain as well as the promise of transformation and reconciliation.


The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

A tale of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, this novel constellates their love and longing via letters and imagined conversations across the Atlantic. Unsparing in its critique of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, yet tender in its treatment of various human weaknesses, the novel underscores Black women’s need for self-regard and mutual care. Not only are these acts revolutionary, but they also offer a glimpse of the divine.The Conversation

Nancy Kang, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Feminisms and Gender-Based Violence, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.