History of Literature









American literature

 

CONTENTS:

The 17th century

The 18th century

Early 19th-century literature

From the Civil War to 1914

The 20th century. Writing from 1914 to 1945

The 20th century. After World War II


 

 


American literature
 

 


The 19th century
 

 

 

 

William Cullen Bryant

Washington Irving
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
"Rip Van Winkle"

Illustrations by Arthur Rackham

James Fenimore Cooper

Edgar Allan Poe

1. "Ligeia"
2. "The Raven" Illustrations by Gustave Dore
3.
"The Fall of the House of Usher"
4. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Edmund Dulac
5. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Harry Clarke

John Pendleton Kennedy
William Gilmore Simms
James Russell Lowell

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"The Song of Hiawatha"


Oliver Wendell Holmes

Ralph Waldo Emerson "Nature"

Henry David Thoreau
Bronson Alcott
Margaret Fuller

William Lloyd Garrison
John Greenleaf Whittier
George Bancroft
Francis Parkman

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Herman Melville      
"Moby Dick or The Whale" PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV, PART V
Illustrated by Rockwell Kent 

Walt Whitman "Leaves of Grass"

 

 

 

 

 



The 19th century



Early 19th-century literature


After the American Revolution, and increasingly after the War of 1812, American writers were exhorted to produce a literature that was truly native. As if in response, four authors of very respectable stature appeared. William Cullen Bryant,
Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe initiated a great half century of literary development.

William Cullen Bryant, a New Englander by birth, attracted attention in his 23rd year when the first version of his poem Thanatopsis (1817) appeared. This, as well as some later poems, was written under the influence of English 18th-century poets. Still later, however, under the influence of Wordsworth and other Romantics, he wrote nature lyrics that vividly represented the New England scene. Turning to journalism, he had a long career as a fighting liberal editor of The Evening Post. He himself was overshadowed, in renown at least, by a native-born New Yorker, Washington Irving.

Washington Irving, youngest member of a prosperous merchant family, joined with ebullient young men of the town in producing the Salmagundi papers (1807–08), which satirized the foibles of Manhattan’s citizenry. This was followed by A History of New York (1809), by “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” a burlesque history that mocked pedantic scholarship and sniped at the old Dutch families. Irving’s models in these works were obviously Neoclassical English satirists, from whom he had learned to write in a polished, bright style. Later, having met Sir Walter Scott and having become acquainted with imaginative German literature, he introduced a new Romantic note in The Sketch Book (1819–20), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and other works. He was the first American writer to win the ungrudging (if somewhat surprised) respect of British critics.

James Fenimore Cooper won even wider fame. Following the pattern of Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverley” novels, he did his best work in the “Leatherstocking” tales (1823–41), a five-volume series celebrating the career of a great frontiersman named Natty Bumppo. His skill in weaving history into inventive plots and in characterizing his compatriots brought him acclaim not only in America and England but on the continent of Europe as well.

Edgar Allan Poe, reared in the South, lived and worked as an author and editor in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York City. His work was shaped largely by analytical skill that showed clearly in his role as an editor: time after time he gauged the taste of readers so accurately that circulation figures of magazines under his direction soared impressively. It showed itself in his critical essays, wherein he lucidly explained and logically applied his criteria. His gothic tales of terror were written in accordance with his findings when he studied the most popular magazines of the day. His masterpieces of terror—The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), The Masque of the Red Death (1842), The Cask of Amontillado (1846), and others—were written according to a carefully worked out psychological method. So were his detective stories, such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), which historians credited as the first of the genre. As a poet, he achieved fame with The Raven (1845). His work, especially his critical writings and carefully crafted poems, had perhaps a greater influence in France, where they were translated by Charles Baudelaire, than in his own country.

Two Southern novelists were also outstanding in the earlier part of the century: John Pendleton Kennedy and William Gilmore Simms. In Swallow Barn (1832), Kennedy wrote delightfully of life on the plantations. Simms’s forte was the writing of historical novels like those of Scott and Cooper, which treated the history of the frontier and his native South Carolina. The Yemassee (1835) and Revolutionary romances show him at his best.
 


William Cullen Bryant




 

William Cullen Bryant, (b. Nov. 3, 1794, Cummington, Mass., U.S.—d. June 12, 1878, New York City), poet of nature, best remembered for “Thanatopsis,” and editor for 50 years of the New York Evening Post.

A descendant of early Puritan immigrants, Bryant at 16 entered the sophomore class of Williams College. Because of finances and in hopes of attending Yale, he withdrew without graduating. Unable to enter Yale, he studied law under private guidance at Worthington and at Bridgewater and at 21 was admitted to the bar. He spent nearly 10 years in Plainfield and at Great Barrington as an attorney, a calling for which he held a lifelong aversion. At 26 Bryant married Frances Fairchild, with whom he was happy until her death nearly half a century later. In 1825 he moved to New York City to become coeditor of the New York Review. He became an editor of the Evening Post in 1827; in 1829 he became editor in chief and part owner and continued in this position until his death. His careful investment of his income made Bryant wealthy. He was an active patron of the arts and letters.

The religious conservatism imposed on Bryant in childhood found expression in pious doggerel; the political conservatism of his father stimulated “The Embargo” (1808), in which the 13-year-old poet demanded the resignation of President Jefferson. But in “Thanatopsis” (from the Greek “a view of death”), which he wrote when he was 17 and which made him famous when it was published in The North American Review in 1817, he rejected Puritan dogma for Deism; thereafter he was a Unitarian. Turning also from Federalism, he joined the Democratic party and made the Post an organ of free trade, workingmen’s rights, free speech, and abolition. Bryant was for a time a Free-Soiler and later one of the founders of the Republican party. As a man of letters, Bryant securely established himself at the age of 27 with Poems (1821). In his later years he devoted considerable time to translations.

Bryant will be remembered longest as the poet of his native Berkshire hills and streams in such poems as “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl.”
 

 

 


Washington Irving


"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

"Rip Van Winkle"

Illustrations by Arthur Rackham




 

American author

born April 3, 1783, New York, N.Y., U.S.
died Nov. 28, 1859, Tarrytown, N.Y.

Main
writer called the “first American man of letters.” He is best known for the short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”

The favourite and last of 11 children of an austere Presbyterian father and a genial Anglican mother, young, frail Irving grew up in an atmosphere of indulgence. He escaped a college education, which his father required of his older sons, but read intermittently at the law, notably in the office of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, with whose pretty daughter Matilda he early fell in love. He wrote a series of whimsically satirical essays over the signature of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., published in Peter Irving’s newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, in 1802–03. He made several trips up the Hudson, another into Canada for his health, and took an extended tour of Europe in 1804–06.

On his return he passed the bar examination late in 1806 and soon set up as a lawyer. But during 1807–08 his chief occupation was to collaborate with his brother William and James K. Paulding in the writing of a series of 20 periodical essays entitled Salmagundi. Concerned primarily with passing phases of contemporary society, the essays retain significance as an index to the social milieu.

His A History of New York . . . by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809) was a comic history of the Dutch regime in New York, prefaced by a mock-pedantic account of the world from creation onward. Its writing was interrupted in April 1809 by the sudden death of Matilda Hoffman, as grief incapacitated him. In 1811 he moved to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the Irving brothers’ hardware-importing firm, but his life seemed aimless for some years. He prepared an American edition of Thomas Campbell’s poems, edited the Analectic Magazine, and acquired a staff colonelcy during the War of 1812. In 1815 he went to Liverpool to look after the interests of his brothers’ firm. In London he met Sir Walter Scott, who encouraged him to renewed effort. The result was The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819–20), a collection of stories and essays that mix satire and whimsicality with fact and fiction. Most of the book’s 30-odd pieces concern Irving’s impressions of England, but six chapters deal with American subjects. Of these, the tales “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” have been called the first American short stories. They are both Americanized versions of German folktales. The main character of “Rip Van Winkle” is a henpecked husband who sleeps for 20 years and awakes as an old man to find his wife dead, his daughter happily married, and America now an independent country. The tremendous success of The Sketch Book in both England and the United States assured Irving that he could live by his pen. In 1822 he produced Bracebridge Hall, a sequel to The Sketch Book. He traveled in Germany, Austria, France, Spain, the British Isles, and later in his own country.

Early in 1826 he accepted the invitation of Alexander H. Everett to attach himself to the American legation in Spain, where he wrote his Columbus (1828), followed by The Companions of Columbus (1831). Meanwhile, Irving had become absorbed in the legends of the Moorish past and wrote A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and The Alhambra (1832), a Spanish counterpart of The Sketch Book.

After a 17-year absence Irving returned to New York in 1832, where he was warmly received. He made a journey west and produced in rapid succession A Tour of the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). Except for four years (1842–46) as minister to Spain, Irving spent the remainder of his life at his home, “Sunnyside,” in Tarrytown, on the Hudson River, where he devoted himself to literary pursuits.
 

 

 


James Fenimore Cooper





James Fenimore Cooper, (b. September 15, 1789, Burlington, New Jersey, U.S.—d. September 14, 1851, Cooperstown, New York), first major U.S. novelist, author of the novels of frontier adventure known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring the wilderness scout called Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye. They include The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841).

Early years
Cooper’s mother, Elizabeth Fenimore, was a member of a respectable New Jersey Quaker family, and his father, William, founded a frontier settlement at the source of the Susquehanna River (now Cooperstown, New York) and served as a Federalist congressman during the administrations of George Washington and John Adams. It was a most appropriate family background for a writer who, by the time of his death, was generally considered America’s “national novelist.”

