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Digital History ID 3553


During the years preceding the Civil War, America’s ethnic and racial minorities began to publish novels, poems, histories, and autobiographies that explored what it meant to be an outsider in a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society. The result was a unique body of ethnic writing chronicling the distinctive experience and changing self-image of ethnic Americans.

One of the earliest forms of African American literature was the slave narrative, graphic first-person accounts of life in bondage, written by former slaves, including William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Josiah Henson (he was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s model for Uncle Tom). These volumes not only awoke readers to the hardships and cruelties of life under slavery, they also described the ingenious strategies that fugitive slaves used to escape from bondage. William and Ellen Craft, for example, disguised themselves as master and slave; Henry “Box” Brown had himself crated in a box and shipped north.

The 1850s saw the publication of the first four novels by African Americans. William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853), written by an abolitionist and escaped slave, offers a fictional reworking of the story that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children by a slave mistress. In The Garies and Their Friends (1857), Frank Webb, a Philadelphia free black, describes the destructive effects of prejudice, discrimination, and racial violence on two families, one lower class and the other, wealthier, with a white husband and a mulatto wife. In Blake (1859), one of the most militant novels produced during the 19th century, Martin R. Delany, a physician and a reform activist, tells the story of a black Cuban who repudiates organized religion and seeks to liberate blacks in Cuba and the United States. Harriet Jacobs, a poverty-stricken free black from Massachusetts, blends autobiography and fiction in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1859), which tells the story of an orphan who is indentured to an abusive white family, but who nevertheless achieves self-respect and self-reliance. Each of these novels draws on unique African American elements--including folklore and oral traditions--and gives expression to a distinctive “double consciousness,” an awareness of being both African and American.

Native Americans, too, produced firsthand accounts of their lives. Among the most notable is the Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-she-kia-Kiak or Black Hawk (1833), a classic spiritual and secular biography, in which the Sauk warrior explains why he resisted white efforts to seize Indian land in northwestern Illinois during the Black Hawk War (1832). William Apes, a Pequod, published one of the earliest histories from an Indian vantage point in 1836. John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee journalist, published the first novel by an Indian in 1850, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, which recounts the heroic adventures of a Robin Hood–like bandit in California who protects Mexican Americans from white exploitation. Much more than a simple adventure story, this novel is also a thinly veiled protest of the treatment of Native Americans by someone who had personally experienced the removal of the Cherokees from their tribal homelands in Georgia.

Mexican Americans responded to the arrival into the Southwest of white Americans through a variety of literary forms, including corridos (ballads), chistes (jokes), and autobiographies. The earliest autobiographical narrative was published by Padre Antonio José Martínez in 1838. Martínez resisted Father Jean-Baptiste Lamy’s efforts to Americanize Catholic religious practices in New Mexico, a subject later treated in Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes to the Archbishop. Other notable early autobiographies, written by José Antonio Mechaca and Juan Séguin, chronicle the decline of the landed Tejano elite following the Texas Revolution.

The famine years of the late 1840s--a period of massive Irish Catholic immigration and intense anti-Catholic prejudice--inspired a number of Irish American immigrants to reflect on their experience through fiction. Such authors as John Boyce, Hugh Quigley, and Mary Anne Sadlier used fiction to chronicle the sufferings of famine-stricken Ireland, the wrenching transatlantic passage, the disorientation of rural immigrants resettling in American cities, and the need for religious faith to help immigrants adjust to a challenging new environment.

Sadlier, an orphan who migrated from Ireland in 1844, was the most prolific and influential 19th century Irish American novelist. Her 18 novels on Irish history and immigrant life offer a wealth of information about the famine generation and its religious beliefs and practices.

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