Mark Twain ( Samuel L. Clemens), a Missourian, the most significant writer in the latter half of the 19th century, began his adventurous life as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. Here he absorbed the legendry of the early Midwestern frontier. After a few months spent as a soldier of the Confederacy, he became a Union sympathizer and spent his next years in the gold camps of the West. The rest of his life, when he was not lecturing, was spent in traveling and writing in bed. Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi hold much of the romance of the old South. Roughing It tells of the pioneer West. The Jumping Frog story is a classic of American humor. Innocents Abroad, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court display the writer's satire at its best.
Other writers who caught the spirit of the West were Bret Harte and Edward Eggleston. The latter told, in The Circuit Rider and The Hoosier Schoolmaster, of the early settlements in Indiana. Hamlin Garland, following this tradition, later wrote A Son of the Middle Border. Shortly after the Civil War, these writers and others awakened a strong interest in local color. In Deephaven, Sarah Orne Jewett characterized the little New England seaport town; in his Old Creole Days, George W. Cable told of New Orleans; and in his book, In Old Virginia, Thomas Nelson Page characterized the South. The New England businessman furnished the subject of William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham.
Henry James, a "Brahmin," saw this same American businessman rather satirically in The American. In his Daisy Miller he described the unconventional young American girl. Fleeing the aesthetic crudities of American life, Henry James, after living in Europe for years, wrote several novels in almost perfect form. Best known among them are The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. In all his works the American is seen as an individual who, discontented with his own lack of spirituality, seeks for a more complete development through a greater knowledge of European culture. While Henry James strove for an understanding of the soul of the New England "Brahmin" type through literary expression, his brother William characterized it through his studies in psychology and philosophy. He founded the philosophical school known as "American pragmatism," which maintains that ideals should be checked with social experience and are most valuable when socially effective.
Another New England scholar whose historical writings and literary self-analysis have the greatest value for the understanding of American character is Henry Adams. His description of the medieval point of view in MontSaint-Michel and Chartres has had great influence in stimulating interest in the field of medieval studies. With his History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison and America, Adams represents the last of a line of literary historians which began with William H. Prescott , author of The Conquest of Peru and other works, and John Lothrop Motley, who wrote The Rise of the Dutch Republic. Edward Bellamy, a leader of the Populist movement, in Looking Backward and Equality strove to chart the future, prophesying the phonograph and the radio.
Joel Chandler Harris, a Southerner, recorded the poetry and songs of the Negroes in Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings. The introduction to this book includes a significant study of those primitive rhythms which later greatly influenced American poetry and music. Sidney Lanier, particularly interested in music, regarded all his verse as having a melodic background. He contributed to American aesthetic theory in The Science of English Verse. James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet, like Whittier before him, was interested in home life. Lyric poets such as Joaquin Miller, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, although creating in the nineteenth century, had their greatest influence just before the World War. In all their works lives a strong suggestion of the great expanse of the American soul, its incompleteness, its exuberance, and at times its sadness.