Category Archives: 19th-Century Literature

The 1857 Tidal Wave that was Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary didn’t just make a splash in the literary world — its release caused something more akin to a tidal wave. When it was published in 1857 (or, correction, after its author was acquitted from a trial on the obscenity of the book after its serialized release in 1856), it positively sank the boat of traditional storytelling and forever changed the literary landscape of the world of fiction.

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One of the key ways Madame Bovary turned things around was with its bold portrayal of realism. Flaubert didn’t sugarcoat anything – he presented life as it was, warts and all. From the monotony of small-town existence to the harsh realities of adultery and disillusionment alike, Flaubert quite obviously didn’t shy away from the more gritty details of adult life. It wasn’t just the scandalous affairs that made Madame Bovary famous – it was the way Flaubert captured the human condition. He confronted the ugly parts of life – the jealousy, heartbreak and crushing disappointment – and laid them all out there for the world to see, unflinching and unapologetic. This commitment to the realistic style was pretty groundbreaking, and one could argue that it paved the way for future authors to explore the complexities of human experience in a more honest and unfiltered way than previous Victorian literature. 

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Another way Flaubert and Madame Bovary left their mark was through his distinctive narrative style. Flaubert had a meticulous attention to detail and used a form of indirect discourse and conversation that allowed readers to dive into the minds of his characters, not just view them from afar. In this way, we didn’t just observe Emma Bovary’s actions – but readers felt her desires, her frustrations and her despair. This engrossing literary technique was influential in setting a new standard for psychological and emotional depth in literature. Flaubert is cited by hundreds of writers that followed in his footsteps as the reason for their ability to explore the inner lives of their characters with greater complexity. 

Another significant impact Madame Bovary had was its challenge to societal norms. Flaubert was brave enough to critique the superficiality and hypocrisy of French society, particularly its treatment of women. Madame Bovary’s quest for passion, excitement and fulfillment in an unbelievably stifling patriarchal world struck a chord with readers of the day. It was able to spark conversations about gender roles, marriage, and individual autonomy (whether male or female) – all topics hot on our minds still today. In doing so, Madame Bovary became not just a work of fiction, but one could see it as a stimulus for social change.

Madame Bovary didn’t just change the literary landscape of the mid 1800s, it reshaped it entirely. Flaubert’s revolutionary approach to the realistic style, his open and deep narrative techniques, and the social commentary throughout the book ensured its place as a timeless masterpiece that still inspires readers to this day. Because in the end, Madame Bovary is a book about longing, about a human search for something more. And who hasn’t felt that at some point in their lives?

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The Realism of Stephen Crane

We thought we’d start off a very autumnal month like November with an in-depth look at an author read country-wide… oftentimes in the fall school semester for required High School reading! Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, continues to captivate readers of all ages, all over the country. Published in 1895, this novel doesn’t only have an engrossing (according to my sophomore year lit teacher) narrative, but it truly is an in-depth exploration of human nature, war… and an “American” experience. On this here his birthday, let’s remember what Crane did for American literature!

Before we dive into the The Red Badge of Courage, we should understand the literary movements of the time that helped shape Crane’s writing into what we see today. The late 19th century, when Crane was writing, witnessed both movements of Realism and Naturalism. Both literary trends sought to show life as it truly was… sans the idealization or romanticism of previous movements. 

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Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage uses realism and naturalism to show the raw, gritty reality of war. Through the eyes of Henry Fleming, a young soldier who dreams of glory but is suddenly faced with fear and confusion on the battlefield, Crane paints a pretty vivid picture of the uncertainty, fear and coldness of battle. Crane’s (almost ridiculous – oh, I’m sorry…. meticulous) attention to detail, his extremely vivid descriptions of battle, and his description of the emotional turmoil experienced by the protagonist Henry all contribute to the novel’s realism. For Crane, sugar-coating was simply not allowed! 

One of the most striking characteristics of The Red Badge of Courage is Crane’s focus on the inner struggles of its protagonist. Crane goes deep into Henry Fleming’s psyche, offering readers a pretty remarkable ‘character study’. The novel watches the evolution of Henry, as he confronts fear, cowardice, and a desire for forgiveness. We get to see his journey from a self-doubting youth to a more adult, self-assured and introspective individual. During his transition, American high school students all around the country get a more comprehensive understanding of human nature.

