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The Best 19th-Century American Novels

recommended by Nathan Wolff

Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age by Nathan Wolff

Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age
by Nathan Wolff


In the novels of the 19th century, the United States comes alive with all its contradictions and complications. Nathan Wolff, a professor of English at Tufts and author of Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Ageintroduces us to his picks of the best 19th-century American novels, including two works of historical fiction and a memoir that influenced the novel form.

Interview by Francesca Mancino

Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age by Nathan Wolff

Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age
by Nathan Wolff

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Leading up to our interview, we talked a lot about the difficulties in condensing American nineteenth-century literature into just five books. With that in mind, can you tell us about how you made your choices?

Five books to stand in for 100 years: an impossible task! But I tried to pick works that collectively span nearly the whole century, that survey a variety of genres, that reflect a diverse range of authors, and that will resonate with the present day in interesting and perhaps disturbing ways. They’re also texts I particularly enjoy reading and teaching.

We’ve evaded some difficulty by calling this a list of the best nineteenth-century novels—even though I immediately cheated and included an autobiography and a twentieth-century text—because this frame saves me from needing to try to cover the short story, poetry, essays, the full range of autobiographical writing, etc. The narrower frame misses some of the period’s fascinating multiplicity, but it allows some clearer throughlines to emerge about experiments in genre, for example, and the relationship between politics and aesthetics.

You begin with Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827). What’s this one about?

Hope Leslie is a historical novel published in 1827 that looks back to seventeenth-century New England. It’s a useful place to start because it reflects on a longer history of American writing, especially early colonial histories. It focuses on the relationship between two young women, the Puritan Hope Leslie and the Pequot Magawisca, as their friendship and loyalties are tested amid rising conflict between white settlers and the region’s Indigenous inhabitants.

The literary critic György Lukács argued that the genre of the historical novel—with Walter Scott as his primary example—explores the lives of ordinary people against the backdrop of major events as a means of thinking about how historical forces shape human consciousness, and how a past marked by schisms and conflict could produce a shared national heritage or identity.

Lukács’s framework clarifies what makes Sedgwick’s novel stand out, along with several related works, including James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok. It’s particularly interesting to read this trio together. All three took Scott as an explicit model; all three want to remember, retain, and often appropriate elements of Indigenous cultures. And yet all three could also be said to reinforce the trope of the “Vanishing Indian,” or the idea that declining Native American cultures would inevitably give way to an emerging modern, American identity.

But Hope Leslie bears special mention and attention because it also contains a significant challenge to the self-justificatory project of Puritan historiography, which so often depicted Native peoples as demonic savages standing in the way of a holy errand. In a crucial scene, Sedgwick has Magawisca re-narrate the Pilgrims’ 1637 attack on a Pequot village, celebrated as a divinely sanctioned military victory in William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation but revealed by Magawisca as a brutal massacre of Indigenous civilians.

Hope and Magawisca represent their respective cultures but also stand apart from them, witnessing what Sedgwick characterizes as the narrowness of both Pilgrim and Pequot patriarchy. These central characters become icons of Sedgwick’s vision of the novel—perhaps especially the novel written by women—as having the power to interrupt self-serving national amnesia. This is a theme I’ll return to in my final pick.

Along with Sedgwick, other writers—like Alcott, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville—were writing in and about Massachusetts, too, right?

Yes, and while I try to follow Edgar Allan Poe’s model and cultivate a discerning disdain for Boston, I’ll admit it is fun to teach this material here, near so many significant sites. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, Walden Pond, and The House of the Seven Gables are some of my favorite places to connect with literary Massachusetts.

I often say to students that, in some ways, the very idea of nineteenth-century American novels could seem sort of unlikely: the U.S. didn’t have the landed gentry’s social milieu that laid the scene for Jane Austen’s novels or the millennium of monarchical strife that provided fodder for Scott. The U.S. had, well, Massachusetts.

But authors like Sedgwick and Nathaniel Hawthorne recognized that the Puritans—those grim, boring prudes—were actually pretty interesting for the intensity of their convictions, their passions, the brazenness of their hypocrisies, and the fundamental conflict between their vision of a “new” world and the Indigenous people who already populated it.

