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Sections: 1750 to 1800 | 1800 to 1850 | 1850 to 1900  | 1900 to 1950 | 1950 to 2000

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

The Scarlet Letter was the first important novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the leading authors of nineteenth-century romanticism in American literature. Like many of his works, the novel is set in Puritan New England and examines guilt, sin, and evil as inherent human traits. The main character, Hester Prynne, is condemned to wear a scarlet “A” (for “adultery”) on her chest because of an affair that resulted in an illegitimate child. Meanwhile, her child’s father, a Puritan pastor who has kept their affair secret, holds a high place in the community. Similar themes are found in later literature as well as in current events.

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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851)

Herman Melville’s tale of the Great White Whale and the crazed Captain Ahab who declares he will chase him “round perdition’s flames before I give him up”has become an American myth. Even people who have never read Moby-Dick know the basic plot, and references to it are common in other works of American literature and in popular culture, such as the Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Herman Melville (1819–1891). Moby-Dick; or, the Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)

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Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

With the intention of awakening sympathy for oppressed slaves and encouraging Northerners to disobey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) began writing her vivid sketches of slave sufferings and family separations. The first version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared serially between June 1851 and April 1852 in the National Era, an antislavery paper published in Washington, D.C. The first book edition appeared in March 1852 and sold more than 300,000 copies in the first year. This best-selling novel of the nineteenth century was extremely influential in fueling antislavery sentiment during the decade preceding the Civil War.

In her copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) in 1903 acknowledges progress made in the last half-century, but regrets that blacks are still not treated fairly. Shown are the book plate, title page, and an inscription from Anthony.

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  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. 2 vols. Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852. Oliver Wendell Holmes Library Collection and Susan B. Anthony Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. 2 vols. Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852. Oliver Wendell Holmes Library Collection and Susan B. Anthony Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (021.01.00)

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. 2 vols. Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852. Oliver Wendell Holmes Library Collection and Susan B. Anthony Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00)

  • National Era, December 11, 1851. Newspaper. John Davis Batchelder Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (102.00.00)

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Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853)

Although Stowe tried to present a fairly sympathetic picture of slaveholders in her novel, Southerners severely criticized her work as misrepresenting and exaggerating slave conditions. In order to defend the authenticity of her novel, which Stowe contended was a “mosaic of facts,”she collected extensive real-life accounts that supported the experiences and qualities depicted by each of her major characters. In the Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe presents personal observations, testimonial statements, and legal cases that become an even stronger indictment of slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Boston: John P. Jewett & Co. 1853. John Davis Batchelder Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division (023.01.00)

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Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

While living in solitude in a cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau wrote his most famous work, Walden, a paean to the idea that it is foolish to spend a lifetime seeking material wealth. In his words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”Thoreau’s love of nature and his advocacy of a simple life have had a large influence on modern conservation and environmentalist movements.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)

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Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

The publication of the first slim edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855 was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of American literary history. Refreshing and bold in both theme and style, the book underwent many revisions during Whitman’s lifetime. Over almost forty years Whitman produced multiple editions of Leaves of Grass, shaping the book into an ever-transforming kaleidoscope of poems. By his death in 1892, Leaves was a thick compendium that represented Whitman’s vision of America over nearly the entire last half of the nineteenth century. Among the collection’s best-known poems are “I Sing the Body Electric,”“Song of Myself,”and “O Captain! My Captain!,”a metaphorical tribute to the slain Abraham Lincoln.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, New York: [Walt Whitman] and Rome Brothers, 1855. Houghton Whitman Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

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Louisa May Alcott, The Mysterious Key (1867)

In the 1860s, a publishing phenomenon in mass marketing appeared that would provide Americans with a wealth of popular fiction at an inexpensive price. These “dime novels” were aimed at youthful, working-class audiences and distributed in massive editions at newsstands and dry goods stores. In addition to Wild West adventures that appealed to adolescent males, dime novels featured urban detective stories, working-girl narratives, and costume romances that promoted the values of patriotism, bravery, self-reliance, and American nationalism. This dime novel was written by Louisa May Alcott, best known for her novel Little Women (1868) and is one of only two known copies. Through copyright deposit the Library of Congress has accumulated a dime novel collection of nearly 40,000 titles.