James was but a year old when William Cooper moved his family to the primitive settlement in upstate New York. He was doubtless fortunate to be the 11th of 12 children, for he was spared the worst hardships of frontier life while he was able to benefit educationally from both the rich oral traditions of his family and a material prosperity that afforded him a gentleman’s education. After private schooling in Albany, Cooper attended Yale from 1803 to 1805. Little is known of his college career other than that he was the best Latin scholar of his class and was expelled in his junior year because of a prank. Since high spirits seemed to fit him for an active life, his family allowed him to join the navy as a midshipman. But prolonged shore duty at several New York stations merely substituted naval for academic discipline. His father’s death in 1809 left him financially independent, and in 1811 he married Susan De Lancy and resigned from the navy.

For 10 years after his marriage Cooper led the active but unproductive life of a dilettante, dabbling in agriculture, politics, the American Bible Society, and the Westchester militia. It was in this amateur spirit that he wrote and published his first fiction, reputedly on a challenge from his wife. Precaution (1820) was a plodding imitation of Jane Austen’s novels of English gentry manners. It is mainly interesting today as a document in the history of American cultural colonialism and as an example of a clumsy attempt to imitate Jane Austen’s investigation of the ironic discrepancy between illusion and reality. His second novel, The Spy (1821), was based on another British model, Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverley” novels, stories of adventure and romance set in 17th- and 18th-century Scotland. But in The Spy Cooper broke new ground by using an American Revolutionary War setting (based partly on the experiences of his wife’s British loyalist family) and by introducing several distinctively American character types. Like Scott’s novels of Scotland, The Spy is a drama of conflicting loyalties and interests in which the action mirrors and expresses more subtle internal psychological tensions. The Spy soon brought him international fame and a certain amount of wealth. The latter was very welcome, indeed necessary, since his father’s estate had proved less ample than had been thought, and, with the death of his elder brothers, he had found himself responsible for the debts and widows of the entire Cooper family.


Novels
The first of the renowned “Leatherstocking” tales, The Pioneers (1823), followed and adhered to the successful formula of The Spy, reproducing its basic thematic conflicts and utilizing family traditions once again. In The Pioneers, however, the traditions were those of William Cooper of Cooperstown, who appears as Judge Temple of Templeton, along with many other lightly disguised inhabitants of James’s boyhood village. No known prototype exists, however, for the novel’s principal character—the former wilderness scout Natty Bumppo, alias Leatherstocking. The Leatherstocking of The Pioneers is an aged man, of rough but sterling character, who ineffectually opposes “the march of progress,” namely, the agricultural frontier and its chief spokesman, Judge Temple. Fundamentally, the conflict is between rival versions of the American Eden: the “God’s Wilderness” of Leatherstocking and the cultivated garden of Judge Temple. Since Cooper himself was deeply attracted to both ideals, he was able to create a powerful and moving story of frontier life. Indeed, The Pioneers is both the first and finest detailed portrait of frontier life in American literature; it is also the first truly original American novel.

Both Cooper and his public were fascinated by the Leatherstocking character. He was encouraged to write a series of sequels in which the entire life of the frontier scout was gradually unfolded. The Last of the Mohicans (1826) takes the reader back to the French and Indian wars of Natty’s middle age, when he is at the height of his powers. That work was succeeded by The Prairie (1827) in which, now very old and philosophical, Leatherstocking dies, facing the westering sun he has so long followed. (The five novels of the series were not written in their narrative order.) Identified from the start with the vanishing wilderness and its natives, Leatherstocking was an unalterably elegiac figure, wifeless and childless, hauntingly loyal to a lost cause. This conception of the character was not fully realized in The Pioneers, however, because Cooper’s main concern with depicting frontier life led him to endow Leatherstocking with some comic traits and make his laments, at times, little more than whines or grumbles. But in these sequels Cooper retreated stylistically from a realistic picture of the frontier in order to portray a more idyllic and romantic wilderness; by doing so he could exploit the parallels between the American Indians and the forlorn Celtic heroes of James Macpherson’s pseudo-epic Ossian, leaving Leatherstocking intact but slightly idealized and making extensive use of Macpherson’s imagery and rhetoric.

Cooper intended to bury Leatherstocking in The Prairie, but many years later he resuscitated the character and portrayed his early maturity in The Pathfinder (1840) and his youth in The Deerslayer (1841). These novels, in which Natty becomes the centre of romantic interest for the first time, carry the idealization process further. In The Pathfinder he is explicitly described as an American Adam, while in The Deerslayer he demonstrates his fitness as a warrior-saint by passing a series of moral trials and revealing a keen, though untutored, aesthetic sensibility.

The “Leatherstocking” tales are Cooper’s great imperfect masterpiece, but he continued to write many other volumes of fiction and nonfiction. His fourth novel, The Pilot (1823), inaugurated a series of sea novels, which were at once as popular and influential as the “Leatherstocking” tales. And they were more authentic: such Westerners as General Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan Territory, and Mark Twain might ridicule Cooper’s woodcraft, but old salts like Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad rightly admired and learned from his sea stories, in particular The Red Rover (1827) and The Sea Lions (1849). Never before in prose fiction had the sea become not merely a theatre for, but the principal actor in, moral drama that celebrated man’s courage and skill at the same time that it revealed him humbled by the forces of God’s nature. As developed by Cooper, and later by Melville, the sea novel became a powerful vehicle for spiritual as well as moral exploration. Not satisfied with mere fictional treatment of life at sea, Cooper also wrote a meticulously researched, highly readable History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839).


Cultural and political involvement
Though most renowned as a prolific novelist, he did not simply retire to his study after the success of The Spy. Between 1822 and 1826 he lived in New York City and participated in its intellectual life, founding the Bread and Cheese Club, which included such members as the poets Fitz-Greene Halleck and William Cullen Bryant, the painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, and the great Federalist judge James Kent. Like Cooper himself, these were men active in both cultural and political affairs.

Cooper’s own increasing liberalism was confirmed by a lengthy stay (1826–33) in Europe, where he moved for the education of his son and four daughters. Those years coincided with a period of revolutionary ferment in Europe, and, because of a close friendship that he developed with the old American Revolutionary War hero Lafayette, he was kept well-informed about Europe’s political developments. Through his novels, most notably The Bravo (1831), and other more openly polemical writings, he attacked the corruption and tyranny of oligarchical regimes in Europe. His active championship of the principles of political democracy (though never of social egalitarianism) coincided with a steep decline in his literary popularity in America, which he attributed to a decline in democratic feeling among the reading—i.e. the propertied—classes to which he himself belonged.


Return to America
When he returned to America, he settled first in New York City and then for the remainder of his life in Cooperstown. In the gentlemanly tradition of Jefferson and Lafayette he attacked the oligarchical party of his day, in this case the Whig Party, which opposed President Andrew Jackson, the exponent of a more egalitarian form of democracy. The Whigs, however, were soon able to turn the tables on Cooper and other leading Jacksonians by employing Jackson’s egalitarian rhetoric against them. Squire Cooper had made himself especially vulnerable to popular feeling when, in 1837, he refused to let local citizens picnic on a family property known as Three Mile Point. This incident led to a whole series of charges of libel, and suits and countersuits by both the Whigs and Cooper. At this time, too, agrarian riots on the estates of his old New York friends shattered his simple Jeffersonian faith in the virtue of the American farmer. All of this conflict and unrest was hard to bear, and harder still because he was writing more and earning less as the years went by. The public, which had reveled in his early forest and sea romances, was not interested in his acute political treatise, The American Democrat (1838), or even in such political satires as The Monikins (1835) or Home As Found (1838). And though he wrote some of his best romances—particularly the later “Leatherstocking” tales and Satanstoe (1845)—during the last decade of his life, profits from publishing so diminished that he gained little benefit from improved popularity. Though his circumstances were never straitened, he had to go on writing; and some of the later novels, such as Mercedes of Castile (1840) or Jack Tier (1846–48), were mere hackwork. His buoyant political optimism had largely given way to calm Christian faith, though he never lost his troubled concern for the well-being of his country.

George G. Dekker
 

 

 


Edgar Allan Poe

1. "Ligeia"
2. "The Raven" Illustrations by Gustave Dore
3.
"The Fall of the House of Usher"
4. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Edmund Dulac
5. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Harry Clarke





born Jan. 19, 1809, Boston, Mass., U.S.
died Oct. 7, 1849, Baltimore, Md.


American short-story writer, poet, critic, and editor who is famous for his cultivation of mystery and the macabre. His tale “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) initiated the modern detective story, and the atmosphere in his tales of horror is unrivaled in American fiction. His “The Raven” (1845) numbers among the best-known poems in the national literature.

Life.

Poe was the son of the English-born actress Elizabeth ArnoldPoe and David Poe, Jr., an actor from Baltimore. After his mother died in Richmond, Va., in 1811, he was taken into the home of John Allan, a Richmond merchant (presumably his godfather), and of his childless wife. He was later taken to Scotland and England (1815–20), where he was given a classical education that was continued in Richmond. For 11 months in 1826 he attended the University of Virginia, but his gambling losses at the university so incensed his guardian that he refused to let him continue, and Poe returned to Richmond to find his sweetheart, (Sarah) Elmira Royster, engaged. He went to Boston, where in 1827 he published a pamphlet of youthful Byronic poems, Tamerlane, and Other Poems. Poverty forced him to join the army under the name of Edgar A. Perry, but on the death of Poe's foster mother, John Allan purchased his release from the army and helped in getting him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Before going, Poe published a new volume at Baltimore, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829). He successfully sought expulsion from the academy, where he was absent from all drills and classes for a week. He proceeded to New York City and brought out a volume of Poems, containing several masterpieces, some showing the influence of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He then returned to Baltimore, where he began to write stories. In 1833 his “MS. Found in a Bottle” won $50 from a Baltimore weekly, and by 1835 he was in Richmond as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. There he made a name as a critical reviewer and married his young cousin Virginia Clemm, who was only 13. Poe seems to have been an affectionate husband and son-in-law.