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In the world of American literature, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is considered a masterpiece of realism. Its enduring appeal lies in its (almost) too-descriptive depiction of the psychological and emotional struggles of a young Civil War soldier. Crane’s understanding of an “American experience”, coupled with his decided portrayal of war’s (extremely) harsh realities, truly fixed the novel’s place as an American classic.

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Edith Wharton – A Literary Queen

As you know, we occasionally like to highlight specific authors throughout the year. One author that everyone knows the name of, but not everyone knows any intimate details about, is Edith Wharton. In the world of literature, Wharton’s literary accomplishments have made her a household name, albeit one usually associated with high school reading requirements! But Wharton wasn’t just a skilled author… despite being born into relative privilege she was also a social commentator who wasn’t afraid to confront the injustice of the social norms of her time! A true force to be reckoned with in the early 20th century. 

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Edith Wharton (born Edith Newbold Jones) was born on January 24th, 1862, in New York City. Wharton’s family belonged to the upper class of New York society, giving her access and opportunity to a world of luxury, culture and high society from a young age. However, her privileged upbringing became a double-edged sword, as her access to the people and views of the upper echelons shaped her perspective on almost all aspects of her life – society, class, love, and gender roles. Her first pieces were published when she was just 15 years old, an English translation of the German poem “Was die Steine Erzählen”, for which she was paid $50. Her family did not wish her name to be published publicly, and her mother refused to allow Wharton to even read novels until she was married. Though occasionally disheartening, these obstacles did not deter young Edith, and at just 16 her father arranged for a book of her poetry to be published under a pseudonym. She also had her poems published in Atlantic MonthlyNew York World, and Scribner’s Magazine. Clearly, Wharton was destined for a literary life. 

Wharton married Edward “Teddy” Wharton when she was just 23. Teddy was a wealthy banker, and from the outside, it must have looked like a solid match for Edith. Unfortunately, their marriage was fraught with tension… Teddy was not interested nor supportive of Edith’s literary pursuits, and though they shared a love of travel, Teddy’s debilitating depression was eventually too much for Edith. That being said, their travels provided much inspiring worldliness for Wharton’s later works. 

Her first novel “The Valley of Decision” was published in 1902, and Wharton never looked back. A few short years later she published “The House of Mirth” (1905), a novel focusing it’s plot on the life of a young high-society woman who sees her life fall apart because she doesn’t adhere to common notions of what she ought to be. Wharton used her own life experiences to criticize the upper class, highlight their insincerity and false superiority – and Wharton gained a name for herself in the literary world. In 1911 she published “Ethan Frome”, further highlighting Wharton’s ability to create evocative worlds with vivid characters, once again imprisoned by their circumstances (though the rural farmer Ethan Frome is a world away from “The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart. More works followed – “The Custom of the Country” (1913), countless poems, and of course, “The Age of Innocence”. The latter being one of Wharton’s most famous works – earning her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921. Wharton was the first female to win the award. 

Wharton never slowed down. During WWI she was actively involved in relief efforts, organizing charity initiatives to aid refugees in France, and using her fame to help raise funds for the war effort. She addressed social issues and advocated for causes close to her heart – primarily those about gender roles, society and classism. Over her lifetime she produced fifteen novels, seven novellas, eighty-five short stories, books of poetry, books on design and travel. She wrote cultural criticisms, and a memoir. In 1937 she received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Yale University. She was the first woman to do so. 

Wharton indelibly impacted the American literary world, and her works have reached around the globe. Her frank, descriptive and beautiful prose highlighting the complexities of human nature and the constraints of society are unbelievably realistic. One of the most interesting parts about her writing is how she was able to capture society’s issues from all walks of life – from the poor and downtrodden to the unbelievably privileged elite. Throughout her works Wharton explored the human condition with depth and sensitivity.

Wharton died of a stroke on August 11th, 1937 at a country home in France, but one only needs to pick up one of her works to be transported back in time and live a new human experience. 

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Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

In honor of his birthday, today we dive into the world of early American poetry and the incredible, lasting impact of Walt Whitman. In the mid-19th century, American literature was primed to experience an almost seismic shift. That’s where Whitman – with his larger-than-life personality, strong opinions and groundbreaking verses – stepped in and became a figurehead of the American dream. As poet Ezra Pound once said about Whitman… “America’s poet… He is America.” 



