The Age of Reform

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837)
  • Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government” (1854)
  • Fanny Fern, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (1854) selections
  • Lydia Maria Child, selections from Letters From New York & John Brown correspondence (1859)
  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself (1845)
  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861)

The texts collected in this section focus on what is often called the American “Age of Reform” because of the ongoing debates surrounding war, US expansion, slavery, women’s rights, Indian Removal Policy, and more. These authors are, in one way or another, engaged in these national debates; they are also frequently in conversation with one another and other writers of the era. For example, Emerson influenced many writers, and you can see writers like Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman responding directly to his work. Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were both in correspondence with Harriet Beecher Stowe about their respective writings, and when Stowe declined to help Jacobs in publishing her slave narrative, Jacobs turned to Lydia Maria Child for help. Jacobs was employed by Nathaniel Willis, a well-known editor and newspaper publisher who was also Fanny Fern’s brother. Fern and Emerson both offered glowing reviews of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; these reviews were both significant given the fact that many believed Whitman’s work verged on pornography. These varied examples serve as a way for you to understand that many of the conversations happening during this period are not just about reform, but that they are intensely personal and political, too.
As you read these texts, consider:

  • How do these authors and their texts challenge our ideas about the American political and social landscape of the early and mid-19th century?
  • In what ways might these texts still be relevant today? How do current events and debates echo the ones that are addressed in these texts?
  • How do these debates extend those offered by early colonial writers or Revolutionary figures? How do they extend conversations about the contact zone?

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Open Anthology of American Literature by Farrah Cato is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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