Poe was dismissed from his job in Richmond, apparently for drinking, and went to New York City. Drinking was in fact to be the bane of his life. To talk well in a large company he needed a slight stimulant, but a glass of sherry might start him on a spree; and, although he rarely succumbed to intoxication, he was often seen in public when he did. This gave rise to the conjecture that Poe was a drug addict, but according to medical testimony he had a brain lesion. While in New York City in 1838 he published a long prose narrative, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, combining (as so often in his tales) much factual material with the wildest fancies. Itis considered one inspiration of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. In 1839 he became coeditor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia. There a contract for a monthly feature stimulated him to write “William Wilson” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” stories of supernatural horror. The latter contains a study of a neurotic now known to have been an acquaintance of Poe, not Poe himself.

Later in 1839 his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque appeared (dated 1840). He resigned from Burton's about June 1840 but returned in 1841 to edit its successor, Graham's La dy's and Gentleman's Magazine, in which he printed the first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In 1843 his “The Gold Bug” won a prize of $100 from the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, which gave him great publicity. In 1844 he returned to New York, wrote the “Balloon Hoax” for the Sun, and became subeditor of the New York Mirror under N.P. Willis, thereafter a lifelong friend. In the New York Mirror of Jan. 29, 1845, appeared, from advance sheets of the American Review, his most famous poem, “The Raven,” which gave him national fame at once. Poe then became editor of the Broadway Journal, a short-lived weekly, in which he republished most of his short stories, in 1845. During this last year the now forgotten poet Frances Sargent Locke Osgood pursued Poe. Virginia did notobject, but “Fanny's” indiscreet writings about her literary love caused great scandal. His The Raven and Other Poems and a selection of his Tales came out in 1845, and in 1846 Poe moved to a cottage at Fordham (now part of New York City), where he wrote for Godey's Lady's Book (May–October 1846) “Literati of New York”—gossipy sketches on personalities of the day, which led to a libel suit.

His wife, Virginia, died in January 1847. The following year Poe went to Providence, R.I., to woo Sarah Helen Whitman, a poet. There was a brief engagement. Poe had close but platonic entanglements with Annie Richmond and with SarahAnna Lewis, who helped him financially. He composed poetic tributes to all of them. In 1848 he also published the lecture “Eureka,” a transcendental “explanation” of the universe, which has been hailed as a masterpiece by some critics and as nonsense by others. In 1849 he went south, hada wild spree in Philadelphia, but got safely to Richmond, where he finally became engaged to Elmira Royster, by then the widowed Mrs. Shelton, and spent a happy summer with only one or two relapses. He enjoyed the companionship of childhood friends and an unromantic friendship with a youngpoet, Susan Archer Talley.

Poe had some forebodings of death when he left Richmond for Baltimore late in September. There, after toasting a lady at her birthday party, he began to drink heavily. The indulgence proved fatal, for Poe had a weak heart. He was buried in Westminster Presbyterian churchyard in Baltimore.


Appraisal.

Poe's work owes much to the concern of Romanticism with the occult and the satanic. It owes much also to his own feverish dreams, to which he applied a rare faculty of shaping plausible fabrics out of impalpable materials. With an air of objectivity and spontaneity, his productions are closely dependent on his own powers of imagination and an elaborate technique. His keen and sound judgment as appraiser of contemporary literature, his idealism and musical gift as a poet, his dramatic art as a storyteller, considerably appreciated in his lifetime, secured him a prominent place among universally known men of letters.

The outstanding fact in Poe's character is a strange duality. The wide divergence of contemporary judgments on the manseems almost to point to the coexistence of two persons in him. With those he loved he was gentle and devoted. Others, who were the butt of his sharp criticism, found him irritable and self-centred and went so far as to accuse him of lack of principle. Was it, it has been asked, a double of the man rising from harrowing nightmares or from the haggard inner vision of dark crimes or from appalling graveyard fantasies that loomed in Poe's unstable being?

Much of Poe's best work is concerned with terror and sadness, but in ordinary circumstances the poet was a pleasant companion. He talked brilliantly, chiefly of literature, and read his own poetry and that of others in a voice of surpassing beauty. He admired Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. He had a sense of humour, apologizing to a visitor for not keep ing a pet raven. If the mind of Poe is considered, the duality is still more striking. On one side, he was an idealist and a visionary. His yearning for the ideal was both of the heart and of the imagination. His sensitiveness to the beauty and sweetness of women inspired his most touching lyrics (“To Helen,” “Annabel Lee,”“Eulalie,” “To One in Paradise”) and the full-toned prose hymns to beauty and love in “Ligeia” and “Eleonora.” In “Israfel” his imagination carried him away from the material world into a dreamland. This Pythian mood was especially characteristic of the later years of his life.

More generally, in such verses as “The Valley of Unrest,” “Lenore,” “The Raven,” “For Annie,” and “Ulalume” and in his prose tales his familiar mode of evasion from the universe of common experience was through eerie thoughts,impulses, or fears. From these materials he drew the startling effects of his tales of death (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Premature Burial,” “The Oval Portrait,” “Shadow”), his tales of wickedness and crime (“Berenice,” “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” “Imp of the Perverse,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”), his tales of survival after dissolution (“Ligeia,” “Morella,” “Metzengerstein”), and his tales of fatality (“The Assignation,” “The Man of the Crowd”). Even when he does not hurl his characters into the clutch of mysterious forces oronto the untrodden paths of the beyond, he uses the anguishof imminent death as the means of causing the nerves to quiver (“The Pit and the Pendulum”), and his grotesque invention deals with corpses and decay in an uncanny play with the aftermath of death.

On the other side, Poe is conspicuous for a close observation of minute details, as in the long narratives and in many of the descriptions that introduce the tales or constitute their settings. Closely connected with this is his power of ratiocination. He prided himself on his logic and carefully handled this real accomplishment so as to impress the public with his possessing still more of it than he had; hence the would-be feats of thought reading, problem unravelling, and cryptography that he attributed to his Legrand and Dupin. This suggested to him the analytical tales, which created the detective story, and his science fiction tales.

The same duality is evinced in his art. He was capable of writing angelic or weird poetry, with a supreme sense of rhythm and word appeal, or prose of sumptuous beauty and suggestiveness, with the apparent abandon of compelling inspiration; yet he would write down a problem of morbid psychology or the outlines of an unrelenting plot in a hard and dry style. In Poe's masterpieces the double contents of his temper, of his mind, and of his art are fused into a oneness of tone, structure, and movement, the more effective, perhaps, as it is compounded of various elements.

As a critic, Poe laid great stress upon correctness of language, metre, and structure. He formulated rules for the short story, in which he sought for the ancient unities: i.e., the short story should relate a complete action and take place within one day in one place. To these unities he added that of mood or effect. He was not extreme in these views, however. He praised longer works and sometimes thought allegories and morals admirable if not crudely presented. Poe admired originality, often in work very different from hisown, and was sometimes an unexpectedly generous critic of decidedly minor writers.

Poe's genius was early recognized abroad. No one did more to persuade the world and, in the long run, the United States, of Poe's greatness than the French poets Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. Indeed his role in Frenchliterature was that of a poetic master model and guide to criticism. French Symbolism relied on his “Philosophy of Composition,” borrowed from his imagery, and used his examples to generate the modern theory of “pure poetry.”

Charles Cestre
Thomas Ollive Mabbott
Jacques Barzun

 

 


John Pendleton Kennedy



 

John P. Kennedy, in full John Pendleton Kennedy, pseudonym Mark Littleton (b. Oct. 25, 1795, Baltimore, Md., U.S.—d. Aug. 18, 1870, Newport, R.I.), American statesman and writer whose best remembered work was his historical fiction.

Kennedy was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1816. From 1821 he served two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates and three terms in the U.S. Congress and was secretary of the navy in the cabinet of President Millard Fillmore. In the latter capacity, he organized Commodore Matthew Perry’s trip to Japan.

Meanwhile, using the pen name of Mark Littleton, Kennedy wrote historical novels, including Swallow Barn (1832), sketches of the post-Revolutionary life of gentlemen on Virginia plantations, and Rob of the Bowl (1838), a tale of colonial Maryland in which Protestants overthrow Roman Catholic control.

Kennedy’s major work of nonfiction is Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt (1849), about the man who was an attorney for the prosecution in the trial of Aaron Burr for treason. He also coedited the satirical magazine Red Book (1818–19) and wrote political articles for the National Intelligencer. His novels were his main achievement, however; although their style was imitative of the work of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, they were capably and imaginatively written.

 

 


William Gilmore Simms






 

William Gilmore Simms, (b. April 17, 1806, Charleston, S.C., U.S.—d. June 11, 1870, Charleston), outstanding Southern novelist.

Motherless at two, Simms was reared by his grandmother while his father fought in the Creek wars and under Jackson at New Orleans in 1814. Simms lived a vicariously adventurous childhood through his father, while absorbing history through his storytelling grandmother who had lived through the Revolution. After attending public schools for four years, when he entered the College of Charleston at 10, he knew enough French, Latin, German, and Spanish to dabble in translations. At 12 he completed the study of materia medica, and left college to become a druggist’s apprentice. He began publishing poetry in Charleston papers at 16. Soon thereafter he joined his itinerant father in the Mississippi frontier country, meeting the people and seeing the life of which he later wrote. He edited a magazine and published a volume of poetry at 19, married at 20, and was admitted to the bar at 21.

