The best early US novels you’ve not heard of

Hannah Murray Author Of Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction
By Hannah Murray

Who am I?

I’m a lecturer at the University of Liverpool who researches 19th century American literature. A year studying in central Pennsylvania sparked my interest in early US writing and led me to a PhD in the subject. I’m fascinated in how American literature of this period both upholds and challenges the founding myths of the nation - liberty, egalitarianism, progress – and how new genres, such as science fiction and the gothic, develop over the century.

I wrote...

Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction

By Hannah Murray,

Book cover of Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction

What is my book about?

In Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction, Hannah Lauren Murray shows that early US authors repeatedly imagined lost, challenged and negated white citizenship in the new nation. Reading canonical and lesser-known writers including Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville, Murray argues that white characters on the borders of life and death were liminal presences that disturbed prescriptions of racial belonging in the early US. Fears of losing whiteness were routinely channelled through the language of liminality, in a precursor to today’s white anxieties of marginalisation and minoritisation.

The books I picked & why

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By Charles Brockden Brown,

Book cover of Wieland

Why this book?

Charles Brockden Brown is the Founding Father of American gothic writing and Wieland is his weirdest but most readable novel. Written just after the Adams administration had banned speech criticizing the government, Wieland explores the dangers of uncontrolled speech and the threat of shadowy interlopers. The novel is narrated by Clara Wieland, whose family are plagued by increasingly threatening disembodied voices after the arrival of mysterious itinerant Frank Carwin. This domestic thriller not only showcases the development of the unreliable narrator but also questions the stability of the family and the nation in the early US.

Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself

By Robert Montgomery Bird,

Book cover of Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself

Why this book?

Robert Montgomery Bird was a Renaissance man and author, working as a doctor, novelist, playwright, and farmer, and writing across multiple genres. His most experimental and worthwhile novel is Sheppard Lee, a piece of proto-science fiction in which the spirit of a recently deceased loafer travels through the bodies of a merchant, a dandy, a moneylender, a Quaker, an enslaved man, and an aristocrat. Bird’s novel satirizes social mobility in the early nation, articulates contemporary medical philosophy on mind/body dualism, and reveals anxieties that young white men may lose their place in society.

Our Nig

By Harriet E. Wilson,

Book cover of Our Nig

Why this book?

Early African American fiction is not as well-known as the slave narrative genre, but the few novels that do exist before the Civil War are sophisticated interpretations and developments of sentimental fiction. Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig is a bildungsroman charting the life of free Black servant girl Frado who is exploited and abused by her adopted white family. Wilson challenges the passive and flat portraits of Black men and women in most antebellum fiction, by portraying a complex and multifaceted character in Frado.

The Garies and Their Friends

By Frank J. Webb,

Book cover of The Garies and Their Friends

Why this book?

Another example of early African American fiction, The Garies and their Friends is the second novel published by a Black American. Following the lives of an interracial couple moving from Savannah to Philadelphia, their middle-class Black friends, and the racism they face, The Garies is one of the first texts to examine free Black life in depth. Writing an anti-racist novel, Webb criticizes the legal structures and extra-legal white supremacist violence that prohibit Black safety and success in the ‘free’ North.


By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Pierre

Why this book?

Although Herman Melville is considered the most canonical US writer today, after the muddled reception of Moby-Dick (1851) his critical and commercial acclaim had waned. In response, he wrote the much-maligned Pierre, a sensational gothic novel about a young man discovering his half-sister and endeavoring to rescue her from poverty. Both sublime and ridiculous, this overly-wrought novel features spiritualism, incest, and diatribes against the literary marketplace, but most pressingly it probes the roles and responsibilities of young independent men in the mid-19th century. If you can find it, the 1995 Kraken edition features bold and brilliant illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

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