Which (Potentially Unknown) American Novel will Inspire Your Research?

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Posted March 15, 2016

By Bethany Dotson

American Fiction, 1774-1920, released this week from Gale, brings over 17,750 titles to digital life – which is an astounding number. If you read two of these books every minute and didn’t stop to sleep or eat, it would still take you more than 6 days to read through the full collection. The content from 1774-1900 is based on Lyle H Wright’s famous American Fiction: A Contribution Toward a Bibliography, the most comprehensive bibliography of American adult fiction during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and includes both well-known authors (Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, etc) and the obscure.

Luckily, all of these titles are fully indexed and full-text searchable, and the metadata and data are available for text and data mining and other forms of large-scale digital humanities analysis, making it possible to unearth new insight from this large body of work.

To give you a brief idea of what you might find—and to provide some inspiration—we’ve randomly selected a year (1860) and highlighted six very different novels, those published between  Abraham Lincoln being selected as the Republican presidential candidate and South Carolina seceding from the United States Union.

Frontier Life Coggeshall

Frontier Life and Character in the South and West, by William T Coggeshall, tells romantic tales of Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, and other exciting edges of civilization, with beautiful Indian maidens and daring and inevitably narrow escapes. With titles like ‘The Counterfeiters of the Cuyahoga,’ ‘Hunter Birthy; or the half-breed colony of Illinois’ and ‘Fleet Foot, a legend of Kentucky,’ you know it’s going to be a page-turner.

Sunny South

The Sunny South, or, the Southern at Home, edited by Professor J. H. Ingraham, which presents ‘the impartial view which an intelligent, unprejudiced, and highly cultivated Northern lady would take of the South…when hitherto so much in relation to our people and institutions is misunderstood and misinterpreted by those who have no personal knowledge either of Southerners or of Southern life’ (4). In it, this intelligent and unprejudiced Northern lady entertains descriptions of events at which ‘the happiest persons I saw in the ball-room…were the blacks. You who live in a free State, have no idea of the privileges this class are permitted in a slave State by the white people. They stand in the doors and otherwise vacant places of the ball-room, and laugh, and are as much at home as “massa and missis.”

Our Bible Class Caroline Corbin

Our Bible-Class, and the Good that Came of It, by Caroline E Fairfield Corbin, is dedicated to the pupils of the Packer Collegiate Institute (‘my own beloved alma mater’), and offers ‘a word of counsel and invitation’ and a plea to the ‘adult members of the Church’ to hold themselves responsible for the ‘welfare of the youth.’

Emma Southworth

The ever popular Emma Southworth makes an appearance; in 1872, we can gather from issues of The Nation and Publishers’ Weekly that Mrs. Emma Southworth was the author most in demand at the public library. This edition of The Haunted Homestead: And Other Nouvellettes; with an Autobiography of the Author features stories ‘founded on facts, “stranger than fiction,”’ by an author who is ‘excelled by no living female writer in the world.’

Anticipations of the Future

Anticipations of the Future, to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time: In the Form of Extracts of Letters from an English Resident in the United States, to the London Times, from 1864 to 1870: With an Appendix on the Causes and Consequences of the Independence of the South by Edmund Ruffin is a somewhat prescient look at one author’s idea of what faced the nation in a few short years if Southern independence movements were not averted. Starting out with the epigraph “If this be treason, make the most of it” – Patrick Henry, 1765 – Ruffin predicts (wrongly) a President Seward (and a second term for him) and optimistically puts off any states’ secession until 1868.

How to Live

How to Live: Saving and Wasting, or Domestic Economy Illustrated by the Life of Two Families of Opposite Character, Habits, and Practices, in a Pleasant Tale of Real Life by Solon Robinson begins, in the ‘advertisement’ on page 5, with the statement that ‘no man, woman or child, can read this book without being interested in its pleasant narrative and exposition of human character, and instructed in its lessons of economy, in things that pertain to everyday life, in every family.’ If that’s not a compelling claim, I don’t know what is.

With these diverse and wide-ranging titles, we have barely skimmed the surface of even a single year of fiction. To request a trial of American Fiction, 1774-1920 and explore for yourself the American spirit and culture of nearly a century and a half, please email [email protected].





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