Abstract

This article examines the literary reception of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in Civil War America and the literary and cultural factors contributing to its remarkable popularity. After its 1862 publication in France, Les Misérables was quickly translated into English and appeared in two American editions. While previous scholarship has noted the novel’s status as a bestseller of the war, this article is the first to draw on an archive of handwritten and printed sources, including fictional and nonfictional texts, to examine the reasons Hugo’s novel resonated so strongly with Civil War American readers. This article argues that soldiers used references to the novel in their autobiographical writing to create a lens through which to view and comment on their wartime experiences, while novelists such as John Esten Cooke drew on Hugo’s message of struggle for freedom in their own cause. Additional reasons for the novel’s warm reception among American soldiers lie in its themes of fighting and suffering, potential for empathetic identification with characters and scenes, and widespread availability at a time of considerable disruptions to the literary marketplace.

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Additional Information

ISSN
2155-7888
Print ISSN
2168-0604
Pages
pp. 5-28
Launched on MUSE
2016-06-28
Open Access
No
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