Notable Authors of the 19th Century

Literary Figures of the 1800s

The 19th century was a time of rapid social change brought on by the accelerated Industrial Revolution. The literary giants of the age captured this dynamic century from many angles. In poetry, novels, essays, short stories, journalism, and other genres these writers provided a varied and exciting understanding of a world in flux.

Charles Dickens

Photograph of Charles Dickens writing at a desk.
Charles Dickens. Getty Images

Charles Dickens (1812–1870) was the most popular Victorian novelist and is still considered a titan of literature. He endured a notoriously difficult childhood yet developed work habits which allowed him to write lengthy yet brilliant novels. There is a myth that his books are so long because he was paid by the word, but rather he was paid by installment and his novels appeared serially over weeks or months.

In classic books, including "Oliver Twist," "David Copperfield," "A Tale of Two Cities," and "Great Expectations," Dickens documented the social conditions of Victorian Britain. He wrote during the Industrial Revolution in London and his books often concern the class divide, poverty, and ambition.

Walt Whitman

Civil War era photograph of Walt Whitman.
Walt Whitman. Library of Congress

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was the greatest American poet and his classic volume "Leaves of Grass" was considered both a radical departure from convention and a literary masterpiece. Whitman, who had been a printer in his youth and worked as a journalist while also writing poetry, viewed himself as a new type of American artist. His free verse poems celebrated the individual, notably himself, and had a sweeping scope including joyful attention to mundane details of the world.

Whitman worked as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, and wrote movingly of the conflict and about his great devotion to Abraham Lincoln.

Washington Irving

Engraved portrait of author Washington Irving
Washington Irving first achieved fame as a young satirist in New York City. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Washington Irving (1783–1859), a native New Yorker, is considered to be the first American man of letters. He made his name with a satirical masterpiece, "A History of New York," and was acclaimed as a master of the American short story, for which he created such memorable characters as Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.

Irving's writings were highly influential in the early 19th century, and his collection "The Sketch Book" was widely read. And one of Irving's early essays gave New York City its enduring nickname of "Gotham."

Edgar Allan Poe

Engraved portrait of Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) did not live a long life, yet the work he did in a concentrated career established him as one of the most influential writers in history. Poe was a poet and literary critic who also pioneered the form of the short story. His dark writing style was marked with a penchant for the macabre and mystery. He contributed to the development of such genres as horror tales and detective fiction.

Within Poe's troubled life reside the clues to how he could conceive of the disturbing stories and poetry for which he is widely remembered today.

Herman Melville

Painting of author Herman Melville
Herman Melville, painted by Joseph Eaton circa 1870. Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

Novelist Herman Melville (1819–1891) is best known for his masterpiece, "Moby Dick," a book which was essentially misunderstood and ignored for decades. Based on Melville's own experience on a whaling ship as well as published accounts of a real white whale, the story chronicles the quest for revenge against the massive whale. The novel mostly mystified readers and critics of the mid-1800s.

For a time, Melville had enjoyed popular success with the books that preceded "Moby Dick," especially "Typee," which was based on the time he had spent stranded in the South Pacific. But Melville's true rise to literary notoriety arose in the early twentieth century, long after his death.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photograph of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Stock Montage/Getty Images

From his roots as a Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) developed into America's homegrown philosopher, advocating a love of nature and becoming the center of the New England Transcendentalists.

In essays such as "Self Reliance," Emerson put forth a distinctly American approach to living, including individualism and nonconformity. And he exerted influence not only on the general public but on other authors, including his friends Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller as well as Walt Whitman and John Muir.

Henry David Thoreau

Portrait of author Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) essayist, abolitionist, naturalist, poet, tax resister seems to stand in contrast to the 19th century, as he was an outspoken voice for simple living at a time when society was racing into an industrial age. And while Thoreau remained fairly obscure in his own time, in time he has become one of the most beloved authors of the 19th century.

His masterpiece, "Walden," is widely read, and his essay "Civil Disobedience" has been cited as an influence on social activists to the present day. He is thought also to be an early environmental writer and thinker.