Simms was a prodigious worker, whether at Woodlands Plantation in winter, Charleston in summer, or on yearly publishing trips north. As state legislator and magazine and newspaper editor, he became embroiled in political and literary quarrels. From Charleston and the South he nevertheless received lifelong praise approaching adulation; from the North, wide audience and eminent literary friendships despite his strong defense of slavery. Though his life was shadowed by defeat of the Confederacy, the death of his second wife, poverty, and the destruction of his home and library during the passage of Sherman’s army, his letters attest a figure long underestimated by literary historians. Although not born into the social and literary circles of Charleston, he was eventually made a member of the city’s most select group, the St. Cecilia Society.

Simms has been criticized for writing too much, too carelessly, and with too frequent use of stock devices; he was at his best the master of a racy and masculine English prose style and in dealing humorously with rowdy frontier characters. His gift as a teller of tales in the oral tradition and the antiquarian care he took in preparing historical materials are dominant features of such works as Pelayo (1838), in an 8th-century setting; Vasconselos (1853), 16th century; The Yemassee (1835; his most successful work in audience appeal), colonial; the revolutionary series—The Partisan (1835), Mellichampe (1836), The Kinsmen (1841), Katherine Walton (1851), Woodcraft (1854), The Forayers (1855), Eutaw (1856), Joscelyn (1867); his best border romances—Richard Hurdis (1838) and Border Beagles (1840); his short-story collection The Wigwam and the Cabin (1845); and his History of South Carolina (1840). Of 19 volumes of poetry, the collected Poems (1853) deserve mention. Most popular of his biographies were The Life of Francis Marion (1844) and The Life of Chevalier Bayard (1847). His literary criticism is represented in Views and Reviews of American Literature (1845).
 




American Renaissance


The authors who began to come to prominence in the 1830s and were active until about the end of the Civil War—the humorists, the classic New Englanders, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and others—did their work in a new spirit, and their achievements were of a new sort. In part this was because they were in some way influenced by the broadening democratic concepts that in 1829 triumphed in Andrew Jackson’s inauguration as president. In part it was because, in this Romantic period of emphasis upon native scenes and characters in many literatures, they put much of America into their books.

Particularly full of vivid touches were the writings of two groups of American humorists whose works appeared between 1830 and 1867. One group created several down-east Yankee characters who used commonsense arguments to comment upon the political and social scene. The most important of this group were Seba Smith, James Russell Lowell, and Benjamin P. Shillaber. These authors caught the talk and character of New England at that time as no one else had done. In the old Southwest, meanwhile, such writers as Davy Crockett, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson J. Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Joseph G. Baldwin, and George Washington Harris drew lively pictures of the ebullient frontier and showed the interest in the common man that was a part of Jacksonian democracy.
 


James Russell Lowell




 

James Russell Lowell, (b. Feb. 22, 1819, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.—d. Aug. 12, 1891, Cambridge), American poet, critic, essayist, editor, and diplomat whose major significance probably lies in the interest in literature he helped develop in the United States. He was a highly influential man of letters in his day, but his reputation declined in the 20th century.

A member of a distinguished New England family, Lowell graduated from Harvard in 1838 and in 1840 took his degree in law, though his academic career had been lacklustre and he did not care to practice law for a profession. In 1844 he was married to the gifted poet Maria White, who had inspired his poems in A Year’s Life (1841) and who would help him channel his energies into fruitful directions.

In 1845 Lowell published Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, a collection of critical essays that included pleas for the abolition of slavery. From 1845 to 1850 he wrote about 50 antislavery articles for periodicals. Even more effective in this regard were his Biglow Papers, which he began to serialize June 17, 1846, and the first series of which were collected in book form in 1848. In these satirical verses, Lowell uses a humorous and original New England dialect to express his opposition to the Mexican War as an attempt to extend the area of slavery. The year 1848 also saw the publication of Lowell’s two other most important pieces of writing: The Vision of Sir Launfal, an enormously popular long poem extolling the brotherhood of man; and A Fable for Critics, a witty and rollicking verse evaluation of contemporary American authors. These books, together with the publication that year of the second series of his Poems, made Lowell the most popular new figure in American literature.

The death of three of Lowell’s children was followed by the death of his wife in 1853. Henceforth his literary production comprised mainly prose essays on topics of literature, history, and politics. In 1855 his lectures on English poets before the Lowell Institute led to his appointment as Smith professor of modern languages at Harvard University, succeeding Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After a yearlong visit to Italy and Germany in 1855–56 to study, he held this professorship for the next 20 years. In 1857 he married Frances Dunlap, who had cared for his only remaining child, Mabel; and in that year he began his four years’ editorship of the new Atlantic Monthly, to which he attracted the major New England authors. Lowell wrote a second series of Biglow Papers for the Atlantic Monthly that were devoted to Unionism and that were collected in book form in 1867. After the American Civil War he expressed his devotion to the Union cause in four memorial odes, the best of which is “Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration” (1865). His essays such as “E Pluribus Unum” and “Washers of the Shroud” (1862) also reflect his thought at this time.

Disillusioned by the political corruption evident in President Ulysses S. Grant’s two administrations (1869–77), Lowell tried to provide his fellow Americans with models of heroism and idealism in literature. He was editor with Charles Eliot Norton of North American Review from 1864 to 1872, and during this time appeared his series of critical essays on such major literary figures as Dante, Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, William Shakespeare, John Dryden, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. These and other critical essays were collected in the two series of Among My Books (1870, 1876). His later poetry includes The Cathedral (1870), a long and ambitious but only partly successful poem that deals with the conflicting claims of religion and modern science.

President Rutherford B. Hayes rewarded Lowell’s support in the Republican convention in 1876 by appointing him minister to Spain (1877–80) and ambassador to Great Britain (1880–85). Lowell won great popularity in England’s literary and political circles and served as president of the Wordsworth Society, succeeding Matthew Arnold. After his second wife died in 1885, Lowell retired from public life.

Lowell was the archetypal New England man of letters, remarkable for his cultivation and charm, his deep learning, and his varied literary talents. He wrote his finest works before he was 30 years old, however, and most of his subsequent writings lack vitality. The totality of his work, though brilliant in parts, ultimately suffers from a lack of focus and a failure to follow up on his undoubted early successes.
 




New England Brahmins

Although Lowell for a time was one of these writers of rather earthy humour, his lifelong ties were to a group of New England writers associated with Harvard and Cambridge, Massachusetts—the Brahmins, as they came to be called—at an opposite extreme. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell were all aristocrats, all steeped in foreign culture, all professors at Harvard.

Longfellow
adapted European methods of storytelling and versifying to narrative poems dealing with American history, and a few of his less didactic lyrics perfectly married technique and subject matter.

Holmes
, in occasional poems and his “Breakfast Table” series (1858–91), brought touches of urbanity and jocosity to a perhaps oversober polite literature.
Lowell
, in poems descriptive of the out-of-doors in America, put much of his homeland into verse. His odes—particularly the Harvard Commemoration Ode (1865)—gave fine expression to noble sentiments.
 


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"The Song of Hiawatha"





 

American poet

born Feb. 27, 1807, Portland, Mass. [now in Maine], U.S.
died March 24, 1882, Cambridge, Mass.

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the most popular American poet in the 19th century.

Longfellow attended private schools and the Portland Academy. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825. At college he was attracted especially to Sir Walter Scott’s romances and Washington Irving’s Sketch Book, and his verses appeared in national magazines. He was so fluent in translating that on graduation he was offered a professorship in modern languages provided that he would first study in Europe.

On the continent he learned French, Spanish, and Italian but refused to settle down to a regimen of scholarship at any university. In 1829 he returned to the United States to be a professor and librarian at Bowdoin. He wrote and edited textbooks, translated poetry and prose, and wrote essays on French, Spanish, and Italian literature, but he felt isolated. When he was offered a professorship at Harvard, with another opportunity to go abroad, he accepted and set forth for Germany in 1835. On this trip he visited England, Sweden, and The Netherlands. In 1835, saddened by the death of his first wife, whom he had married in 1831, he settled at Heidelberg, where he fell under the influence of German Romanticism.

In 1836 Longfellow returned to Harvard and settled in the famous Craigie House, which was later given to him as a wedding present when he remarried in 1843. His travel sketches, Outre-Mer (1835), did not succeed. In 1839 he published Voices of the Night, which contained the poems “Hymn to the Night,” “The Psalm of Life,” and “The Light of the Stars” and achieved immediate popularity. That same year Longfellow published Hyperion, a romantic novel idealizing his European travels. In 1841 his Ballads and Other Poems, containing such favourites as “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Village Blacksmith,” swept the nation. The antislavery sentiments he expressed in Poems on Slavery (1842), however, lacked the humanity and power of John Greenleaf Whittier’s denunciations on the same theme. Longfellow was more at home in Evangeline (1847), a narrative poem that reached almost every literate home in the United States. It is a sentimental tale of two lovers separated when British soldiers expel the Acadians (French colonists) from what is now Nova Scotia. The lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, are reunited years later as Gabriel is dying.

Longfellow presided over Harvard’s modern-language program for 18 years and then left teaching in 1854. In 1855, using Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s two books on the Indian tribes of North America as the base and the trochaic metrics of the Finnish epic Kalevala as his medium, he fashioned The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Its appeal to the public was immediate. Hiawatha is an Ojibwa Indian who, after various mythic feats, becomes his people’s leader and marries Minnehaha before departing for the Isles of the Blessed. Both the poem and its singsong metre have been frequent objects of parody.

Longfellow’s long poem The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) was another great popular success. But the death in 1861 of his second wife after she accidentally set her dress on fire plunged him into melancholy. Driven by the need for spiritual relief, he translated the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, producing one of the most notable translations to that time, and wrote six sonnets on Dante that are among his finest poems.

