Beyond Huck Finn and Moby Dick: Some 19th-Century American Novels Worth Exploring

Robert Anderson, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Book covers of other books to read than Huck Finn and Moby Dick
Lesser known 19th-Century American novels worth exploring

All of us who went through school in the United States have read at least a few American novels published before 1900. The most likely suspects are The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Red Badge of Courage, Last of the Mohicans, and perhaps Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and McTeague by Frank Norris. But thousands of other American novels were written during that period, and a number of those are still worth reading—for what they tell us about both the past and the present. Here are a few suggestions—some by world-famous authors, others by people you’ve probably never heard of, but all of them significant and still good reading today. All are available to read electronically.

19th-Century American Novels Worth Exploring

Book cover for Wieland
Brown, Charles Brockden

Wieland is technically not quite a 19th-century novel, but it is included here as one of the earliest significant American works of fiction—and it is often considered to be the first American gothic novel and a major influence on many other writers, including Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. The story takes place sometime before the American Revolution, and Wieland is the surname of the two central characters: sister and brother Clara (the narrator) and Theodore. Theodore is married with four children, and Clara is a close friend of his wife, Catharine, and is in love with Catharine’s brother, Henry. Several of the characters, particularly Theodore and Henry, begin hearing voices telling them to commit violent acts. When violence does occur, suspicion falls on the mysterious Carwin, who is a “biloquist”, which is similar to a ventriloquist. The story is full of strange conversations and surreal scenes that epitomize what we often call American gothic.

Book cover for Hope Leslie
Hope Leslie
Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Hope Leslie was written at the same time as James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, but it takes a more sympathetic attitude toward Native American issues, and also puts women at the center of its story. The setting is Massachusetts in the 1640s. Hope, the central character, is a spirited young woman in the Puritan settlement who argues for justice for the Indians and independence for women. Her friend Magawisca, daughter of a Pequot chief, defies her father to save a white man and risks her freedom to reunite Hope with her sister Faith, kidnapped as a child by the Indians and now married to Magawisca’s brother.

Book cover for Clotel, or, the President's Daughter
Clotel, or, the President's Daughter
Brown, William Wells

Clotel, or, the President’s Daughter, is considered to be the first novel by an African-American author. Brown was himself an escaped slave who had achieved fame a few years earlier by publishing a narrative of his life that attracted wide interest. At the time he wrote his novel, he was living in England to escape the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Brown’s story is inspired by rumors current at the time, and since substantiated, that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. In the story, Jefferson’s slave mistress is named Currer, and her daughters are Clotel and Althesa. All three are sold as slaves after Jefferson’s death. Clotel and her sister both eventually marry their white owners—Clotel in a common-law marriage, Althesa by passing for white—and have children. Clotel and her mother and sister all come to unhappy ends, but her daughter, Mary, winds up married to a fellow former slave, in France.

Book cover for Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time
Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time
Fern, Fanny

Ruth Hall was a best seller of its era and has received much attention more recently for its feminist point of view. The author, whose real name was Sara Payson Willis, had achieved great success as a newspaper columnist before writing this novel, which was strongly autobiographical. Ruth, the heroine, is happily married, but her own family and her in-laws consider her spoiled and rebellious because she is interested in literature and nature, not just in cooking and sewing. When her husband dies suddenly of typhoid, Ruth is left destitute, with two young daughters. Her relatives give her scant assistance, and her brother and father scorn her attempts to establish herself as a writer—but after several difficult years, she starts to sell her writing to newspapers and achieves success on her own terms. There were numerous other women writing novels in this era, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained of a “damned mob of scribbling women”, but Fern’s novel is unusual among them for concluding not with a marriage proposal but with a move into a comfortable home paid for by the heroine’s own literary efforts.

Book cover for The Confidence Man
The Confidence Man
Melville, Herman

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville, was the author’s last novel; though he would live another 34 years, he turned his literary efforts to poetry after this book. Like several of his other works of fiction, this one takes place on a sailing vessel, but in this case it is a Mississippi riverboat, where the title character, who takes on various disguises, interacts with many of his fellow passengers and learns their stories. At the time it was written, most readers and reviewers considered it a disorganized muddle, but some modern critics have compared it to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in its study of a group of people from all walks of life who are thrown together on a common journey. Several of the characters appear to be based on major literary figures of the era, including Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Poe. The book was published on the same day it takes place—April Fool’s Day.