Ida B. Wells

Anti-Lynching Crusader Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells. Fotoresearch/Getty Images

Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) was born to a slave family in the deep South and became widely known as an investigative journalist and activist in the 1890s for her work exposing the horrors of lynching. She not only collected important data on the number of lynchings taking place in America, but wrote movingly about the crisis. She is one of the founders of the NAACP.

Jacob Riis

Photographic portrait of journalist Jacob Riis.
Jacob Riis. Fotosearch/Getty Images

A Danish-American immigrant working as a journalist, Jacob Riis (1849–1914) felt great empathy for the poorest members of society. His work as a newspaper reporter took him into immigrant neighborhoods, and he began to document conditions in both words and images, using the latest advances in flash photography. His book "How the Other Half Lives" brought awareness of the squalid lives of the poor to the greater American society and into urban politics in the 1890s.

Margaret Fuller

Portrait of early feminist writer Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller. Getty Images

Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) was an early feminist activist, author, and editor who first gained prominence editing The Dial, the magazine of the New England Transcendentalists. She later became the first female newspaper columnist in New York City while working for Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune.

Fuller traveled to Europe, married an Italian revolutionary and had a baby, and then died tragically in a shipwreck while returning to America with her husband and child. Though she died young, her writings proved influential throughout the 19th century.

John Muir

Photograph of John Muir reading
John Muir. Library of Congress

John Muir (1838–1914) was a mechanical wizard who probably could have made a great living designing machinery for the growing factories of the 19th century, but he literally walked away from it to live, as he put it himself, "as a tramp."

Muir traveled to California and became associated with Yosemite Valley. His writings about the beauty of the Sierras inspired political leaders to set aside lands for preservation, and he has been called the "father of the National Parks."

Frederick Douglass

Engraved portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland, managed to escape to freedom as a young man, and became an eloquent voice against the institution of slavery. His autobiography, "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," became a national sensation.

Douglass gained great fame as a public speaker, and was one of the most influential voices of the abolition movement.

Charles Darwin

Portrait of Charles Darwin at his home, Down House
Charles Darwin. English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was trained as a scientist and developed considerable reporting and writing skill while on a five-year research voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle. His published account of his scientific journey was successful, but he had a far more important project in mind.

After years of work, Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" in 1859. His book would shake up the scientific community and completely change the way people thought about humanity. Darwin's book was one of the most influential books ever published.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Photographic portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Getty Images

The author of "The Scarlet Letter" and "The House of the Seven Gables," Hawthorne (1804–1864) often incorporated New England history into his fiction. He was also politically involved, working at times in patronage jobs and even writing a campaign biography for a college friend, Franklin Pierce. His literary influence was felt in his own time, to the extent that Herman Melville dedicated "Moby Dick" to him.

Horace Greeley

Engraved portrait of editor Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley. Stock Montage/Getty Images

The brilliant and eccentric editor of the New York Tribune voiced strong opinions, and Horace Greeley's opinions often became mainstream sentiment. He opposed slavery and believed in the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, and after Lincoln became president Greeley often advised him, though not always politely.

Greeley (1811–1872) also believed in the promise of the American West. And he's perhaps best remembered for the phrase, "Go west, young man, go west."

George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) is not remembered as widely as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, but he published an important book, "Man and Nature," which greatly influenced the environmental movement. Marsh's book was a serious discussion of how humankind uses and misuses the natural world.

At a time when conventional belief held that humans could simply exploit the earth and its natural resources with no penalty, George Perkins Marsh offered a valuable and needed warning.

Horatio Alger

The phrase "Horatio Alger story" is still used to describe someone who overcomes great obstacles to achieve success. The famed author Horatio Alger (1832–1899) wrote a series of books describing impoverished youth who worked hard and lived virtuous lives and were rewarded in the end.

Horatio Alger actually lived a troubled life, and it appears that his creation of iconic role models for American youth may have been an attempt to hide a scandalous personal life.

Arthur Conan Doyle

As the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) felt trapped at times by his own success. He wrote other books and stories which he felt were superior to the extraordinarily popular detective stores featuring Holmes and his loyal sidekick Watson. But the public always wanted more Sherlock Holmes.