1860s American Literature

This is part of Diane’s Literature Course I Series

This is a good time of year for the load to lighten a bit.  Not knowing for sure what kind of progress we might be able to make through the list, I couldn’t have planned it this way, but our 1860s selections have fallen quite nicely between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I thought it necessary to include Louisa May Alcott. Since all the girls had read Little Women, I chose my favorite instead, An Old-Fashioned Girl.  We also read Edward Everett Hale’s short story, “A Man Without a Country,” and Stephen Crane’s short novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

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An Old-Fashioned Girl has been one of my favorites for at least 40 years.  When I was much younger, it was my comfort read.  I’m not sure how many times I’ve read it.  But it had been long enough since the last time that I needed to read it again for our discussion.  It’s a, simple story; not a difficult read. The girls were happy to get to read at least one book that ends the way it ought to, with everyone poorer but happier.  We spent only two weeks reading this one.  Rather than assigning a book report, I asked my students to write a short report on Louisa May Alcott.  

Here you can read about what Sara did with her Young Ladies Literary Tea for An Old-Fashioned Girl.

“A Man Without a Country” was a one-week assignment.  Written in 1863, Hale’s story was intended to rally support for the Union cause in the midst of the Civil War.  A young army officer, Philip Nolan, is tried for treason.  During his trial, he cries out, “D**n the United States!  I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”  The judge rules that Nolan’s wish is a fitting punishment for his crime.  He sentences the young man to spend the rest of his life at sea.  He is never to see his country again, and his captors are to make sure he never again hears so much as a mention of the United States of America.  During the next 50 years, Nolan becomes one of our country’s most avid patriots.  

A turning point in Nolan’s life comes when he takes a turn reading aloud with some of the men on board ship.  It happens that they are reading Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” With no one suspecting what is coming, Nolan launches into the sixth canto:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite these titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self . . .

At which point he tosses the book into the ocean.  The narrator says they didn’t see Nolan again for two months, and he was never the same again.  

I vowed to myself, possibly as far back as high school, that I would never try to make anyone write poetry. However, I gave the girls each a copy of the second section of the canto and asked them to rewrite it as a hymn to Wyoming, their native land.  They could rewrite as a poem, or not.  

The next week we read The Red Badge of Courage. Though it was written in 1895, the story takes place during the Civil War. The book is only a little over 100 pages long, and the story occurs within the space of three or four days. Packed into this novella are a few battle scenes and a young man’s internal battle with himself. In these few days, he passes from an untried recruit, terrified that he will run from his first battle, to a soldier who has distinguished himself on the field.  

I fear that my girls were not terribly impressed by the youth’s internal struggles. One of the few comments was, “At least it wasn’t as depressing as All Quiet on the Western Front.”  Well, we could talk for quite a while about why that is. But we didn’t at this time.

There are about 20 instances of the word d**n.  Sometimes in the context of someone being a d**ned fool.  Often something like “d**ned good.”  

There are also several instances of the use of “Gawd.”  “O Gawd,” “by Gawd,” “Good Gawd.”

In the midst of a battle, there is one instance of an officer shouting at the enemy, “God d**n their souls.” This is in the first part of chapter 20.  

“Hell” is used a few times in expressions such as, “run like hell.”

In class this week, we crossed into the 1880s. I read aloud from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus. While I didn’t think it was necessary for my students to buy and read the entire book, I wanted them to at least be familiar with Harris’ idea, with Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and with the Tar Baby. “Please don’t throw me in the briar patch!” They also had to endure my rendition of the dialect. Sadly, Uncle Remus and his stories have fallen into disfavor, being considered politically incorrect. Sad, because Harris wrote the stories down out of love and respect for the black slaves he had been familiar with when he was young. He knew their folklore was passing from common knowledge and wanted to preserve it.  

We will also be reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” together aloud.  Found nowhere on an American literature list, I thought it would be fun for our last meeting before the Christmas break.  

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