Bringing the Racy, Popular Novels of the Past Into America's Schools

The mainstream literature of the 18th and 19th centuries was lively, radical, and diverse. An interview with professor Phillip Gura about why these books ought to be part of the high school literature canon. 

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As high school English classes start up again across the United States, teenagers will be taught today's version of the “canon”--some Mark Twain here, some Nathaniel Hawthorne there, and perhaps some Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The past 100 years may have seen John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, and even such recent works as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight added to the curriculum, while even courses that aren’t American literature-specific have shifted away from specifically British classics—Milton, Tennyson, Scott—to more geographically diverse fare.

But the titles representing the first two centuries of American history are relatively unchanged. In fact, in a survey published by the Renaissance Learning company this year, Nathaniel Hawthorne was “one of the only constants” when high school reading lists were compared from 1907 to 2012. What students probably won’t read this fall are some of the most popular novels from the time of the nation’s birth: books like Hagar by Alice Carey, a Scarlet Letter-like tale with a Gothic spin; or Mary Gove Nichols’s Mary Lyndon, about a woman who wants an open marriage; or William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, which centers on Thomas Jefferson’s children by one of his slaves.

Last April, a book by Phillip Gura, professor of American literature at the University of North Carolina, argued that these once-popular, now-overlooked novels are in fact are some of the richest sources available for learning about the themes and great debates of early America. What’s more, purely by looking at the more popular titles from this time, a student might receive a surprisingly diverse and even radical portrait of early 18th- and 19th-century people and morals.

To understand more about Gura’s motivations for this project, encapsulated in Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, and which books he, as an advocate for a more diversified curriculum, has been focusing on, we called him up.

Why did you write this book?

We’ve only been paying attention to all these white male authors even though we’ve been reviving the canon for 30 or 40 years. So what I wanted to do in the book was to look at all the other authors in the period, or as many as I could--to get a sense of the range of authors who were writing about similar kinds of questions and in that sense to highlight the achievements of people like Hawthorne and Melville and others but also to bring out, from the shadows, a lot of writers, particularly women and African Americans, who really were contributing to a very vital literary scene.

One thing I found interesting while reading this book was the fairly radical soul-searching among female novelists and the female characters in their novels very early--right after the Revolution. I wasn’t aware there was a tradition of thinking about women’s issues, women’s sexuality, quite that early.

Well again, this is one of the things I hope the book will do--alert people to these books. What’s nice is that 15-20 years ago this kind of book would have been aimed for a much more academic audience. But now these books are accessible to anyone on their computers. Before you had to go to a rare books library to find them, but now many of them have been scanned or Google has done them. I’ve taught these novels now from the Internet. The canon as we’ve had it was established in the early 20th century by white male academics in fairly elite institutions and they decided which authors they thought most important in the nineteen teens and twenties and the women simply got dropped aside because people like Melville and Hawthorne and Cooper and others seemed to be those who came forward in the most important ways. But in fact the mix of authors who were popular during the period is quite remarkable. Before 1850 there were about 2,800 novels published. If you ask any educated person “who are the novelists before 1850?” you might have the person say three or four names: Hawthorne, Melville, Cooper, Irving, and they might add Harriet Beecher Stowe.

What I did was to read pretty systematically in the important national journals that were emerging and see which books were reviewed, digging into them.

But yeah, some of these people, for example like Caroline Chesebro, someone like Alice Cary, someone like Catharine Sedgwick, these were people who really were pioneers in their way and have not been given their due. And what happened really after the movements in black studies and women’s studies is that these became part of the core curriculum in those types of courses. This book attempts to say they should be part of a larger picture in American literature.

If you encountered these books in periodicals of the time, that means they must in fact have been mainstream at that time.

Exactly. For example, in the 1850s this was a time when a significant novelists had his collected works presented, in other words in a uniform binding and that sort of thing. Cooper had that done, but so did Catharine Sedgwick, who was really considered a person as important in Cooper in the 1850s. In 1920, she’s nowhere, and she doesn’t emerge again until the 1970s with the women’s movement.

If you had to choose five novels to add to American literature courses in high schools--novels that the average educated American, whether they went to public or private schools, right now would never get taught--what would those be?

Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, I think he’s still the starting point.  But there are books like Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, very important in the early national period. Then we have people like Catharine Sedgwick, and not only her Hope Leslie (which is a book about the Puritan period that’s rarely taught) but a book called Clarence about people in New York who during the first depression of 1837 are losing their fortunes and having to readjust their lives to the complexity of the new financial market. It’s a wonderful book that expresses the urban environment in very new ways. Then you have people like Alice Cary, with the book Hagar, a novel in which after a minister gets a woman pregnant and leaves her--shades of The Scarlet Letter--she finally ends up unbeknownst to him as a serving person in his home and discovers that in fact when he had stolen the child that they had, the child died, and he’s kept it in a little closet and she discovers it. It’s tremendously gothic. On the other hand, it’s talking about how the woman was left out of this whole family situation and then discovers it. And the last scene is remarkable, when she has taken the baby’s remains, and he, realizing who this person is who has been in the house, literally goes mad. The last image is of his being taken to an asylum. It’s an amazing novel.

Mary Gove Nichols’s Mary Lyndon is a novel about a woman who wants an open marriage and really does not want to be confined in the way that most of her contemporary friends are, and so she lives with a man and finally goes to Europe with him and has a child there because society is more accepting. She’s a writer for periodicals, she’s an intellectual, she’s breaking all kinds of bounds, and again this is a person who could be read about very commonly, published by a New York publisher of some renown, and it’s very important to read that kind of thing.

We haven’t yet discussed many of the African American novelists, but again, the whole notion of black self-consciousness is very important during this period. There weren’t very many novels published, but I mentioned William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter which actually talks about Jefferson’s children by one of his slaves. The book focuses on their lives after they leave that situation. This whole business has been re-discovered with the Hemings family, but that was known as rumor back then and one black writer actually used it as the focus for his plot.

Another one I think is very important is The Garies and Their Friends, by Frank J. Webb. It’s about middle-class black Philadelphians who essentially have been ghettoized already. It’s in the 1850s, it’s not about abolition, about slavery. It’s about racism, about prejudice among people who are free. It announces in a sense the kinds of things black authors will be writing about in the post-Civil War period when in fact all blacks were free. So you find at that early point someone knew that the problem for African Americans would be the problem not of slavery in the long run but of race. So these are books that illuminate part of American history that are very important but also many of them have very compelling stories. They teach well. And one can use them I think to explore these nooks and crannies that have been left aside.