Book cover for Our Nig
Our Nig
Wilson, Harriet E.

Our Nig is the first novel by an African-American to be published in the United States. Little noticed at the time, it was rediscovered and authenticated by scholar Henry Louis Gates in 1981. Gates established the anonymous author’s identity and verified that her book contained many autobiographical elements. Frado, the story’s central character, is born in New England, the daughter of a white mother and black father. After her father’s death, her mother abandons her at age six at the home of a white family, where she works as an indentured servant until she turns 18. The Bellmont family of the book, including the cruel Mrs. Bellmont, who administers regular beatings to Frado, was based on the Hayward family with whom Wilson lived as a child. It seems likely that the book’s poor reception on initial publication was caused by its unsparing look at the treatment of African-Americans in the northern “free” states, which was not what most abolitionists wanted to hear.

Book cover for Work: A Story of Experience
Work: A Story of Experience
Alcott, Louisa May

With a recent film version of her classic Little Women receiving acclaim, readers may want to take a look at a novel for adults that Alcott wrote a few years later. Christie Devon, her heroine, has just turned twenty-one and feels that she’s imposing on the relatives she lives with, so she decides to set out on her own and look for a job. In the course of the story, which spans a couple of decades before, during, and after the Civil War, Christie samples several careers, including cook, actress, governess, nurse, seamstress, and secretary, and befriends people of various social and ethnic backgrounds. She eventually finds her true purpose in life as an advocate for other working women.

Book cover for Democracy: An American Novel
Democracy: An American Novel
Adams, Henry

Adams was primarily a historian, but he was also the grandson and great-grandson of the two Adams presidents, and his father and brothers had notable political careers as well, so he was very familiar with the inner workings of Washington, D.C., where he lived much of his life. This novel of American politics was published anonymously, and his authorship was not revealed until after his death, though many who knew him suspected that he might have written it. The story takes place just as a new U.S. president is taking office. Madeleine Lee, a wealthy widow grieving the loss of her husband and child, is bored with New York society and decides to move to the nation’s capital to take a part in political life. She is soon hosting a popular political salon on a regular basis, but she is disappointed to discover that most of the politicians she meets are either corrupt or incompetent, including Senator Silas Ratcliffe, who decides he wants to marry her—not out of love, but because he feels she would be an asset in his planned campaign for president in the next election.

Book cover for Pudd'nhead Wilson
Pudd'nhead Wilson
Twain, Mark, 1835-1910

This short novel from fairly late in Twain’s career is a biting satire of race relations in America. It takes place in Missouri before the Civil War, and the central character is Roxy, a slave who is just 1/16 black. She has a baby son, Chambers, who is 1/32 black and could easily pass for white. Worried about his future, she switches him with her master’s child, who is the same age. Twenty years later, Roxy’s son, now called Tom, has grown into a spoiled aristocrat, while the master’s child is a humble slave. When “Tom” gets involved in a murder case, it is the book’s title character, a local lawyer whom the townspeople have scornfully nicknamed “Pudd’nhead”, who uses the fingerprints he has collected for years to identify the killer, and the two young men’s true ancestry. But Twain does not give anyone a happy ending in this ironic, haunting look at the absurdity of a system that judges people entirely on their ethnicity rather than their character and accomplishments.

Book cover for What Maisie Knew
What Maisie Knew
James, Henry

James spent much of his life in Europe, and his dense, complex narratives are very different from what we think of as the quintessential American style of his contemporary, Mark Twain. But James certainly considered himself an American, and even his stories set in Europe have an American sensibility. This fairly short novel takes a look at a young girl whose wealthy parents have divorced and are both now remarried. As Maisie moves back and forth between the two households with her governess, Mrs. Wix, she spends a lot of time watching the adults around her—all absorbed in their own concerns, with little time for her. As the years pass, her parents pay her less and less attention, as they move on to new romantic entanglements while her two step-parents find themselves attracted to one another. Eventually, Maisie will be called on to make a decision about her own future, and the wisdom gleaned from her years of observation will prove useful.