- Early-19th-Century Literature
A number of publishers willing in the past to provide review copies of books for consideration in American Literary Scholarship did not reply to requests for this year's volume. Fortunately most presses generously sent books relevant to this chapter for evaluation, and although the past few years saw a slight decline in the number of significant book-length studies, this year sees a slight increase in noteworthy scholarly works devoted to early-19th-century American literature. Scholars and students of the period will be pleased with a number of books and articles that provide keen insights on the period's literature. Books on topics such as the "social lives" of poems, the relationship of sentimentality and fear in antebellum antislavery literature, the potential for language to break down the distinction between word and act through means of performative speech theory, the role of mass democracy in fiction, portrayals of the struggling artist, and the transatlantic literary culture stand as valuable contributions to this year's scholarship. Important essays discuss a variety of topics including antebellum newspapers, friendship albums, comic strips, readers' reactions to panic, abolition, life in penitentiaries, and communicating with the dead. Four important books on Edgar Allan Poe appear this year, and a fairly good number of articles offer readers valuable commentaries on Poe's works. The works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, George Lippard, and Robert Montgomery Bird serve as subjects for some of this year's most compelling critical perspectives. Whereas the number of works dealing with African American writers drops off a bit this year, a truly superb [End Page 195] illustrated biography of Frederick Douglass highlights the importance of photography during the antebellum period and deserves a prominent place on the bookshelves of all scholars. As usual, the period's notable women writers attract the attention of numerous commentators. Significant articles offer valuable observations on Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Lucretia Davidson, Maria J. McIntosh, and Mary Denison.
i Period Studies
Michael C. Cohen's The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn.) examines the ways 19th-century readers "engaged with poems in their daily lives." Emphasizing the social relations engendered by poems, Cohen provides more than a mere history of reading, since this book highlights debates concerning taste, value, and merit as American audiences reacted to various poetic forms including broadside ballads, antislavery verse, and minstrel songs and slave spirituals. Cohen investigates how readers read, what they read, and their thoughts about what they read. Negotiating the relations between poems and songs and readers and audiences, The Social Lives of Poems explores the various imaginative relationships between poems and their readers. The first half of Cohen's study tracks the circulation of ballads in three antebellum places, namely, New England around 1800, Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s, and "the (imagined) borderlands between North and South and black and white" around the time of the Civil War. While focusing on what Cohen classifies as "an extended nineteenth century" (from the 1790s to the very early 1900s), this book comments on how topics as diverse as ancient culture and racial authenticity, divisive politics, national affiliation, and sentiment helped ballads "constitute a legitimate poetic culture" in which poetry served as a platform for debates over history and literary culture. Cohen focuses on some of the period's more prominent poets, including John Greenleaf Whittier and Walt Whitman, but also highlights less-known works, poems that "almost certainly fail the test of literariness." A valuable contribution to this year's scholarship, The Social Lives of Poems ably reveals how poems of the period helped create a milieu "in which readers, amateur poets, and published authors share equal footing," and Cohen makes persuasive claims about the central role of poetry during a time in which American literature strove to achieve a prominent role on the world's literary stage. [End Page 196]
In Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Georgia) Kevin Pelletier investigates the relationship between 19th-century sentimentalism, religious discourse, and antislavery reform. Rather than discuss sentimentality in relation to love and sympathy, Pelletier suggests that in order to...