Hawthorne is also a good link to the Transcendentalists (e.g., Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott), because he recognized that Puritans were, like those subsequent nineteenth-century reformers, utopians of a sort. Reading The Scarlet Letter alongside Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, for example, makes it easier to see how the philosophical and political ferment of the 1830s through the 1850s in and around Concord, Massachusetts—efforts to rethink gender roles, work, and the obligations of the individual in the face of unjust laws—were in some ways a continuation of the Puritan experiment, even as they were also a rejection of its dogma.

Those novels, along with Thoreau’s Walden, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Transcendental Wild Oats, and Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, make a nice syllabus of greater Boston utopianisms.

That brings us to Melville. This list wouldn’t be complete without your next pick, Moby-Dick. Would I be right in assuming you hold the belief that it’s the great American novel?

I thought about responding to your call for a list of the top five American novels with “1) Moby-Dick 2) Moby-Dick 3) Moby-Dick”—an obsessive answer that would be true to the spirit of this monomaniacal book! I won’t go full Ahab and claim that it is THE great American novel, but I will confess it is my favorite.

There’s something about its dizzying mix of high and low, Herman Melville’s exuberant love of language, and the novel’s remarkable capaciousness (everything reminds me of Moby-Dick!) that makes me love to read it, reread it, teach it, joke about it, tweet about it, reference it at the slightest provocation.

It is a brilliant, innovative experiment blending first- and third-person narrations and forays into dramatic form that is also full of spermaceti squeezing and other -Dick jokes. It manages to find material in whaling for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It also contains a very memorable chapter about chowder. It doesn’t get much more specific than a narrative about a guy who hates one fish in particular, and yet the novel’s thematic concerns are big and broad.

Melville’s dramatization of a crew drawn into the vortex of their captain’s mad quest seems so obviously an allegory for a conflict between the democratic masses and tyrannical autocrat, even as—following C.L.R. James’s well-known reading—Ishmael and Starbuck look too complicit in Ahab’s quest to anchor a reassuring, egalitarian alternative.

And it’s a novel about an extractive industry fueling an emerging modernity with animal flesh, processed aboard a floating sweat shop. Melville’s novel deftly captures a whale fishery on the cusp of its obsolescence that also prefigures a new era of fossil fuels and the ongoing environmental devastation that we are living through today.

OK, you’ve convinced me. It is the great American novel.

Your third selection is Jacobs’s harrowing slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Joanne Braxton, among others, has called attention to how Jacobs redefines the slave narrative genre. Can you tell us about this autobiography?

Your question emphasizes the crucial point that Jacobs’s text isn’t a novel; it’s an autobiographical slave narrative. But I’ve included it due to the slave narrative’s defining role in nineteenth-century writing, its reliance on novelistic devices, and its influence on the novel as a genre.

The most famous line from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is probably Harriet Jacobs’s assertion that “slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women,” which already poses a problem of narrative and genre—that is, how to address and change readers’ expectations. To see how Jacobs redefines the slave narrative, it helps to think about the earlier Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), which tells the story of “how man was made a slave” and how a “slave was made a man.”

Douglass uses this chiastic structure to draw on but also to revise classic autobiographies like that of Benjamin Franklin and the bildungsroman, a popular subgenre of the novel concerned with development. Douglass is brutally dehumanized by slavery but manages to reassert his humanity and masculinity through physical resistance, escape, the nominal freedom of gaining a wage for his labor, and ultimately literacy and narrating his own story. He becomes a version of “the self-made man.”

As a Black woman whose body and children were considered legally the property of her white enslaver, whose escape from slavery initially took the form not of mobility but of confinement and concealment in a suffocating garret, and whose life involved the constant threat of sexual violence, Jacobs needed to reshape the genre and reorient her readers to make her suffering—and her extraordinary survival—legible.

This is why two other important lines from the text provide such a profound meditation on genre and how prose-fiction conventions might shape an audience’s—especially a white audience’s—reception of Jacobs’s true story. First, when Jacobs recounts avoiding her master’s sexual advances by beginning a relationship with an unmarried white man, she writes, “there is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment.”

