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Four Great American Classics
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Four Great American Classics
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These four landmark novels of nineteenth-century American literature have gained a permanent place in our culture as great classics. They are not only part of our national heritage, but masterpieces of...
These four landmark novels of nineteenth-century American literature have gained a permanent place in our culture as great classics. They are not only part of our national heritage, but masterpieces of...
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  • These four landmark novels of nineteenth-century American literature have gained a permanent place in our culture as great classics. They are not only part of our national heritage, but masterpieces of world literature whose deep and lasting influence is felt to this day.

    The Scarlet Letter vividly records America’s moral and historical roots in Puritan New England and masterfully re-creates a society’s preoccupation with sin, guilt, and pride.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    carries readers along on Huck’s unforgettable journey down the Mississippi in America’s foremost comic epic—the first great novel in a truly American voice.

    The Red Badge of Courage re-creates the brutal reality of war and its psychological impact on a young Civil War soldier in one of the most moving and widely read American novels.

    Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories joins the world’s great tragic literature as a...

Excerpts-

  • Chapter One Chapter One


    The Prison-Door


    A THRONG OF bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

    The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot,1 and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browned and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru,2 and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

    This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally over-shadowed it,-or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson,3 as she entered the prison-door,-we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

    Chapter Two


    The Market-Place

    THE GRASS-PLOT before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a...

About the Author-

  • Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. When his father died, he was forced to leave school and find work. After passing through some minor clerical jobs, the eighteen-year-old young man shipped out to sea, first on a short cargo trip, then, at twenty-one, on a three-year South Sea whaling venture. From the experiences accumulated on this voyage would come the material for his early books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), as well as for such masterpieces as Moby-Dick (1851), Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856), and Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories (posthumous, 1924). Though the first two novels—popular romantic adventures—sold well, Melville's more serious writing failed to attract a large audience, perhaps because it attacked the current philosophy of transcendentalism and its espoused "self-reliance." (As he made clear in the savagely comic The Confidence Man (1857), Melville thought very little of Emersonian philosophy.) He spent his later years working as a customs inspector on the New York docks, writing only poems comprising Battle-Pieces (1866). He died in 1891, leaving Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories unpublished.

    Mark Twain, considered one of the greatest writers in American literature, was born Samuel Clemens in Florida, Missouri, in 1835, and died in Redding, Connecticut in 1910. As a young child, he moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River, a setting that inspired his two best-known novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In his person and in his pursuits, he was a man of extraordinary contrasts. Although he left school at 12 when his father died, he was eventually awarded honorary degrees from Yale University, the University of Missouri, and Oxford University. His career encompassed such varied occupations as printer, Mississippi riverboat pilot, journalist, travel writer, and publisher. He made fortunes from his writing but toward the end of his life he had to resort to lecture tours to pay his debts. He was hot-tempered, profane, and sentimental—and also pessimistic, cynical, and tortured by self-doubt. His nostalgia for the past helped produce some of his best books. He lives in American letters as a great artist, described by writer William Dean Howells as “the Lincoln of our literature.” Twain and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, had four children—a son, Langdon, who died as an infant, and three daughters, Susy, Clara, and Jean.

    Stephen Crane was born in 1871, in Newark, New Jersey. He attempted college twice, the second time failing a theme-writing course while writing articles for newspapers such as the New York Tribune. In 1892 Crane moved to the poverty of New York City’s Lower East Side—the Bowery so vividly depicted in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In 1894 the serial publication began of The Red Badge of Courage, his acclaimed and widely popular novel of a young soldier’s coming of age in the Civil War. He died in Germany at the age of twenty-eight, in June of 1900.

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