Novelists Who Were More Enlightened Than Their Era

In my previous post, I discussed "second banana" authors from the 19th century. Today, I'll talk about the surprisingly fair way some novelists wrote about second-class citizens of that era.

The 1800s were of course a time of blatant racism, and many authors reflected that by depicting fictional characters of color in horribly stereotyped ways. Or they omitted those characters entirely, as if the world was populated by whites only.

But some authors broke the mold. One of them, mentioned in my previous post, was Wilkie Collins. A major character in his Armadale novel is Ozias Midwinter, a biracial man every bit as three-dimensional as the other people in that 1866 book. (Collins also created astonishingly modern female characters, including Lydia Gwilt in Armadale and Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White.)

Another enlightened author was Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) later became maligned for its title character being, well, an Uncle Tom. But Stowe portrayed Tom and other African Americans in a progressive way for her time.

Herman Melville, in books published just before and not long after Stowe's novel, also allowed nonwhite characters their humanity. Moby-Dick (1851) has the unforgettable harpoonist Queequeg, while Melville's novella Benito Cereno (1855) features the brilliant Babo and other slaves who take over a ship. Some feel Benito Cereno has racist elements, and I can see that interpretation, but I think Melville was being antiracist in that work.

Though The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas was of partial black descent, race is an explicit topic in only one of his novels: Georges (1843). But what a book! Georges is a smart, brave, complex protagonist who could pass for white but identifies with the oppressed.

Mark Twain of course authored Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which Huck gradually befriends and sympathizes with the runaway slave Jim. Unfortunately, the annoying Tom Sawyer doesn't treat Jim with respect in the latter part of that novel. But the overall tone of the book is antiracist -- as is Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), in which the identity switch of two boys illustrates the stupidity of racial stereotyping.

There's another relevant book that doesn't quite fit this post because it was published in the 20th century. But part of John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1952) is set in the 1800s -- a time when the novel's Asian-American servant has to feign stereotypical behavior in the presence of racists. But Lee shows his searching intellect in other situations, and may be the most memorable character in a memorable book.

Can you name other novels that were enlightened for their time on race/ethnicity? And perhaps you'd like to name some less-tolerant novels, too!


Dave Astor's new book Comic (and Column) Confessional is scheduled to be published this June by Xenos Press.

The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.

If you'd like information about ordering a signed copy of the book, contact Dave at