The Tales of a Wayside Inn, modeled roughly on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and published in 1863, reveals his narrative gift. The first poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” became a national favourite. Written in anapestic tetrameter meant to suggest the galloping of a horse, this folk ballad recalls a hero of the American Revolution and his famous “midnight ride” to warn the Americans about the impending British raid on Concord, Mass. Though its account of Revere’s ride is historically inaccurate, the poem created an American legend. Longfellow published in 1872 what he intended to be his masterpiece, Christus: A Mystery, a trilogy dealing with Christianity from its beginning. He followed this work with two fragmentary dramatic poems, “Judas Maccabaeus” and “Michael Angelo.” But his genius was not dramatic, as he had demonstrated earlier in The Spanish Student (1843). Long after his death in 1882, however, these neglected later works were seen to contain some of his most effective writing.

During his lifetime Longfellow was loved and admired both at home and abroad. In 1884 he was honoured by the placing of a memorial bust in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, the first American to be so recognized. Sweetness, gentleness, simplicity, and a romantic vision shaded by melancholy are the characteristic features of Longfellow’s poetry. He possessed great metrical skill, but he failed to capture the American spirit like his great contemporary Walt Whitman, and his work generally lacks emotional depth and imaginative power. Some years after Longfellow’s death a violent reaction set in against his verse as critics dismissed his conventional high-minded sentiments and the gentle strain of Romanticism that he had made so popular. This harsh critical assessment, which tried to reduce him to the status of a mere hearthside rhymer, was perhaps as unbalanced as the adulation he had received during his lifetime. Some of Longfellow’s sonnets and other lyrics are still among the finest in American poetry, and Hiawatha, “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” Evangeline, and “Paul Revere’s Ride” have become inseparable parts of the American heritage. Longfellow’s immense popularity helped raise the status of poetry in his country, and he played an important part in bringing European cultural traditions to American audiences.

 

 

 


Oliver Wendell Holmes



 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, (b. Aug. 29, 1809, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.—d. Oct. 7, 1894, Cambridge), American physician, poet, and humorist notable for his medical research and teaching, and as the author of the “Breakfast-Table” series of essays.

Holmes read law at Harvard University before deciding on a medical career; and, following studies at Harvard and in Paris, he received his degree from Harvard in 1836. He practiced medicine for 10 years, taught anatomy for two years at Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.), and in 1847 became professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard. He was later made dean of the Harvard Medical School, a post he held until 1882. His most important medical contribution was that of calling attention to the contagiousness of puerperal fever (1843).

Holmes achieved his greatest fame, however, as a humorist and poet. He wrote much poetry and comic verse during his early school years; he won national acclaim with the publication of “Old Ironsides” (1830), which aroused public sentiment against destruction of the USS Constitution, an American fighting ship from the War of 1812. Beginning in 1857, he contributed his “Breakfast-Table” papers to The Atlantic Monthly and subsequently published The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858), The Professor of the Breakfast-Table (1860), The Poet of the Breakfast-Table (1872), and Over the Teacups (1891), written in conversational style and displaying Holmes’s learning and wit.

Among his other works are the poems “The Chambered Nautilus” (1858) and “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or ‘The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay’ ” (1858), often seen as an attack on Calvinism, and the psychological novel Elsie Venner (1861), also an attack on Calvinism that aroused controversy.
 




The Transcendentalists

Concord, Massachusetts, a village not far from Cambridge, was the home of leaders of another important New England group. The way for this group had been prepared by the rise of a theological system, Unitarianism, which early in the 19th century had replaced Calvinism as the faith of a large share of the New Englanders.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, most famous of the Concord philosophers, started as a Unitarian minister but found even that liberal doctrine too confining for his broad beliefs. He became a Transcendentalist who, like other ancient and modern Platonists, trusted to insights transcending logic and experience for revelations of the deepest truths. His scheme of things ranged from the lowest objects and most practical chores to soaring flights of imagination and inspired beliefs. His Essays (1841–44), Representative Men (1850), and English Traits (1856) were thoughtful and poetic explanations of his beliefs; and his rough-hewn lyrics, packed with thought and feeling, were as close to 17th-century Metaphysical poems as any produced in his own time.

An associate of Emerson with a salty personality of his own and an individual way of thinking, Henry David Thoreau, a sometime surveyor, labourer, and naturalist, was closer to the earthy and the practical than even Emerson was. He also was more of a humorist—a dry Yankee commentator with a flair for paradoxical phrases and sentences. Finally, he was a learned man, widely read in Western classics and books of the Orient. These qualities gave distinction to A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and to Walden (1854). The latter was a record of his experiences and ponderings during the time he lived in a hut by Walden Pond—a defense of his belief that modern man should simplify his demands if need be to “suck out all the marrow of life.” In his essay Civil Disobedience (1849; originally titled Resistance to Civil Government), Thoreau expounded his anarchistic views of government, insisting that if an injustice of government is “of such a nature that it requires injustice to another [you should] break the law [and] let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Associated with these two major figures were such minor Transcendentalists as Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Jones Very. Fuller edited The Dial, the chief Transcendental magazine, and was important in the feminist movement.
 


Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Nature"





 

American author

born May 25, 1803, Boston, Mass., U.S.
died April 27, 1882, Concord, Mass.

Main
American lecturer, poet, and essayist, the leading exponent of New England Transcendentalism.

Early life and works.
Emerson was the son of the Reverend William Emerson, a Unitarian clergyman and friend of the arts. The son inherited the profession of divinity, which had attracted all his ancestors in direct line from Puritan days. The family of his mother, Ruth Haskins, was strongly Anglican, and among influences on Emerson were such Anglican writers and thinkers as Ralph Cudworth, Robert Leighton, Jeremy Taylor, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

On May 12, 1811, Emerson’s father died, leaving the son largely to the intellectual care of Mary Moody Emerson, his aunt, who took her duties seriously. In 1812 Emerson entered the Boston Public Latin School, where his juvenile verses were encouraged and his literary gifts recognized. In 1817 he entered Harvard College, where he began his journals, which may be the most remarkable record of the “march of Mind” to appear in the United States. He graduated in 1821 and taught school while preparing for part-time study in the Harvard Divinity School. Though Emerson was licensed to preach in the Unitarian community in 1826, illness slowed the progress of his career, and he was not ordained to the Unitarian ministry at the Second Church, Boston, until 1829. There he began to win fame as a preacher, and his position seemed secure. In 1829 he also married Ellen Louisa Tucker. When she died of tuberculosis in 1831, his grief drove him to question his beliefs and his profession. But in the previous few years Emerson had already begun to question Christian doctrines. His older brother William, who had gone to Germany, had acquainted him with the new biblical criticism and the doubts that had been cast on the historicity of miracles. Emerson’s own sermons, from the first, had been unusually free of traditional doctrine and were instead a personal exploration of the uses of spirit, showing an idealistic tendency and announcing his personal doctrine of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Indeed, his sermons had divested Christianity of all external or historical supports and made its basis one’s private intuition of the universal moral law and its test a life of virtuous accomplishment. Unitarianism had little appeal to him by now, and in 1832 he resigned from the ministry.
 


Mature life and works.
When Emerson left the church, he was in search of a more certain conviction of God than that granted by the historical evidences of miracles. He wanted his own revelation—i.e., a direct and immediate experience of God. When he left his pulpit he journeyed to Europe. In Paris he saw Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu’s collection of natural specimens arranged in a developmental order that confirmed his belief in man’s spiritual relation to nature. In England he paid memorable visits to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle. At home once more in 1833, he began to write Nature and established himself as a popular and influential lecturer. By 1834 he had found a permanent dwelling place in Concord, Mass., and in the following year he married Lydia Jackson and settled into the kind of quiet domestic life that was essential to his work.

The 1830s saw Emerson become an independent literary man. During this decade his own personal doubts and difficulties were increasingly shared by other intellectuals. Before the decade was over his personal manifestos—Nature, “The American Scholar,” and the divinity school Address—had rallied together a group that came to be called the Transcendentalists, of which he was popularly acknowledged the spokesman. Emerson helped initiate Transcendentalism by publishing anonymously in Boston in 1836 a little book of 95 pages entitled Nature. Having found the answers to his spiritual doubts, he formulated his essential philosophy, and almost everything he ever wrote afterward was an extension, amplification, or amendment of the ideas he first affirmed in Nature.

Emerson’s religious doubts had lain deeper than his objection to the Unitarians’ retention of belief in the historicity of miracles. He was also deeply unsettled by Newtonian physics’ mechanistic conception of the universe and by the Lockean psychology of sensation that he had learned at Harvard. Emerson felt that there was no place for free will in the chains of mechanical cause and effect that rationalist philosophers conceived the world as being made up of. This world could be known only through the senses rather than through thought and intuition; it determined men physically and psychologically; and yet it made them victims of circumstance, beings whose superfluous mental powers were incapable of truly ascertaining reality.

Emerson reclaimed an idealistic philosophy from this dead end of 18th-century rationalism by once again asserting the human ability to transcend the materialistic world of sense experience and facts and become conscious of the all-pervading spirit of the universe and the potentialities of human freedom. God could best be found by looking inward into one’s own self, one’s own soul, and from such an enlightened self-awareness would in turn come freedom of action and the ability to change one’s world according to the dictates of one’s ideals and conscience. Human spiritual renewal thus proceeds from the individual’s intimate personal experience of his own portion of the divine “oversoul,” which is present in and permeates the entire creation and all living things, and which is accessible if only a person takes the trouble to look for it. Emerson enunciates how “reason,” which to him denotes the intuitive awareness of eternal truth, can be relied upon in ways quite different from one’s reliance on “understanding”—i.e., the ordinary gathering of sense-data and the logical comprehension of the material world. Emerson’s doctrine of self-sufficiency and self-reliance naturally springs from his view that the individual need only look into his own heart for the spiritual guidance that has hitherto been the province of the established churches. The individual must then have the courage to be himself and to trust the inner force within him as he lives his life according to his intuitively derived precepts.