Walt Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819, in West Hills, New York. After a rather long period of time working in editing and freelancing (and getting fired from several jobs in the process), Whitman decided to write poetry. He began writing poems in 1850, and in a time when strict poetic forms and rhymes were expected – Whitman broke free from these conventional norms. His first book of poetry and magnum opus, “Leaves of Grass,” first published in 1855, shattered the traditional poetic protocol of the time. He celebrated the beauty of everyday life (what a novel idea!), embraced a democratic spirit, and wove together the interconnectedness of all beings, human and nature alike. He opted for free verse, aiming to set poetry free from the rigid confines it had been heeding to. It even seemed to some that Whitman wished the art of poetry to be as free as he himself was.

Whitman’s ideas aligned perfectly with the transcendentalist movement of the time. Transcendentalists believed in the power of the individual, the transcendence of the self, and a connection between humans and nature. Minds like those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were Whitman’s philosophical comrades, Emerson praising Leaves of Grass far and wide, and almost certainly aided in the work’s popularity. Transcendentalists were all about embracing spiritual in the mundane, finding beauty in the everyday, and recognizing the oneness of all existence. Whitman’s revolutionary approach to form and subject matter not only rocked the American literary scene, but paved a way for future poets to break free from using more traditional verse. Emily Dickinson, often regarded as one of the greatest American poets, was profoundly influenced by Whitman’s somewhat unorthodox style, and proceeded to use her own brevity and lyricism to explore similar themes of individualism and the human condition. Other notable poets who fell under Whitman’s spell include Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich. Each poet, in their own way, channeled Whitman’s spirit of rebellion, using poetry as a tool to challenge societal norms, advocate for social justice, and shed light on the diversity of the American experience.

Walt Whitman’s celebration of democracy, inclusivity, and everyday beauty continues to inspire modern American readers. Whitman’s embrace of individuality and his refusal to be confined by societal expectations serves as a powerful reminder that we all have a unique voice and our own stories to tell… if only we have the courage to open our mouths!

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The Whale – and How it Shapes Lives All Over America

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A few years ago we published a blog detailing Herman Melville’s life. This week we thought we’d revisit his most famous work in a bit more detail, and come up with five in-depth reasons about Moby Dick, why it is one of the most widespread works taught in American schools today, and why it matters. “Book! You lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” And on we go!

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1. Several scholars argue that the opening sentence of Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael” is the best known line in classic American literature. It starts off a long tale of adventure and revenge, focusing on a crazed whaling boat captain and his enduring grievance against the giant white sperm whale that took off his leg. While this book is, as stated, one of the most well-known works in America today, it was considered a flop at the time of its publication. Melville wrote it at the tender age of 32 in 1851, and over the next fifty years of his life it sold only 3,215 copies, making him a whopping $1,260 over those decades. It was only after the centennial of his birth in 1919 that a slow resurgence of interest in Melville’s work began, and by the 1960’s Moby Dick was being regularly taught in schools.

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“I try all things, I achieve what I can.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

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2. Melville masterfully created characters that could inspire, despite their outward, stereotypical appearances. The moral compass of humanity in Moby Dick is the cannibal Queequeg. He is courageous, stoic and self-sacrificing, a good friend to the novel’s narrator, and his virtuous nature is a stark contrast to the vengeful and fanatical Captain Ahab aboard the Pequod (the whaling ship). In this way, Melville dictates to his audience that appearances are not always what they seem. After all, “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

 

3. Another reason why the story is so revered is Melville’s ability to use these characters to make social commentary on society at large. As Jamie Gass wrote, “A full decade before the Civil War’s carnage, only a highly unconventional writer of profound depth could craft a poetic novel using an enlightened cannibal to devour America’s racial, nativist, and religious stereotypes.” By placing Queequeg as the savior in the story, Melville highlights to students today how being fearful of someone different than us isn’t necessarily justified. Just because people are different doesn’t mean they are inherently bad – and we should not stereotype each other without giving ourselves a chance to see the human beneath the surface, as Ishmael does Queequeg. Some have even likened the Pequod to Melville’s America, with its treatment of minorities on the ship. In this way, Melville used his characters to comment on America’s shameful treatment of African Americans and other minorities, and continues to this day to remind us to look beyond the surface. As Melville writes, “See how elastic our prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.”

 

4. The life lessons throughout the story rival those in famous religious works. Not only are their cautionary lessons on the limits of vengeance inside, but there are studies of the issues of man vs. nature (is it our job to conquer nature, or simply be its stewards? I’ll give you one guess), sexual orientation, the dangers of following a charismatic madman, and how our unacknowledged biases shape our actions – for better and for worse. One website claims that you couldn’t open to a single page of Moby Dick without finding a lesson being taught…. even when it is lessons on the world of whaling (at times disgusting and horrifying – but nevertheless educational).

