The American Renaissance, a period which pned from the 1830s to the end of the Civil War, is widely acknowledged as the establishment of America’s literary history. Despite their usage of classical styles such as Romanticism and Gothicism, the writers of the aforementioned era (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville) succeeded in producing original works that were eventually regarded as the foundations of American literature (Michaels and Pease, 1989, p.127).
The writings of these authors were noted mainly for their deviation from the restraints associated with established writing and philosophical disciplines, as well as criticism of prevailing norms and standards. Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), for instance, spoke out against Puritan hypocrisy (Gedge, 2003, p. 101). Thoreau’s works, which constantly emphasized the virtue of simplicity, challenged the American values of conformity and success in terms of monetary gain (Kirklighter and Okawa, 2002, p. 60).
In the process, the American Renaissance reflected the transition of the United States from being a British colony to a sovereign nation (Michaels and Pease, 1989, p. 10). The independence of their country left the Founding Fathers with the task of creating a political identity that was different from that of Great Britain. The writers of the American Renaissance, meanwhile, felt the need to declare cultural independence from Britain (Madsen, 1998, p. 70). To attain this goal, they came up with an “American style” of writing. The United States in the Antebellum Era
The 18th century was characterized with immense optimism on the part of the American people. The triumph of the American Revolution instilled in them a buoyant belief in human perfectibility (Cirtautas, 1997, p. 66). They likewise embraced democracy and its lofty ideal of equality regardless of class and education (Dietze, 1995, p. 59). Technological advances such as the telegraph, the railroad, the steamship and the turnpike resulted in immense economic growth by making the exchange of goods and services faster and more efficient (Abrams, 2004, p.
17). Innovations like photography and powered presses stimulated the growth of American cultural life through the mass production of inexpensive books, journals and newspapers (Benesch, 2002, p. 56). The above-mentioned achievements, however, failed to address certain needs of American society. Despite its strong emphasis on egalitarianism, democracy failed to improve the lot of many disenfranchised Americans. In addition, several Americans became increasingly disillusioned with their culture’s fixation on material wealth and social respectability.
Worse, the institutions that were supposed to guide the American public – religion, government, school and the family – were either too indifferent or perpetuated the materialistic and pretentious nature of American society. “Jacksonian Democracy:” Democracy for the White Educated Male Although the Declaration of Independence held that “all men are created equal,” law and custom reserved this impartiality for the white educated male. Only white men from well-off families were allowed to pursue an education, own property and or vote. Women and African-Americans, in sharp contrast, remained marginalized.
White men can batter, rape and or kill slaves with impunity. Furthermore, the lack of incriminating evidence did not spare slaves from punishment for alleged crimes (Stone, Epstein, and Sunstein, 1992, p. 504). Such a flawed model of democracy was later referred to as “Jacksonian democracy. ” President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was a leader of contrasting principles – he staunchly advocated popular democracy and individual liberty, as well as slavery and Indian removal (Tyler, 1944, p. 21). Despite his key roles in the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War, Jackson’s inaugural speech contained the following words:
I believe that man can be elevated…and as he does he becomes more God-like in his character and capable of governing himself. Let us go on elevating our people, perfecting our institutions, until democracy shall reach such a point of perfection that we can acclaim with truth that the voice of the people is the voice of God. (p. 22) Jackson’s ascension into high office despite his conflicting values was eventually used as a metaphor to describe the duplicitous form of democracy that prevailed during his time (Haskell and Teichgraeber, 1996, p. 192).
In the context of “Jacksonian democracy,” only the white educated male had the right to life, liberty and happiness. Women, the poor and minorities, on the other hand, had no other choice but to resign themselves to their disenfranchised state. While all human beings are supposedly born free, they are not necessarily equal. Richer and More Miserable Than Ever Even if the United States managed to obtain political sovereignty from Great Britain, traces of British societal norms are still present in American culture. Foremost among these customs are materialism and the fixation with outside appearances.