Obviously these ideas are far from original, and it is clear that Emerson was influenced in his formulation of them by his previous readings of Neoplatonist philosophy, the works of Coleridge and other European Romantics, the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Hindu philosophy, and other sources. What set Emerson apart from others who were expressing similar Transcendentalist notions were his abilities as a polished literary stylist able to express his thought with vividness and breadth of vision. His philosophical exposition has a peculiar power and an organic unity whose cumulative effect was highly suggestive and stimulating to his contemporary readers’ imaginations.

In a lecture entitled “The American Scholar” (Aug. 31, 1837), Emerson described the resources and duties of the new liberated intellectual that he himself had become. This address was in effect a challenge to the Harvard intelligentsia, warning against pedantry, imitation of others, traditionalism, and scholarship unrelated to life. Emerson’s “Address at Divinity College,” Harvard University, in 1838 was another challenge, this time directed against a lifeless Christian tradition, especially Unitarianism as he had known it. He dismissed religious institutions and the divinity of Jesus as failures in man’s attempt to encounter deity directly through the moral principle or through an intuited sentiment of virtue. This address alienated many, left him with few opportunities to preach, and resulted in his being ostracized by Harvard for many years. Young disciples, however, joined the informal Transcendental Club (founded in 1836) and encouraged him in his activities.

In 1840 he helped launch The Dial, first edited by Margaret Fuller and later by himself, thus providing an outlet for the new ideas Transcendentalists were trying to present to America. Though short-lived, the magazine provided a rallying point for the younger members of the school. From his continuing lecture series, he gathered his Essays into two volumes (1841, 1844), which made him internationally famous. In his first volume of Essays Emerson consolidated his thoughts on moral individualism and preached the ethics of self-reliance, the duty of self-cultivation, and the need for the expression of self. The second volume of Essays shows Emerson accommodating his earlier idealism to the limitations of real life; his later works show an increasing acquiescence to the state of things, less reliance on self, greater respect for society, and an awareness of the ambiguities and incompleteness of genius.

His Representative Men (1849) contained biographies of Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. In English Traits he gave a character analysis of a people from which he himself stemmed. The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson’s most mature work, reveals a developed humanism together with a full awareness of man’s limitations. It may be considered as partly confession. Emerson’s collected Poems (1846) were supplemented by others in May-Day (1867), and the two volumes established his reputation as a major American poet.

By the 1860s Emerson’s reputation in America was secure, for time was wearing down the novelty of his rebellion as he slowly accommodated himself to society. He continued to give frequent lectures, but the writing he did after 1860 shows a waning of his intellectual powers. A new generation knew only the old Emerson and had absorbed his teaching without recalling the acrimony it had occasioned. Upon his death in 1882 Emerson was transformed into the Sage of Concord, shorn of his power as a liberator and enrolled among the worthies of the very tradition he had set out to destroy.

Emerson’s voice and rhetoric sustained the faith of thousands in the American lecture circuits between 1834 and the American Civil War. He served as a cultural middleman through whom the aesthetic and philosophical currents of Europe passed to America, and he led his countrymen during the burst of literary glory known as the American renaissance (1835–65). As a principal spokesman for Transcendentalism, the American tributary of European Romanticism, Emerson gave direction to a religious, philosophical, and ethical movement that above all stressed belief in the spiritual potential of every man.
 

 

 


Henry David Thoreau





 

Henry David Thoreau, (b. July 12, 1817, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.—d. May 6, 1862, Concord), American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, renowned for having lived the doctrines of Transcendentalism as recorded in his masterwork, Walden (1854), and for having been a vigorous advocate of civil liberties, as evidenced in the essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849).

Early life
Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. Though his family moved the following year, they returned in 1823. Even when he grew ambivalent about the village after reaching manhood, it remained his world, for he never grew ambivalent about its lovely setting of woodlands, streams, and meadows. Little distinguished his family. He was the third child of a feckless small businessman named John Thoreau and his bustling, talkative wife, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. His parents sent him in 1828 to Concord Academy, where he impressed his teachers and so was permitted to prepare for college. Upon graduating from the academy, he entered Harvard University in 1833. There he was a good student, but he was indifferent to the rank system and preferred to use the school library for his own purposes. Graduating in the middle ranks of the class of 1837, Thoreau searched for a teaching job and secured one at his old grammar school in Concord. But he was no disciplinarian, and he resigned after two shaky weeks, after which he worked for his father in the family pencil-making business. In June 1838 he started a small school with the help of his brother John. Despite its progressive nature, it lasted for three years, until John fell ill.

A canoe trip that he and John took along the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839 confirmed in him the opinion that he ought to be not a schoolmaster but a poet of nature. As the 1840s began, Thoreau took up the profession of poet. He struggled to stay in it and succeeded throughout the decade, only to falter in the 1850s.


Friendship with Emerson
Sheer chance made his entrance to writing easier, for he came under the benign influence of the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had settled in Concord during Thoreau’s sophomore year at Harvard. By the autumn of 1837, they were becoming friends. Emerson sensed in Thoreau a true disciple—that is, one with so much Emersonian self-reliance that he would still be his own man. Thoreau saw in Emerson a guide, a father, and a friend.

With his magnetism Emerson attracted others to Concord. Out of their heady speculations and affirmatives came New England Transcendentalism. In retrospect it was one of the most significant literary movements of 19th-century America, with at least two authors of world stature, Thoreau and Emerson, to its credit. Essentially it combined romanticism with reform. It celebrated the individual rather than the masses, emotion rather than reason, nature rather than man. Transcendentalism conceded that there were two ways of knowing, through the senses and through intuition, but asserted that intuition transcended tuition. Similarly, the movement acknowledged that matter and spirit both existed. It claimed, however, that the reality of spirit transcended the reality of matter. Transcendentalism strove for reform yet insisted that reform begin with the individual, not the group or organization.


Literary career
In Emerson’s company Thoreau’s hope of becoming a poet looked not only proper but feasible. Late in 1837, at Emerson’s suggestion, he began keeping a journal that covered thousands of pages before he scrawled the final entry two months before his death. He soon polished some of his old college essays and composed new and better ones as well. He wrote some poems—a good many, in fact—for several years. Captained by Emerson, the Transcendentalists started a magazine, The Dial; the inaugural issue, dated July 1840, carried Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy” and his essay on the Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus.

The Dial published more of Thoreau’s poems and then, in July 1842, the first of his outdoor essays, “Natural History of Massachusetts.” Though disguised as a book review, it showed that a nature writer of distinction was in the making. Then followed more lyrics, and fine ones, such as “To the Maiden in the East,” and another nature essay, remarkably felicitous, “A Winter Walk.” The Dial ceased publication with the April 1844 issue, having published a richer variety of Thoreau’s writing than any other magazine ever would.

In 1840 Thoreau fell in love with and proposed marriage to an attractive visitor to Concord named Ellen Sewall. She accepted his proposal but then immediately broke off the engagement at the insistence of her parents. He remained a bachelor for life. During two periods, 1841–43 and 1847–48, he stayed mostly at the Emersons’ house. In spite of Emerson’s hospitality and friendship, however, Thoreau grew restless; his condition was accentuated by grief over the death in January 1842 of his brother John, who died of lockjaw after cutting his finger. Later that year he became a tutor in the Staten Island household of Emerson’s brother, William, while trying to cultivate the New York literary market. Thoreau’s literary activities went indifferently, however, and the effort to conquer New York failed. Confirmed in his distaste for city life and disappointed by his lack of success, he returned to Concord in late 1843.


Move to Walden Pond
Back in Concord Thoreau rejoined his family’s business, making pencils and grinding graphite. By early 1845 he felt more restless than ever, until he decided to take up an idea of a Harvard classmate who had once built a waterside hut in which one could loaf or read. In the spring Thoreau picked a spot by Walden Pond, a small glacial lake located 2 miles (3 km) south of Concord on land Emerson owned.

Early in the spring of 1845, Thoreau, then 27 years old, began to chop down tall pines with which to build the foundations of his home on the shores of Walden Pond. From the outset the move gave him profound satisfaction. Once settled, he restricted his diet for the most part to the fruit and vegetables he found growing wild and the beans he planted. When not busy weeding his bean rows and trying to protect them from hungry woodchucks or occupied with fishing, swimming, or rowing, he spent long hours observing and recording the local flora and fauna, reading, and writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). He also made entries in his journals, which he later polished and included in Walden. Much time, too, was spent in meditation.

Out of such activity and thought came Walden, a series of 18 essays describing Thoreau’s experiment in basic living and his effort to set his time free for leisure. Several of the essays provide his original perspective on the meaning of work and leisure and describe his experiment in living as simply and self-sufficiently as possible, while in others Thoreau describes the various realities of life at Walden Pond: his intimacy with the small animals he came in contact with; the sounds, smells, and look of woods and water at various seasons; the music of wind in telegraph wires—in short, the felicities of learning how to fulfill his desire to live as simply and self-sufficiently as possible. The physical act of living day by day at Walden Pond is what gives the book authority, while Thoreau’s command of a clear, straightforward but elegant style helped raise it to the level of a literary classic.

