Editor’s note: In the most recent issue of the Almanac, we asked members of the AAS community to give us their choice of recommended reading for “fiction published before 1900.” We are continuing those recommendation in this series on Past is Present. This first post is written by AAS member Philip F. Gura, who is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the author of the bicentennial history of the American Antiquarian Society and, most recently, of Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel (2013).
What is there to add to the standard history of the American novel? Don’t we already know which books are most deserving of our attention and respect? The answer is no. More recently, the digitization of our literature has given a second wind to older books that may be difficult to find in your local Barnes and Noble. The full variety of early American novels is now at our fingertips: novels by women, African Americans, and white men forgotten not because of their race or gender but often because of the novelty or radicalism of their art.
To sample such literature, one might start with Caroline Chesebro’, a native of upstate New York; her father was involved in the kidnapping and disappearance of William Morgan that precipitated the Anti-Masonic movement. She went to a young women’s academy and soon thereafter began publishing stories in such magazines as Graham’s. Encouraged by positive reviews—one reviewer found her stories “unmistakable evidence of originality of mind”—she wrote Isa, a Pilgrimage (1852). Next came The Children of Light (1853), the story of two young women who, when they are rejected by the men they love, move together to the city, where one supports the other in her budding acting career. Getting Along (1855) focuses on various couples’ relationships, in which, while assuming that marriage is the norm, she assesses the partners’ fidelity to their original commitments to each other.
Start with Isa, A Pilgrimage (1852), published the same year as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel in which Chesebro’ is interested in the plasticity of gender roles. Her heroine Isa is not trapped by society’s expectations but rather experiences more of herself and the world as she challenges the limits of propriety. Isa is an orphan rescued by the Weares, a good Christian family whose traditional notions of religion she appreciates but soon leaves behind as she flourishes intellectually. She takes up advanced ideas about religion, philosophy—she is a Transcendentalist—morality, and the role of women in society and believes that faith is “cowardly” at best, “for there is no limit given but that which our own will regulates. No other voice,” she continues, “than man’s mental capacity, ever said, thus far, no farther.”
Isa receives an attractive marriage proposal from an older man who offers her “his name, his fame, his fortune,” but she refuses because she wants no restrictions in her life. Eventually, she marries a likeminded intellectual named Alanthus Stuart, with whom she moves to Europe where, though unmarried, they live together and have a child—a scandal for the time. Thus, in Isa, Chesebro’ broached subjects few other American novelists at the time dared to: the relationship between orthodox religious faith and personal fulfillment, between the demands of the soul and the demands of society, between her love and marriage as well as the potentiality of living a life of the mind, inhabited by radical philosophical and political ideas. One reviewer complained, “Isa makes her self-will, her intellectual progress, her ambition, a three-fold deity.” But that is the point: she had merely fashioned a personal religion from secular ideas and values, and in so doing stands as a remarkably fulfilled example of Emersonian self-reliance.