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  • Early-19th-Century Literature
  • Michael L. Burduck

Publishers seemed especially willing to provide review copies of their books this year. That generosity may stem in part from the great number of new and significant book-length studies dealing with early-19th-century American literature. Scholars and students of the period will find no shortage of both books and articles offering valuable insights into the writers and works of this fascinating period of American literary history. Books on literary nationalism, antebellum criminal justice, health and selfhood in black literature, the influence of geography on genre, black newspapers, black antislavery writings, morality and print culture, women's poetry, and Islamic influences on literature stand as noteworthy contributions. Essays discuss ruined buildings, print culture's role in historic preservation, sensational fiction of the Mexican War, fragmentation in black narratives, black print culture, African American preaching women, and American theater, among other topics. Two important books and an impressive number of articles offer commentaries on Edgar Allan Poe's works. Various scholars provide important critical perspectives on the works of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Lippard, Robert Montgomery Bird, George William Curtis, and Jabez Delano Hammond. The number of works dealing with African American writers continues to decline slightly, yet book-length studies on Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Sojourner Truth deserve consideration. Fewer significant books and articles about women authors appear this year, although one compelling study examines the ways [End Page 189] Harriet Beecher Stowe and other authors engage the death of children and express parental grief in their works. Two thought-provoking articles investigate the ways women authors employ erotic dominance and divorce in their works. A superb biography of John Pendleton Kennedy, a number of chapters on antebellum Southern literature, and a fine edition of John James Audubon's journals nicely round out the coverage.

i Period Studies

J. Gerald Kennedy's Strange Nation: Literary Nationalism and Cultural Conflict in the Age of Poe (Oxford) is one of the year's most significant contributions. Kennedy examines the resistance of American authors to jingoistic patriotism and their creation of their own version of a unique American identity. Providing invaluable commentary on canonical writers including Poe, Irving, William Gilmore Simms, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Cooper, and discussing hymns, epics, songs, and speeches that reflect the influence of the period's print culture, this study asserts that numerous writers played a part in "the vexed project of US nation-building." Though they embraced patriotic themes and worked to build the national narrative the age demanded, they were also uneasy about the country's brutal past, sensitive to its ongoing cultural conflicts—among them racism, religious bigotry, slavery, and nativism—and ambivalent about the very notions of nationalism and patriotism. Writers such as Poe saw the "potential monstrosity" of nationalism and employed the grotesque as a means of underscoring "what was truly strange about the American nation." Noting that many texts evince doubts regarding the cultural work they performed, Kennedy offers superb insights on this substantial body of literature and the array of cultural problems with which it struggled. A thorough bibliography helps reveal the depth of this book and lists the many antebellum writers, major and minor, who address the many contradictions inherent in the great American experiment.

In Literature and Criminal Justice in Antebellum America Carl Ostrowski examines the role of antebellum print culture in the nation's social development, and particularly its part in defining and reforming its criminal justice institutions: "an expanding print culture and a changing criminal justice system created a distinctive contact zone" that enabled writers and criminal justice reformers to "collide" in productive ways. Ostrowski identifies the array of writers, including Ned [End Page 190] Buntline, George Thompson, George Lippard, Margaret Fuller, Poe, and Cooper, who explored the theme of criminal justice at some point during their literary careers. According to Ostrowski, "A handful of tropes originating in crime-related discourse profoundly shaped the period's literature." Speculating on a number of subjects, including the daily newspaper's obligation to report on crime, vigilantism, judicial authority, African American "civic agency," women's thoughts on penal reform, and inmates' ability to reenter society...


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