Literature in the 19th Century
Ever since the early Colonial days, the United States had been a literate society. Because Puritans had wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible, all children were taught to read. This did not mean that all Americans could understand complex texts or write sophisticated prose, but the majority could read and write for everyday purposes. In southern states, it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, but many managed to learn in spite of the ban.
Newspapers, magazines, journals, and books proliferated in this literate society. Before about 1800, most American literature had discussed political issues or provided religious edification; in the early 1800s, American authors began producing imaginative literature intended for entertainment. Most American literature of note from this period came from the Northeast, because this region had been settled the longest and had a more cosmopolitan culture than the rural South. An entire literary community developed around Concord, Massachusetts, where Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott were all near neighbors to one another. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow became the first American to earn a living by writing poetry, Edgar Allan Poe was a pioneer in the field of detective and horror fiction, and Walt Whitman of New Jersey and Emily Dickinson of Massachusetts broke literary ground with their poems.
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