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5. Moby Dick is an adventure story, yes. But layered within the adventure “we learn about malevolence, ambition, ego, bravery, friendship. We meditate on the existence of truth. We gather up an understanding that ‘truth’ is rarely captured in a snapshot, that it’s a mosaic of perspectives that don’t always add up neatly.” (Suzy Akin). It can be seen at one time as a religious text, an ancient epic, a Shakespearean drama. It can be interpreted a multitude of different ways. But one thing is for sure – it does teach lessons that could come in handy as students ready themselves for the future, and the “rough seas” that may lie ahead.

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“All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

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Who was Juliette Récamier? OTD in 1849, France (and the World) Lost a Celebrity

How do we believe fame differs today than a few hundred years ago? With today’s social media and instant internet access, celebrities of all backgrounds are scrutinized in almost every moment of their lives. At the end of the 18th century, this would obviously not have been the case. To be famous the world over, word had to literally travel from mouth to mouth… and that is precisely how one Juliette Récamier, the darling of the European literary scene, came to be a legend in intellectual circles.

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Juliette was born on December 3rd, 1777 in Lyon, France. As the only child of her father (the King’s notary and counsellor) and mother, Juliette enjoyed certain amounts of freedom and attention as a child that many others of the time did not. Juliette was also highly educated, her father being an educated man himself. Most importantly of all, accounts of Juliette did not portray her as a precocious or obnoxious child and teenager. If anything, she was described as shy, kind, modest and affectionate. With these wonderful qualities, a sharp mind and interest in literature, and a great amount of beauty, it is no wonder that Juliette had suitors from a young age. At the age of fifteen she was married, platonically, to a banker in Paris – Jacques-Rose Récamier, who was thirty years her senior.

Despite being married to a young, vivacious and beautiful girl, the marriage always remained chaste, and Juliette remained a virgin until her forties (there has been evidence to support the notion that Jacques was her own natural father, after having an affair with her mother 16 years prior to his marriage, and knowing that he was considered an “enemy to the republic” at the height of the French Revolution, Jacques may have married the girl to make sure she inherited his estate). Jacques noted her charitable nature, her interest in their reciprocal desire to bring forth happiness and contentment in each other. He treated her with great respect and freedom (at one point being willing to have her divorce him to marry someone with more advantageous finances, after he began experiencing financial woes, though she would not leave him), and she flourished. In Paris, Juliette became the socialite known for entertaining some of the greatest political and literary minds of the day in her “salon”.

juliette1As time went on and interest in her intelligence, loveliness, refinement and gentility grew, Juliette became friendly with all manner of people. Some of the most notorious members of her salon were François-René de Chateaubriand (a French politician, diplomat, activist, historian and writer who ended up as one of Juliette’s life-long friends), Benjamin Constant (Swiss-French political activist and writer), Prince Augustus of Prussia (whose proposal she would ultimately reject), and the political Madame Germaine de Staël. Juliette enjoyed almost unprecedented independence in her ability to entertain and act as she saw fit – she also received many proposals, and was “courted” by many men, but never, as far as history is concerned, betrayed her husband. People were attracted to Juliette not solely because of her good looks, but because of her academic and literary prowess, her interest in social and political endeavors, and her apparent ability to charm a room with a single glance, smile or comment. Juliette Récamier was the epitome of an esteemed lady – a patron, a scholar, a magnetic and irresistible personality, and a beautiful and charismatic individual. Political and intellectual persons flocked to her sitting room, and the discourses had there (both with Madame Récamier and with each other) can be credited with several of the ideas and large-scale changes in the turbulence of the French politics of the day.

One of Juliette’s society friends, Madame Germaine de Staël, greatly influenced Juliette politically and their liberal and centrist opinions were the reasoning behind the two being exiled from France by Napoleon in1806. Juliette left for Lyon, then Rome, then settled in Naples, before she was eventually allowed to return to her native country, and to Paris almost ten years later. By her later years, however, Récamier had lost much of her money and was living, while not in destitution, in significantly reduced circumstances. That being said, Juliette’s enticing manner and charm made sure she continuously enjoyed a consistent stream of friends, intellectuals, politicians and activist visitors up until her death at age 71 of cholera. Today, her contributions may not be a well-known fact, but in today’s world there is (at the very least) a sofa, similar to a chaise lounge, named after her – as that was her preferred method of reclining while entertaining her guests!

