International Theme



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Handout 5


Literature on Slavery and the Civil War; the “International Theme”; Realism and Humor in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century
Literature on Slavery:
Harriet A. Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). This autobiographical writing addresses white middle-class women and describes the double-fold plight of being a slave and a woman at the same time. Jacobs did not receive recognition during her life, the work was believed to be fictitious and the topic (sexual harassment) taboo.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) Journalist, lecturer, abolitionist. He had a successful government career and was generally recognized as an outstanding orator.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845).

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892).
Harriet Beecher-Stowe (1811-1896) Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) A propagandistic novel. Enormous success.
every influence of literature, of poetry, and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity,” good-will to man”. The poet, the painter, and the artist now seek out and embellish the common and gentler humanities of life, and under the allurements of fiction, breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood….The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it….In the Northern States, these representations may, perhaps be thought caricatures; in the Southern States are witnesses who know their fidelity. What personal knowledge the author has had, of the truth of incidents such as here are related, will appear in its time. (Preface to Uncle Tom’s Cabin)
Civil War:

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Self-educated. Ran for the Senate (Illinois) in 1858. Lost, but became well-known on account of his anti-slavery speeches (Lincoln-Douglas debates). Won first (1860) and second term in office (1864). He was assassinated in April 1865.
Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the great task of remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Final Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863

.That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom…



Literature on the Civil War: see Walt Whitman’s poetry, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.
The “International theme” in the Novels of Henry James
Henry James (1843-1916) Brother: William James, famous psychologist. Henry James settled in England in 1876. He was attracted to the literary scene in Europe: Turgenev, Balzac, Flaubert. An English or American writer? Why did he leave America? Perhaps on account of what he expressed in his essay on “Hawthorne” (1879) “….The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep…it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion”. There were also family and intellectual influences. Visits to Europe (1855, 1869-70). Settled in England in 1876.
Early fiction: The international theme and cultural comparisons: Americans in Europe: the artist (Roderick Hudson, 1875), the businessman (The American, 1877), the American girl (Daisy Miller, 1878). Raises the question of the moral superiority of America.
Daisy Miller (1879) A study of American innocence. It is the most popular of James’s fiction except for The Turn of the Screw. Daisy Miller is a study of character, a study of the American woman. Antecedent: Hester Prynne, the example of the independent woman (in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Daisy is an innocent American girl travelling in Europe, Switzerland and Italy. She meets American expatriates, but her behavior strikes people as vulgar.Winterbourne, an American expatriate, is interested in Daisy. She, however, in order to attract Winterbourne’s attention, flirts with an Italian. Coolness, stiffness of Winterbourne’s emotions. The story on the theme of wasted opportunities (see “The Beast in the Jungle” and The Ambassadors). Daisy Miller is also James’s sharp criticism of transcendentalist ideas on “self-reliance.” As to genre, Daisy Miller is a “nouvelle,” a novella.
The Portrait of a Lady (1881) Isabel Archer, the independent, naive young American woman. “The conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny”. Isabel Archer: “I can’t escape my fate”. Is fate accidental or man-made? Realizing her situation: (Chapters 42 and 54). The question of evil in the novel. James wrote about it in his essay on “Baudelaire” (1876): it is “deep in the human consciousness”. This novel is also a critique of Emersonian individualism (“Trust thyself” – “Self-Reliance”, 1841).
The Bostonians (1886) One of James’s few novels set in the U.S. The germs of feminism – women are more central to American life than in Europe. One of the few James novels which are set in the U.S.
The Turn of the Screw (1898) A psychological ghost story on the relativity of perception and the problem of corruption and evil. The governess sees the ghosts, but do the children also see them? Is the governess a reliable or unreliable narrator? The story has an intricate frame-like narrative strategy.

The “romances”: The Wings of the Dove (1902); Milly Theale (young American millionaire leaving her money to fortune-hunters, Kate Croy and Merton Densher (British). The goodness in her deed transforms the characters(?).

The Ambassadors (1903): take up a stance against aestheticism (Oscar Wilde). Lambert Strether, middle-aged American on a mission to Europe. He is caught up in illusions. The “virtuous attachment” of Chad Newsome and Mme de Vionnet is only appearance. Appearance and reality are not the same.


The Golden Bowl (1904) is James’s last great romance.
James’s ideas on the novel are best expressed in “The Art of Fiction” (1884) written in answer to Walter Besant’s lecture on the novel:

The novel is in its broadest definition “a personal, a direct impression of life…its value is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression”. Experience redefined as: “an immense sensibility, a huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness…it is the very atmosphere of the mind”.

  • the story is not everything

  • the laws of writing fiction cannot be taught

  • freedom of form for the writer - characters do not have to be clear-cut

  • fiction does not necessary have to have a conscious moral purpose

  • no good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind


James’s essay on “Hawthorne” (1879) vs. Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

According to James, it was difficult for Hawthorne to live in a country where there was
No state; in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no Great universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eaton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom, nor Ascot!
Realism and humor at the end of the nineteenth century
Ambrose Bierce (1847-1914) - short story writer, nicknamed Bitter Bierce. Stories characterized by tension and suspense. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Naturalistic descriptions. The most important theme in his short stories is Death. The Devil's Dictionary (full of bitter aphorisms).
“AMBITION, n.
An overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.”
“MARRIAGE, n.
The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.”
Stephen Crane (1871-1900) – novelist, short story writer and poet.

Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893) – Portraying the dark side of the big city. Environment determines fate.

The Red Badge of Courage (1895) – Authentic description of the Civil War novel, although Crane was not even alive at the time.

The Blue Hotel” - the story takes place in the Mid-West - the main subject is fear.


Regionalism or local color fiction focuses on characters, dialects, customs and descriptions that are typical of a particular region. Often there is nostalgia expressed for the past and for the region.
Bret Harte (1836-1902)- introduces the subject of the American West.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp”

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”

Mark Twain (Samuel Longhorn Clemens 1835-1910) – Born in Florida, Missouri (South). Regarded as a humorist by contemporary readers. He became an apprentice pilot on the Mississippi. He adopted as pseudonym the term for indicating that the river was two fathoms deep “mark twain!”


Tall-tale -a typically American genre from the Mid-West and the West. It is a seemingly factual story, usually humorous and full of exaggerations. Example: “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” According to Twain, the tall tale is typically American, it has to be delivered in a monotonous voice, it is digressive, the point has to be delayed and slurred as much as possible and there should be a pause at the end for effect.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “The Great American Novel;” a picaresque novel, written in the vernacular. The story takes place before the Civil War. There is a strong contradiction between Christianity and the institution of slavery. Huck can live without civilization. He is “lowdown, plain and ornery, living on the periphery of society. Although seemingly immoral (cursing) he is deep down a very moral being. He has compassion for the suffering, but romantic ideals are disgusting to him. There is a contrast between the raft on the Mississippi and the shore. Huck's friendship with Jim is sincere, but he trusts no one and tells lies to the adults he meets along his travels.

Hemingway: “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain”.



Faulkner: “of course Mark Twain is all our grandfather.”






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