Thoreau stayed for two years at Walden Pond (1845–47). In the summer of 1847 Emerson invited him to stay with his wife and children again, while Emerson himself went to Europe. Thoreau accepted, and in September 1847 he left his cabin forever.

Midway in his Walden sojourn Thoreau had spent a night in jail. On an evening in July 1846 he encountered Sam Staples, the constable and tax gatherer. Staples asked him amiably to pay his poll tax, which Thoreau had omitted paying for several years. He declined, and Staples locked him up. The next morning a still-unidentified lady, perhaps his aunt, Maria, paid the tax. Thoreau reluctantly emerged, did an errand, and then went huckleberrying. A single night, he decided, was enough to make his point that he could not support a government that endorsed slavery and waged an imperialist war against Mexico. His defense of the private, individual conscience against the expediency of the majority found expression in his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” which was first published in May 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” The essay received little attention until the 20th century, when it found an eager audience. To many, its message still sounds timely: there is a higher law than the civil one, and the higher law must be followed even if a penalty ensues. So does its consequence: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”


Later life and works
When Thoreau left Walden, he passed the peak of his career, and his life lost much of its illumination. Slowly his Transcendentalism drained away as he became a surveyor in order to support himself. He collected botanical specimens for himself and reptilian ones for Harvard, jotting down their descriptions in his journal. He established himself in his neighbourhood as a sound man with rod and transit, and he spent more of his time in the family business; after his father’s death he took it over entirely. Thoreau made excursions to the Maine woods, to Cape Cod, and to Canada, using his experiences on the trips as raw material for three series of magazine articles: “Ktaadn [sic] and the Maine Woods,” in The Union Magazine (1848); “Excursion to Canada,” in Putnam’s Monthly (1853); and “Cape Cod,” in Putnam’s (1855). These works present Thoreau’s zest for outdoor adventure and his appreciation of the natural environment that had for so long sustained his own spirit.

As Thoreau became less of a Transcendentalist he became more of an activist—above all, a dedicated abolitionist. As much as anyone in Concord, he helped to speed fleeing slaves north on the Underground Railroad. He lectured and wrote against slavery, with “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lecture delivered in 1854, as his hardest indictment. In the abolitionist John Brown he found a father figure beside whom Emerson paled; the fiery old fanatic became his ideal. By now Thoreau was in poor health, and when Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry failed and he was hanged, Thoreau suffered a psychic shock that probably hastened his own death. He died, apparently of tuberculosis, in 1862.


Assessment
To all appearances, Thoreau lived a life of bleak failure. His neighbours viewed him with familiarity verging on contempt. He had to pay for the printing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; when it sold a mere 220 copies, the publishers dumped the remaining 700 on his doorstep. Walden (the second and last of his books published during his lifetime) fared better but still took five years to sell 2,000 copies. And yet Thoreau is now regarded as both a classic American writer and a cultural hero of his country. The present opinion of his greatness stems from the power of his principal ideas and the lucid, provocative writing with which he expressed them.

Thoreau’s two famous symbolic actions, his two years in the cabin at Walden Pond and his night in jail for civil disobedience, represent his personal enactment of the doctrines of New England Transcendentalism as expressed by his friend and associate Emerson, among others. In his writings Thoreau was concerned primarily with the possibilities for human culture provided by the American natural environment. He adapted ideas garnered from the then-current Romantic literatures in order to extend American libertarianism and individualism beyond the political and religious spheres to those of social and personal life. “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why,” Thoreau asked in Walden, where his example was the answer, “should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?” In a commercial, conservative, expedient society that was rapidly becoming urban and industrial, he upheld the right to self-culture, to an individual life shaped by inner principle. He demanded for all men the freedom to follow unique lifestyles, to make poems of their lives and living itself an art. In a restless, expanding society dedicated to practical action, he demonstrated the uses and values of leisure, contemplation, and a harmonious appreciation of and coexistence with nature. Thoreau established the tradition of nature writing later developed by the Americans John Burroughs and John Muir, and his pioneer study of the human uses of nature profoundly influenced such conservationists and regional planners as Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford. More important, Thoreau’s life, so fully expressed in his writing, has had a pervasive influence because it was an example of moral heroism and an example of the continuing search for a spiritual dimension in American life.


Major Works
The most significant and enduring works by Thoreau are listed here in order of original publication; when he made substantial revisions, especially in the essays, the volumes in which the revised versions first appeared are likewise noted:

“Ktaadn and the Maine Woods” (1848; revised and expanded in The Maine Woods, 1864); A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849); “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849; republished as “Civil Disobedience” in A Yankee in Canada, 1866); Walden (1854); “The Last Days of John Brown” (1860; republished in A Yankee in Canada); “Walking” (1862; republished in Excursions, 1863); “Life Without Principle” (1863; republished in A Yankee in Canada); and Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings (posthumously, 1993).

The Writings of Henry Thoreau, 20 vol. (1906, reprinted 1982), is the standard “Walden” edition of Thoreau’s books, essays, and journal. It is being replaced by the Princeton Edition of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (starting in 1971 with the publication of its version of Walden) which is producing books of high textual and editorial quality. Collected Poems, ed. by Carl Bode, enlarged ed. (1964, reissued 1970), brings together the many versions of the poetry he wrote, particularly in his younger days.
 

 

 


Bronson Alcott

Bronson Alcott, in full Amos Bronson Alcott (b. Nov. 29, 1799, Wolcott, Conn., U.S.—d. March 4, 1888, Concord, Mass.), American philosopher, teacher, reformer, and member of the New England Transcendentalist group.

The self-educated son of a poor farmer, Alcott traveled in the South as a peddler before establishing a series of schools for children. His educational theories owed something to Johann H. Pestalozzi, the Swiss reformer, but more to the examples of Socrates and the Gospels. His aim was to stimulate thought and “awaken the soul”; his method was conversational, courteous, and gentle. Questions of discipline were referred to the class as a group, and the feature of his school that attracted most attention, perhaps, was his scheme for the teacher’s receiving punishment, in certain circumstances, at the hands of an offending pupil, whereby the sense of shame might be instilled in the mind of the errant child.

These innovations were not widely accepted, and before he was 40 he was forced to close his last school, the famous Temple School in Boston, and sell its contents to ease his debts. In 1842 with money from Ralph Waldo Emerson he visited England, where a similar school founded near London was named Alcott House in his honour. He returned from England with a kindred spirit, the mystic Charles Lane, and together they founded a short-lived (June–December 1843) utopian community, Fruitlands, in Massachusetts. Alcott served as superintendent of schools in Concord, Mass., from 1859 through 1864.

Alcott was a vegetarian, an abolitionist, and an advocate of women’s rights; his thought was vague, lofty, and intensely spiritual. Always poor or in debt, he worked as a handyman or lived on the bounty of others until the literary success of his second daughter, Louisa May Alcott, and the popularity of his lectures on the lyceum circuit finally brought him financial security.

The best of Alcott’s writing is available in The Journals of Bronson Alcott (1938), selected and edited by Odell Shepard.

 

 


Margaret Fuller




 

Margaret Fuller, in full Sarah Margaret Fuller, married name Marchesa Ossoli (b. May 23, 1810, Cambridgeport [now part of Cambridge], Mass., U.S.—d. July 19, 1850, at sea off Fire Island, N.Y.), American critic, teacher, and woman of letters whose efforts to civilize the taste and enrich the lives of her contemporaries make her significant in the history of American culture. She is particularly remembered for her landmark book Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which examined the place of women within society.

Fuller was an extremely precocious child. Under the severe tutelage of her father she more than compensated for the inaccessibility of formal education to females of the time; but, while she acquired wide learning at a very early age, the strain permanently impaired her health.

Plagued by financial difficulties after her father’s death in 1835, she taught in Bronson Alcott’s Temple School in Boston, 1836–37, and in Providence, Rhode Island, 1837–39. In 1839 she published a translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe; her most cherished project, never completed, was a biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Fuller formed many important friendships during this period, including those with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Peabody, William Ellery Channing, and Orestes Brownson. From 1840 to 1842 she was editor of The Dial, a magazine launched by the Transcendentalists. She wrote poetry, reviews, and critiques for the quarterly.

In Boston, for five winters (1839–44), she conducted classes of “conversations” for women on literature, education, mythology, and philosophy, in which venture she was reputed to be a dazzling leader of discussion. Her professed purpose was “to systematize thought”; more generally, she attempted to enrich the lives of women and to dignify their place in society. The same purpose guided her in writing Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a tract on feminism that was both a demand for political equality and an ardent plea for the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual fulfillment of women. It was published in 1845 by Horace Greeley, who had admired her Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844), a perceptive study of frontier life in Illinois and Wisconsin.

In Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller urges young women to seek greater independence from the home and family and to obtain such independence through education. She disdains the notion that women should be satisfied with domesticity, suggesting instead that women should be allowed to fulfill their personal potential by doing whatever work appeals to them: “Let them be sea-captains, if they will.” Woman in the Nineteenth Century further advocated the reform of property laws that were unfair to women—a controversial and unpopular idea in many quarters. The book’s unprecedented and frank discussions of marriage and relations between men and women also scandalized many. The first edition of the book sold out in a week and sparked a heated debate, bringing issues of women’s rights to the nation’s attention.

In 1844 Fuller became literary critic on Greeley’s newspaper, the New York Tribune. She encouraged American writers and crusaded for social reforms but made her greatest contribution, she thought, as an interpreter of modern European literature.