Jacobs directs readers’ attention to the agency of an enslaved woman but also to the risk of misrecognizing or distorting it. She helps readers see her acts of survival as heroic without losing sight of her place in a system that denied her freedom and made any “consent” she could offer qualified, at best. And she is keenly aware of the social conventions shaping readers’ responses to her story—e.g., the “cult of true womanhood,” which demanded that women be pious, pure, submissive keepers of domestic tranquility, an impossible standard for an enslaved woman that nonetheless informs Jacobs cautious intro to this section of her narrative.

And this brings us to the narrative’s conclusion, where Jacobs famously writes, “reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way with marriage.” This echoes the opening line from the concluding chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” That bildungsroman culminates with Jane making a choice, whereas Jacobs helps us think about how genre shapes our understanding of a different kind of agency—something “akin to freedom.”

There is much more to say here, and I highly recommend Broadview Press’s new edition of Jacobs’s Incidents, edited and with an introduction by Professor Koritha Mitchell, which emphasizes Jacobs’s literary creativity and extensively explores her innovative engagement with various genres, including novel subgenres.

Huckleberry Finn almost always makes its way onto lists for the best nineteenth-century novels. Can you discuss why you selected it?

It’s tempting to begin by apologizing for picking Huckleberry Finn due to, as you note, the predictability of the choice—and even more so because insensitive discourse and pedagogy surrounding the novel has magnified the harm caused by its use of a racial epithet. As Jonathan Arac pointed out, critics and commentators have made frequent reference to “N­— Jim,” despite that specific phrase never appearing in the novel.

Or, conversely, it’s tempting to begin with a defense of the novel by invoking Toni Morrison, who famously extolled it as “classic literature…[that] heaves, manifests, and lasts.”

I’m beginning precisely with such an apology and a justification, both.

But I chose the book largely because I think Mark Twain—like my next choice, Charles Chesnutt—is a major innovator: he expanded our sense of what the nineteenth-century U.S. novel could do, all while dramatizing how slavery’s legacy persisted into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age—and on into the present day. Almost everything beautiful and troubling about this novel comes back to Twain’s complex decision to focalize a tale of shocking brutality through the perspective of a child.

Unlike Tom Sawyer—who exults in violence and others’ suffering—Huck has only partially and imperfectly learned America’s lessons in cruelty. The central payoff of this experiment in point of view is the famous scene in which Huck feels an instinctive aversion to the legal and social proscription against helping Jim escape, an act he accepts as a damning transgression: “All right, then,” he declares, “I’ll go to hell.”

But Twain’s conceit also leads him to produce passages of strange, synesthetic beauty (“Everything was dead quiet, and it looked late, and smelt late. You know what I mean—I don’t know the words to put it in”), and he allows Huck’s playful phraseology and the digressive structure of vernacular speech to shape a prose style that anticipates what we might think of as “modernist” experiments in abstraction.

All of this contributes to the novel’s tonal mix of dread and idyll (“days and nights … [that] slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely”), and on this point I defer again to Morrison. She reads the novel as exploring an attachment between white and Black protagonists that is so intense it can’t quite be laughed away or disguised by Jim’s minstrelization, as Twain sometimes seems tempted to do. Morrison writes: “What does Huck need to live without terror, melancholy and suicidal thoughts? The answer, of course, is Jim.”

The last of your picks is Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition, published at the very beginning of the twentieth century. What’s this one about?

Marrow of Tradition is a 1901 novel about the 1898 Wilmington Coup, in North Carolina, in which white supremacists led a murderous assault on the city’s Black newspaper and Black neighborhoods, and violently overthrew a Republican-led government that included many Black Americans in positions of power. The precise number of casualties isn’t known, but at least dozens—perhaps hundreds—were killed.

Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels and U.S. historical romances like Hope Leslie explored the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the vantage of the early nineteenth century. But Marrow’s dramatic compression of the temporal gap—just three years—between the events narrated and the time of the novel’s publication underscores its unique urgency.

The massacre was immediately justified in the white press as a response to a “race riot” triggered by supposedly violent Black residents. Chesnutt counters this view by dramatizing the white resentment and insecurity that fueled the coup, and clearly exposes its immediate cause—a supposedly “incendiary” article attesting to the reality of voluntary mixed-race couples—as a flimsy pretext.