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The Only Man Who Ever Hated Sherlock Holmes Also Happened to be His Creator

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On this day in July 1930, a true visionary breathed his last. Of course, he wasn’t born a visionary, he was born simply… Arthur. And as often as people assume his last name to be Conan Doyle, it is simply Doyle… Conan just one of his middle names. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22nd, 1859, and died on July 7th, 1930, almost a hundred years ago… yet he is a common household name still today. However, he is known to have said that in a hundred years if he was only known as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes, he would consider his life a failure. So let’s remember him for more than that, shall we?

 

Conan Doyle (for as much as we may know his last name is simply “Doyle” we also feel strange writing just Doyle to refer to him) was born to poor Irish Catholic parents, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father spent a good deal of Arthur’s early years suffering from alcoholism and mental illness, which had a great influence on his later works. Throughout his school-life he noted that he severely detested staunch religious practices in schools, disliking the lack of compassion and warmth, and favoring a more forgiving and compassionate atmosphere (which inspired his predisposition for spiritualism later in life).

 

From 1876 to 1881, Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and botany at the Royal Botanic Garden, studies which would help mold his future writings in the Sherlock Holmes series – boggling the minds of civilians with science! It was during this time that he wrote his first short story, The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe, and tried (unsuccessfully) to submit it to Blackwood’s Magazine. A later story was published however, along with several scientific articles in different magazines and journals in Edinburgh. Upon graduating from medical school with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Master of Surgery, Conan Doyle became a ship’s surgeon on the SS Mayumba during their voyage to West Africa. Just a year later he found himself setting up his own independent medical practice in Portsmouth, with less than 10 pounds to his name. His practice did not prove entirely successful, neither did a stint in the field of ophthalmology, and in his free time Conan Doyle found himself drawn back to writing fiction.

 

doyle4Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes installment, A Study in Scarlet, when he was only 27 years old. Written in just under three weeks, it is amazing to think that on how this work has endured and began a legacy, a series the likes of which may be unparalleled in fiction. A Study in Scarlet was popular and successful, and Conan Doyle was commissioned to write a sequel in less than a year. The next work, The Sign of the Four, was no less popular when it appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine. Amusingly enough, even early on in his Holmes works Conan Doyle felt contradictory emotions towards his most famous character. He wished to kill Holmes off after just a couple years, but was dissuaded (more like forbade) from doing so by his own mother! He raised the prices for his stories hoping to dissuade publishers from paying for them, but found that publishers were willing to pay exorbitant sums to keep the stories coming… consequently Conan Doyle accidentally became one of the best paid authors of all time. In all, Conan Doyle featured Sherlock Holmes (often against his will – public outcry was so great after Doyle had Holmes and Moriarty plunge off a cliff together that Holmes was forced to resurrect his famed detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles years later) in fifty-six short stories and four novels – a long and eventful life for a fictional character!

 

During the same years as his publication of Holmes’ adventures, Conan Doyle also worked on several historical novels, works which are commonly considered in academic circles his best, and were his favorite to write. Some of his historical novels include popular titles such as The White Company and Sir Nigel, both set in the Middle Ages. He also wrote dozens of short stories (some set in Napoleanic times), and even dramas for the stage. Later on in his life, Conan Doyle wrote the Challenger Series, a science fiction and fantasy series featuring Professor Challenger as the protagonist – a character that couldn’t be further from Sherlock Holmes if he tried! Where Holmes was calculating and quiet, Challenger was aggressive and hot-tempered. One could imagine writing about a character that was the antithesis of all that made Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes was a great enjoyment for Conan Doyle.

 

Similar to our main man Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as he was knighted by the Queen in 1902) was one of the most prolific authors of the modern world. Not only that, but he was much involved in the justice system, fighting for those wrongly accused to be exonerated (succeeding in at least two cases, his work inspiring the setup of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907), and he was a staunch supporter of mandatory vaccinations! He stood for Parliament twice as a Liberal Unionist, and became a figurehead for the spiritualism movement that swept through England in the 1900s. While he was far from perfect (as we all are), he was certainly an intelligent, resilient individual who should go down in history for a lot more than simply inventing one of the most notable and fascinating characters of all time!

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