Many wealthy Americans openly flaunted their wealth by assuming lifestyles that both emulated and rivaled those of the European aristocracy (Craven, 2003, p. 287). In the process, they became the symbol of success, respectability and industry. The poor, on the other hand, were dismissed as lazy and ignorant. Such a way of thinking proved to be very erroneous – most economic opportunities in Antebellum America were available only for white men. This, however, was not an assurance that they would have a decent life. Many entrepreneurs, especially plantation owners in the South, preferred slaves over hired hands.
Furthermore, many white laborers were subjected to appalling working conditions. They toiled for nearly 14 hours a day in unsafe workplaces for wages that sometimes come in the form of cheap liquor (Reynolds, 1989, p. 352). Spiritual Emptiness Antebellum America saw the rise of Unitarian Christianity. The latter was a form of Christian humanism – it sought to realize the potential divinity in human nature. Unitarians believed that the highest form of worship was the celebration of human dignity through the discovery and maximization of an individual’s faculties and powers (Howe, 2007, p.
614). Thus, many American Protestants during the aforementioned era used the humanistic spirit of Unitarianism to nurture many aspects of their country’s intellectual life and social reform. Schoolteacher Dorothea Dix, for instance, campaigned tirelessly for humane living conditions in insane asylums. Another educator, Horace Mann, instituted several important reforms in the American public school system (Howe, 2007, p. 615). Some thinkers, however, felt disenchanted with the apparent coldness of Unitarianism.
They felt that Unitarianism were so rational that they failed to address the emotional and spiritual needs of their followers. Emerson, for example, called for a creed which was sensuous and integrative but did not rely on tradition. He believed that Unitarianism’s strict emphasis on constitution and institution further divided society by promoting the law of the many. Because Unitarianism neglected the integrated world of the imagination, there was a big possibility that the law of the many would turn into the tyranny of the many (Nigro, 1984, p.
45). The American Style of Writing: Breaking Away from the Status Quo The American Renaissance echoed the political, economic and social changes that were taking place in the Antebellum-era United States. Although the writers of the American Renaissance used classical styles such as Romanticism and Gothicism, their works reflected their deviation from the restraints associated with these writing and philosophical disciplines. Their writings likewise criticized prevailing norms and standards in American society.
In the process, the authors of the American Renaissance were able to challenge their audiences to confront the changes and responsibilities that are associated with sovereignty. Crossovers Many writers of the American Renaissance combined classical and contemporary styles in their works. As a result, they were able to openly discuss topics that were considered sensitive during their time. The writings of Whitman, for instance, were a blend of “romanticism (and) the open road of modernist form, vision and experiment” (McQuade, et al. , 1998, p. 1146).
Such a bold and contradictory manner of writing complemented his candor about sexuality. Whitman’s poem The Sleepers (1881), for example, candidly discussed the taboo subject of masturbation. Sex manuals in the 19th century warned that masturbation was an indicator of insanity. Clergymen, meanwhile, denounced the act as a sin. Masturbators, therefore, were referred to in the aforementioned poem as “sick-gray (onanists)” (Killingsworth, 2007, p. 45). The term “onanist” was an allusion to the biblical figure of Onan, condemned by God for spilling his seed upon the ground (Genesis 38: 8-10).
Contrary to popular belief during his time, Whitman regarded masturbation as normal. He hailed the masturbator as the natural man – the “spontaneous me” who was liberated from the repressiveness of convention. This release (“The souse upon me of my lover by the sea, as I lie willing and naked”) eventually culminated in the ejaculation of semen (“It has done its work – I toss it carefully to fall where it may”). Given Whitman’s aforementioned attitude towards masturbation, the poem viewed semen (“this bunch pluck’d at random from myself”) with nonchalance (Killingsworth, 2007, p. 45). Unmasking the Hypocrisy
Some writers of the American Renaissance attacked the deceitful norms of their society. The bigoted views of Puritan America on morality are one of the main features in The Scarlet Letter. A young woman named Hester Prynne was made to wear a scarlet “A” embroidered on her chest as punishment for adultery. Apart from having an illegitimate child as a result of her indiscretion, she also had to endure ostracism from her contemptuous neighbors. Her cruelest tormentors were the community’s Puritan elders, who believed that sin was something that should be punished and suppressed (Hawthorne, 1994, p. 44).