Chesnutt refracts the complex dynamics of this moment—a rising Black professional and political class, a waning plantation aristocracy—through a cast of white and Black characters whose lives are marked by entanglements of intimacy, disavowal, and jealousy. And this is shortly before Jim Crow laws would entrench a rigidly policed segregation, effectively endorsing white terrorism of Black Americans.

Chesnutt’s works have always been crucial reading, and I highly recommend his collection of short stories The Conjure Woman, as well. But in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and as the present-day Republican Party openly associates itself with white-supremacist resentment, Marrow looks even more like one of the long nineteenth century’s greatest and most prescient novels.

Are there any novels you thought about including in this list but eventually decided against?

People are always asking me: What is a major late-nineteenth-century naturalist novel that explores themes of greed and lust through the figure of an unlicensed dentist at a moment of new, emerging professional norms and regulations? For them, I recommend Frank Norris’s McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899).

I wish I could have included other naturalist texts, too. Loosely, naturalism is a genre often related to realism—though Norris importantly associated it with the “romance”—that dramatizes a deterministic universe of social, bodily, and environmental pressures. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905) is another classic in this mode, but for the reasons above, I chose Chesnutt as my “cheat” twentieth-century pick. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Wharton’s approach to her upper-crust characters—how she described drawing out the “dramatic significance” of “a frivolous society”—while watching HBO’s Succession. (I’m obsessed.)

Likewise, I excluded delightfully odd late-eighteenth-century texts such as Charles Brockden Brown’s gothic novel Wieland and classic seduction tales like Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, which are so important for thinking about the longer trajectory of the U.S. novel.

If readers were interested in taking a critical approach to literature from this period, whose work would you recommend?

Cathy Davidson’s The Revolution and the Word remains a great account of the early novels I mentioned above. David Reynolds’s Beneath the American Renaissance is very helpful for situating familiar American Renaissance texts in a wider context of sensation literature and reform movements.

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I’ve given short shrift to the sentimental novel in our conversation, but the first chapter of Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture offers a major reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the power and pitfalls of sentimentalism: the idea that “feeling right” is a reliable measure of injustice or a guide to political action.

Throughout our conversation, I’ve had in mind Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Her brilliant account of how white Americans defined and define their own freedom against Black unfreedom is indispensable in understanding the genre of the slave narrative and a novel like Stowe’s.

Berlant and Hartman tragically remain essential reading, too, in understanding the continued circulation of images of victims of police violence, which presumes an uncomplicated link between spectacles of Black suffering and the transformative politics that will supposedly follow.

To pick something more recent: I love Jennifer Fleissner’s new Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem and the story she tells about the American novel as a form for thinking through the complexities of human will, desire, motivation, and action. (This is different from some “rise of the novel” arguments, focused largely on British fiction, that see the novel producing a conception of self we could shorthand as the modern, rational, self-interested individual.) She has an interesting take on sentimentalism, too, which she associates with fantasies of fellow feeling that, in effect, want to escape the potentially disturbing sense of our ourselves as divided and opaque to self-reflection. Instead of being weird, complicated, conflicted creatures, wouldn’t it be nice to be fused into an organic, loving collective!

Interview by Francesca Mancino

June 16, 2023

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Nathan Wolff

Nathan Wolff

Nathan Wolff is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department at Tufts University. He is the author of Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age (2019). His essays—on authors including Helen Hunt Jackson, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frank Norris—have appeared in American Literary History, English Literary History, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. He is currently working on two new books tentatively titled Inhuman Environments and Dirty Jobs. The first considers how nineteenth-century American novels illuminate the political effects of the nonhuman world; the second looks to nineteenth-century literature for lessons about the formation of, and alternatives to, the American work ethic.

Nathan Wolff

Nathan Wolff

Nathan Wolff is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department at Tufts University. He is the author of Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age (2019). His essays—on authors including Helen Hunt Jackson, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frank Norris—have appeared in American Literary History, English Literary History, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. He is currently working on two new books tentatively titled Inhuman Environments and Dirty Jobs. The first considers how nineteenth-century American novels illuminate the political effects of the nonhuman world; the second looks to nineteenth-century literature for lessons about the formation of, and alternatives to, the American work ethic.