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888). The Mysterious Key and What It Opened. Boston: Elliot, Thomes & Talbot, 1867. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)

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Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (1868)

This first edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was published in 1868 when Louisa was thirty-five years old. Based on her own experiences growing up as a young woman with three sisters, and illustrated by her youngest sister, May, the novel was an instant success, selling more than 2,000 copies immediately. Several sequels were published, including Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Although Little Women is set in a very particular place and time in American history, the characters and their relationships have touched generations of readers and still are beloved.

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888). Little Women, or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (027.01.00)

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Horatio Alger Jr., Mark, the Match Boy (1869)

The formulaic juvenile novels of Horatio Alger Jr. are best remembered for the “rags-to-riches”theme they championed. In these stories, poor city boys rose in social status by working hard and being honest. Alger preached respectability and integrity, while disdaining the idle rich and the growing chasm between the poor and the affluent. In fact, the villains in Alger’s stories were almost always rich bankers, lawyers, or country squires. Published in May 1868, Ragged Dick was an immediate success and propelled Alger from obscurity to literary prominence. Mark, the Match Boy and subsequent volumes in the Ragged Dick series were followed by a sustained output of similar stories in which self-help was a means to upward mobility and economic sufficiency.

Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899). Mark, the Match Boy. Boston: Loring, 1869. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home (1869)

This classic domestic guide by sisters Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe is dedicated to “the women of America, in whose hands rest the real destinies of the Republic.”It includes chapters on healthful cookery, home decoration, exercise, cleanliness, good air ventilation and heat, etiquette, sewing, gardening, and care of children, the sick, the aged, and domestic animals. Intended to elevate the “woman’s sphere”of household management to a respectable profession based on scientific principles, it became the standard domestic handbook.

Catharine E. Beecher (1800–1878) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). The American Woman’s Home; or, Principles of Domestic Science; Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes. New York: J. B. Ford, 1869. Katherine Golden Bitting Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00)

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Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

Novelist Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . . All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”During their trip down the Mississippi on a raft, Twain depicts in a satirical and humorous way Huck and Jim’s encounters with hypocrisy, racism, violence, and other evils of American society. His use in serious literature of a lively, simple American language full of dialect and colloquial expressions paved the way for many later writers, including Hemingway and William Faulkner.

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Emily Dickinson, Poems (1890)

Very few of the nearly 1,800 poems that Emily Dickinson wrote were published during her lifetime and, even then, they were heavily edited to conform to the poetic conventions of their time. A complete edition of her unedited work was not published until 1955. Her idiosyncratic structure and rhyming schemes have inspired later poets.

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Poems. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (031.00.00)

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Emily Dickinson, Slant of Light=Sesgo de Luz (1890)

This elaborate book art creation is testimony to the enduring international popularity of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Ediciones Vigia, the publishing collective at Matanzas, Cuba, has been producing handcrafted books of Cuban and classic literature, folklore, music, and local history since 1985. The text of this selection of Dickinson’s poems in English and Spanish is mimeographed, and recycled materials are used for covers and the case that recreates Dickinson’s Amherst house.

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Slant of Light=Sesgo de Luz. Matanzas, Cuba: Ediciones Vigia, 1998. Press Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (32.00.00)

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Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

An early example of photojournalism as vehicle for social change, Riis’s book demonstrated to the middle and upper classes of New York City the slum-like conditions of the tenements of the Lower East Side. Following the book’s publication (and the public’s uproar), proper sewers, plumbing, and trash collection eventually came to the neighborhood.

Jacob Riis (1849–1914). How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. General Collections, Library of Congress (033.00.00)

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Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

One of the most influential works in American literature, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage has been called the greatest novel about the American Civil War. The tale of a young recruit in the American Civil War who learns the cruelty of war made Crane an international success, although he was born after the war and had not experienced battle himself. The work is notable for its vivid depiction of the internal conflict of its main character—an exception to most war novels until that time, which focused more on the battles than on their characters.

Steven Crane (1871–1900). The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (034.00.00)

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Sections: 1750 to 1800 | 1800 to 1850 | 1850 to 1900  | 1900 to 1950 | 1950 to 2000