Hester’s paramour, Arthur Dimmesdale, made her face guilt and shame alone for fear that his reputation as a righteous minister would be tarnished (Hawthorne, 1994, p. 58). Dimmesdale was Hawthorne’s way of showing audiences that even the most respectable people can be guilty of the worst acts of wrongdoing. Despite his religious background, Dimmesdale had an extramarital affair with Hester, who happened to be a married woman. Worse, he refused to take responsibility for his fault. Although their religion espoused forgiveness and compassion towards sinners, the Puritan elders harangued Hester endlessly.
Hester and Pearl: Symbols of Change. Ironically, it was Hester and her illegitimate daughter Pearl who served as the symbols of change in The Scarlet Letter. It is revealed in Chapter V that although Hester was free to leave Boston and start a new life elsewhere, she opted not to (Hawthorne, 1994, p. 68). Indeed, leaving Boston for good seemed to be the best option for Hester – she could finally get rid of her scarlet “A” symbol and live as a respectable woman again. But running away meant acknowledging that the letter was a mark of shame and was therefore something she was trying to escape from.
Staying in Boston, on the other hand, meant that she was denouncing society’s power over her by not denying the existence of her past sin (Hawthorne, 1994, p. 67). Pearl also served as a reminder of the importance of individuality and honesty to one’s self. In Chapter XVIII, Hester and Dimmesdale finally decided to take Pearl with them and flee to the colony. Before leaving, Hester removed the scarlet letter and tried to throw it into the stream – it landed on the far side instead (Hawthorne, 1994, 172). Pearl however, refused to cross the stream until her mother promised to reattach the scarlet letter (Hawthorne, 1994, p.
180). Indeed, dishonesty with one’s self will remove characteristics that a status quo considers to be deviant, but are also integral parts of who an individual is. Conclusion The American Renaissance produced an American style of writing. The works that fell under this style deviated from the restraints associated with established writing and philosophical disciplines, as well as criticism of prevailing norms and standards. In the process, the writers of the American Renaissance succeeded in challenging their audiences to confront the changes and responsibilities that are associated with sovereignty.
As free people, they must create their own national identity instead of depending on British norms and standards. References Abrams, R. E. (2004). Landscape and Ideology in American Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Benesch, K. (2002). Romantic Cyborgs: Authorship and Technology in the American Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Cirtautas, A. M. (1997). The Polish Solidarity Movement: Revolution, Democracy and Natural Rights. New York: Routledge. Craven, W. (2003). American Art: History and Culture.
New York: McGraw-Hill Professional. Dietze, G. (1995). In Defense of Property. Lanham: University Press of America. Gedge, K. E. (2003). Without Benefit of Clergy: Women and the Pastoral Relationship in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press US. Haskell, T. L. , & Teichgraeber, R. F. (1996). The Culture of the Market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hawthorne, N. (1994). The Scarlet Letter. London: Penguin Books. Howe, D. W. (2007). What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press.
Killingsworth, M. J. (2007). The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kirklighter, C. , & Okawa, G. Y. (2002). Traversing the Democratic Borders of the Essay. Albany: SUNY Press. Madsen, D. L. (1998). American Exceptionalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. McQuade, D. , et al. (1998). The Harper Single Volume American Literature (3rd ed. ). Harlow: Pearson-Longman. Michaels, W. B. , & Pease, D. E. (1989). The American Renaissance Reconsidered. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Nigro, A. J.
(1984). The Diagonal Line: Separation and Reparation in American Literature. Bridgewater: Susquehanna University Press. Reynolds, D. S. (1989). Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (6th ed. ). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Stone, G. R. , Epstein, R. A. , & Sunstein, C. R. (1992). The Bill of Rights in the Modern State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Tyler, A. F. (1944). Freedom’s Ferment: Phases of American Social History to 1860. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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