Literary History

How Les Misérables Became Lee's Miserables

Cover page from West & Johnston translation of Les Miserables, which was distributed to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. (Source: Hathi Trust)

When Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables was published in the spring of 1862, it took the world by storm. Within weeks, American audiences began devouring a five-volume translation by renowned classicist Charles E. Wilbour. As the Civil War raged, soldiers on both sides of the lines gobbled up copies and carried them into battle. But here's the thing: Confederate soldiers weren't actually reading the same book as their Northern adversaries, and that was by design.

Impressions of Washington: Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1862

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, visited Washington, D.C. in 1862, as the Capital was gearing up for war against the Confederacy. If you remember Hawthorne at all from school, you won’t be surprised to find he had a lot to say.

He was particularly taken by the artist Emmanuel Leutze's painting "Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way" in the U.S. Capitol and lamented what might happen to the work and the nation should the Union lose the war.

Shine Bright Like Oscar Wilde

This man knows how to rock a cape. (1882 photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony. Source: Wikipedia Commons)

You know who was just too fabulous for Washington. D.C. to handle? Oscar Wilde. This fellow caused quite a stir when he visited in the January of 1882 as part of a lecture tour on the “Philosophy of Aestheticism”.

The general theory of ‘aestheticism’ seemed to be living in beauty, and Oscar Wilde practiced what he preached; half of any article about him was devoted to his devilish style. Newspaper reporters practically fawned over him, and we’re not going to blame them.