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Scholars used to view “early American literature” primarily as little more than a rustic precursor to what American literature would become in its maturity. For many years as well, it was the cradle of the “New England Mind,” that place where America’s religious origins might be found and established. In recent years, however, the study of early American literature has expanded in several intriguing directions. From the perspective of temporality or period, scholars now consider “early America” to extend back into the fifteenth century and as far forward as the 1830s. Linguistically, the archive “early America” now speaks and records in a number of languages other than English. Socially and culturally, we consider the literatures of enslaved persons, women, and Indigenous persons formerly forgotten by such histories. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a single book or perspective adequately capturing the proliferation of the field’s recognition, which is why this multivoice volume is so needed as this point.
This Companion covers American literary history from European colonization to the early republic. It provides a succinct introduction to the major themes and concepts in the field of early American literature, including new world migration, indigenous encounters, religious and secular histories, and the emergence of American literary genres. This book guides readers through important conceptual and theoretical issues, while also grounding these issues in close readings of key literary texts from early America.
Returning to David Walker’s Appeal, with an exclusive focus on its 1848 publication, this chapter traces the connections between the 1848 anti-monarchical revolutions in Europe, the Mexican American War, and an emerging vision of Black resistance to American Empire. This chapter reads Walker together with the works of Henry Highland Garnet and decisively demonstrates how African American literature articulated the principles and priorities of a transnational 1848.
In this chapter on the poetry of George Moses Horton, the local expands to encompass not only the city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but also the states of North Carolina and Virginia. This chapter shows how the 1831 Nat Turner insurrection and its aftermath profoundly shaped the enslaved Horton’s later poetry.
This chapter explores the effect of emancipation in Jamaica in particular on the work of Nancy Prince. Connecting Prince’s commentary on Jamaica to her struggles with white-led abolitionist organizations, this chapter looks closely at how Black freedom abroad could be used to critique the policies of US-based abolitionists.
This chapter interrogates the multiple and nuanced ways in which Harriet Jacobs engaged with developing communications technologies and policies ostensibly designed to connect different sections of the nation to one another. Reading Jacobs’s experiences in the 1830s in relation to an ongoing communications revolution in the United States, this chapter shows how Jacobs ingeniously manipulates formal and informal networks in order to secure freedom for herself and her family.
This chapter focuses on a community of Black women writers in Philadelphia who contributed essays and poetry to the Liberator newspaper. The Liberator provided a venue for such writings, but Philadelphia’s free Black women also decisively shaped the tone and politics of the nation’s leading abolitionist newspaper.
This chapter explores the interplay between the genre of the slave narrative and Supreme Court cases concerning copyright and fugitivity decided in the 1830s and 1840s. Looking in particular at the 1838 Narrative of James Williams, a work quickly challenged for its veracity, this chapter reveals important connections between literary works and legal decisions.
This chapter reveals the key theoretical intervention made by David Walker in his Appeal. Examining the work in its 1830 and 1848 iterations, this chapter unpacks the theory of cosmopolitanism developed by Walker and traces its effects.
This chapter shifts to the island of Cuba and the La Escalera conspiracy in the mid-1840s. As this chapter reveals, this conspiracy between free and enslaved people of color in the Spanish colony to overthrow their oppressors takes center stage in the later novels of Martin Delany and Andrés Avelino de Orihuela, each of whom turns to La Escalera in order to develop a particular vision of Black revolution in the hemisphere.
New Orleans provides the context for this chapter’s reading of Les Cenelles in relation to the concerns of the city’s community of francophone free people of color. As this chapter shows, the 1845 collection of poetry not only emerged from discussions over how to provide an education to the city’s Black francophone children, but also articulated a specific theory of education that would later find an institutional home in the city’s first school for free children of color.
This chapter traces how August 1st celebrations of West Indian Emancipation in the United States impacted the works of Frances Ellen Watkins and James Whitfield. As this chapter shows, such celebrations not only provided an occasion for Watkins and Whitfield to write and perform poetry, but also indelibly shaped the form and content of their works.
This chapter looks closely at how literary societies in New York and Philadelphia served as engines of the creation of a particular kind of Black modernity, as expressed in the speeches, essays, and poetry of the members of such societies.
This chapter reveals the profound impact that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had on the slave narrative by comparing narratives from the same author published before and after the passage of the act. Consulting pre- and post-1850 narratives by Henry Box Brown, William Grimes, and Josiah Henson, this chapter illuminates key ways in which the Fugitive Slave Act shaped one of the premier genres of African American literature.
This chapter reads Frederick Douglass’s writings from the 1840s and 1850s in light of the Irish Famine. In addition to providing a fresh perspective on Douglass’s writings and situating the theme of hunger at the center of his work, Finseth offers an elegant example of how environmental history intersects with African American literature.
This volume charts the ways in which African American literature fosters transitions between material cultures and contexts from 1830 to 1850, and showcases work that explores how African American literature and lived experiences shaped one another. Chapters focus on the interplay between pivotal political and social events, including emancipation in the West Indies, the Irish Famine, and the Fugitive Slave Act, and key African American cultural productions, such as the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the writings of David Walker, and the genre of the Slave Narrative. Chapters also examine the relationship between African American literature and a variety of institutions including, the press, and the post office. The chapters are grouped together in three sections, each of which is focused on transitions within a particular geographic scale: the local, the national, and the transnational. Taken together, they offer a crucial account of how African Americans used the written word to respond to and drive the events and institutions of the 1830s, 1840s, and beyond.
While childhood and same-sex sexuality play a key role in early American studies, the aging straight woman has not found significant purchase. This study of post-reproductive sexuality in early American culture attempts to change that. It focuses on the 1810 novel Rosa; or, American Genius and Education to note that mature white women frequently served as literary objects of desire. They were just as likely to be ridiculed. What differentiated the compelling from the absurd postmenopausal subject was her attitude toward her own sexuality. In a heteronormative Anglo-American context, only those women who had renounced sex were erotic. Their recalcitrance, in turn, exemplified meritorious literary discourse. As such, the fact that sexy older women proliferated throughout the pages of early American novels should not fool us into complacency regarding the period’s tendency to represent womanhood as a figurative locus of civic norms that were nonetheless premised upon their participatory exclusion.
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