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American Literature Before The Civil War

In America, literature was generally not favored, especially so in the south, before the Civil War. Usually, intellectuals were involved in politics or law, often being statesmen, orators or jurists, so literary ventures were limited. American literature was primarily autobiographical in nature, giving lessons and life stories to help benefit the public. The Civil War drastically changed and transformed America and American literature. However, some very interesting, profound and talented work was created before the Civil War era.

Notable pre-civil War literature:


  • Walden; or, life in the Woods
  • Written and published a few short years before the civil war, Henry David Thoreau documented his thoughts while living in nature. This work is notably transcendental, just as Thoreau was himself. The work delves into philosophic concepts and touches on society, spirituality, and self-reliance. Thoreau also wrote poetry, and had several other memorable works of writing, albeit not as tireless or popular as Walden has proven to be as time passes.

  • The Narrative of Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
  • Published in 1845, this work was exactly as it sounds; a narrative as told by a former slave. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in the early 1800’s and resided on a plantation. The narrative has powerful, moving and factual language which recounts the struggle, pain, hardship and journey in which he endured. This work is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of writing to fuel the abolitionist movement, and is highly regarded to this day.

  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Considered to be one of the masterpieces of American Literature, The Scarlet Letter is a fictional work written by author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote several other pieces of work, however The Scarlet Letter was the creation which gave him international fame. This novel is based in seventeenth century puritan Massachusetts. Powerful themes of religion, sin, guilt, the nature of evil and humanity all come in to play in this work of classic literature.

While many readers focus on modern day literature, poetry, and science fiction work, there is a sincere need for acknowledgment of powerful antebellum period work, and literature far beyond that time as well. Classical literature is classical and timeless for a reason; its lessons of morality, thought provoking nature, its sincerity and complexity in composition, and its beauty, as simple as can be. While there are certainly more works of literature aged in wisdom and history, these are three prime examples of timeless work before the Civil War.

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