Before she sailed for Europe in 1846, some of her essays appeared as Papers on Literature and Art, which assured the cordial welcome she received in English and French circles. America’s first woman foreign correspondent, she reported on her travels for the Tribune; the “letters” were later published in At Home and Abroad (1856). Settling in Italy in 1847, she was caught up in the cause of the Italian revolutionists, led by Giuseppe Mazzini, whom she had met earlier in England. She also met an impoverished Italian nobleman and ardent republican, Giovanni Angelo, Marchese Ossoli. They were married secretly, apparently in 1849. Following the suppression of the republic the couple fled to Rieti and then to Florence, where Fuller wrote a history of the revolution. In mid-1850 she sailed for the United States with her husband and infant son, Angelo. They all perished in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York, and with them was lost her manuscript history of the revolution.
 






New England reformers and historians

A worldwide movement for change that exploded in the revolutions of 1848 naturally attracted numerous Americans. Reform was in the air, particularly in New England. At times even Brahmins and Transcendentalists took part. William Lloyd Garrison, ascetic and fanatical, was a moving spirit in the fight against slavery; his weekly newspaper, The Liberator (1831–65), despite a small circulation, was its most influential organ. A contributor to the newspaper—probably the greatest writer associated with the movement—was John Greenleaf Whittier. His simple but emotional poems on behalf of abolition were collected in such volumes as Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question … (1837), Voices of Freedom (1846), and Songs of Labor, and Other Poems (1850). The outstanding novelist of the movement—so far as effect was concerned—was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) combined the elements of contemporary humour and sentimental fiction to dramatize the plight of the Negro.

One other group of writers—and a great novelist—contributed to the literature of New England in this period of its greatest glory. The group consisted of several historians who combined scholarly methods learned abroad with vivid and dramatic narration. These included George Bancroft, author of History of the United States (completed in 12 volumes in 1882), and John Lothrop Motley, who traced the history of the Dutch Republic and the United Netherlands in nine fascinating volumes (1856–74). The leading member of the group was Francis Parkman, who, in a series of books (1851–92), wrote as a historian of the fierce contests between France and England that marked the advance of the American frontier and vividly recorded his own Western travels in The Oregon Trail (1849).
 


William Lloyd Garrison




 

William Lloyd Garrison, (b. December 10/12, 1805, Newburyport, Massachusetts, U.S.—d. May 24, 1879, New York, New York), American journalistic crusader who published a newspaper, The Liberator (1831–65), and helped lead the successful abolitionist campaign against slavery in the United States.

Garrison was the son of an itinerant seaman who subsequently deserted his family. The son grew up in an atmosphere of declining New England Federalism and lively Christian benevolence—twin sources of the abolition movement, which he joined at age 25. As editor of the National Philanthropist (Boston) in 1828 and the Journal of the Times (Bennington, Vermont) in 1828–29, he served his apprenticeship in the moral reform cause. In 1829, with a pioneer abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, he became co-editor of the Genius of Universal Emancipation in Baltimore; he also served a short term in jail for libeling a Newburyport merchant who was engaged in the coastal slave trade. Released in June 1830, Garrison returned to Boston and, a year later, established The Liberator, which became known as the most uncompromising of American antislavery journals. In the first issue of The Liberator he stated his views on slavery vehemently: “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation . . . . I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Like most of the abolitionists he recruited, Garrison was a convert from the American Colonization Society, which advocated the return of free blacks to Africa, to the principle of “immediate emancipation,” borrowed from English abolitionists. “Immediatism,” however variously it was interpreted by American reformers, condemned slavery as a national sin, called for emancipation at the earliest possible moment, and proposed schemes for incorporating the freedmen into American society. Through The Liberator, which circulated widely both in England and the United States, Garrison soon achieved recognition as the most radical of American antislavery advocates. In 1832 he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society, the first immediatist society in the country, and in 1833 he helped organize the American Anti-Slavery Society, writing its Declaration of Sentiments and serving as its first corresponding secretary. It was primarily as an editorialist, however, excoriating slave owners and their moderate opponents alike, that he became known and feared. “If those who deserve the lash feel it and wince at it,” he wrote in explaining his refusal to alter his harsh tone, “I shall be assured that I am striking the right persons in the right place.”

In 1837, in the wake of financial panic and the failure of abolitionist campaigns to gain support in the North, Garrison renounced church and state and embraced doctrines of Christian “perfectionism,” which combined abolition, women’s rights, and nonresistance, in the biblical injunction to “come out” from a corrupt society by refusing to obey its laws and support its institutions. From this blend of pacifism and anarchism came the Garrisonian principle of “No Union With Slaveholders,” formulated in 1844 as a demand for peaceful Northern secession from a slaveholding South.

By 1840 Garrison’s increasingly personal definition of the slavery problem had precipitated a crisis within the American Anti-Slavery Society, a majority of whose members disapproved of both the participation of women and Garrison’s no-government theories. Dissension reached a climax in 1840, when the Garrisonians voted a series of resolutions admitting women and thus forced their conservative opponents to secede and form the rival American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Later that year a group of politically minded abolitionists also deserted Garrison’s standard and founded the Liberty Party. Thus, 1840 witnessed the disruption of the national organization and left Garrison in control of a relative handful of followers loyal to his “come-outer” doctrine but deprived of the support of new antislavery converts and of the Northern reform community at large.

In the two decades between the schism of 1840 and the Civil War, Garrison’s influence waned as his radicalism increased. The decade before the war saw his opposition to slavery and to the federal government reach its peak: The Liberator denounced the Compromise of 1850, condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act, damned the Dred Scott decision, and hailed John Brown’s raid as “God’s method of dealing retribution upon the head of the tyrant.” In 1854 Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution at an abolitionist rally in Framingham, Massachusetts. Three years later he held an abortive secessionist convention in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Civil War forced Garrison to choose between his pacifist beliefs and emancipation. Placing freedom for the slave foremost, he supported Abraham Lincoln faithfully and in 1863 welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation as the fulfillment of all his hopes. Emancipation brought to the surface the latent conservatism in his program for the freedmen, whose political rights he was not prepared to guarantee immediately. In 1865 he attempted without success to dissolve the American Anti-Slavery Society and then resigned. In December 1865 he published the last issue of The Liberator and announced that “my vocation as an abolitionist is ended.” He spent his last 14 years in retirement from public affairs, regularly supporting the Republican Party and continuing to champion temperance, women’s rights, pacifism, and free trade. “It is enough for me,” he explained in justifying his refusal to participate in radical egalitarian politics, “that every yoke is broken, and every bondman set free.”

John L. Thomas

 

 


John Greenleaf Whittier




 

John Greenleaf Whittier, (b. December 17, 1807, near Haverhill, Massachusetts, U.S.—d. September 7, 1892, Hampton Falls, Massachusetts), American poet and abolitionist who, in the latter part of his life, shared with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow the distinction of being a household name in both England and the United States.

Born on a farm into a Quaker family, Whittier had only a limited formal education. He became an avid reader of British poetry, however, and was especially influenced by the Scot Robert Burns, whose lyrical treatment of everyday rural life reinforced his own inclination to be a writer.

Whittier’s career naturally divides into four periods: poet and journalist (1826–32), abolitionist (1833–42), writer and humanitarian (1843–65), and Quaker poet (1866–92). At age 19 he submitted his poem “The Exile’s Departure” to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison for publication in the Newburyport Free Press, and it was accepted. Garrison encouraged other poetic contributions from Whittier, and the two men became friends and associates in the abolitionist cause. Whittier soon turned to journalism. He edited newspapers in Boston and Haverhill and by 1830 had become editor of the New England Weekly Review in Hartford, Connecticut, the most important Whig journal in New England. He also continued writing verse, sketches, and tales, and he published his first volume of poems, Legends of New England, in 1831. In 1832, however, a failed romance, ill health, and the discouragement he felt over his lack of literary recognition caused him to resign and return to Haverhill.

Deciding that his rebuffs had been caused by personal vanity, Whittier resolved to devote himself to more altruistic activities, and he soon embraced Garrisonian abolitionism. His fiery antislavery pamphlet Justice and Expediency made him prominent in the abolition movement, and for a decade he was probably its most influential writer. He served a term in the Massachusetts legislature, spoke at antislavery meetings, and edited the Pennsylvania Freeman (1838–40) in Philadelphia. In 1840 he returned to live in Amesbury with his mother, aunt, and sister.

By 1843 Whittier had broken with Garrison, having decided that abolitionist goals could be better accomplished through regular political channels. He became more active in literature, in which new avenues of publication were now open to him. In the next two decades he matured as a poet, publishing numerous volumes of verse, among them Lays of My Home (1843), Voices of Freedom (1846), Songs of Labor (1850), The Panorama (1856), and Home Ballads and Poems (1860). Among his best-known poems of this period is “Maud Muller” (1854), with its lines “Of all sad words of tongue and pen/ The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’ ” Most of his literary prose, including his one novel, Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal (1849), was also published during this time, along with numerous articles and reviews.

Whittier’s mother and his beloved younger sister died in the period from 1857 to 1864, but his personal grief, combined with the larger national grief of the Civil War, furthered his literary maturity. The publication in 1866 of his best-known poem, the winter idyll Snow-Bound, was followed by other triumphs in the verse collections The Tent on the Beach (1867), Among the Hills (1868), and The Pennsylvania Pilgrim (1872). Whittier’s 70th birthday was celebrated at a dinner attended by almost every prominent American writer, and his 80th birthday became an occasion for national celebration.

After outgrowing the Romantic verse he wrote in imitation of Robert Burns, Whittier became an eloquent advocate of justice, tolerance, and liberal humanitarianism. The lofty spiritual and moral values he proclaimed earned him the title of “America’s finest religious poet,” and many of his poems are still sung as church hymns by various denominations. After the Civil War he changed his focus, depicting nature and homely incidents in rural life. Whittier’s verse is often marred by sentimentality, poor technique, or excessive preaching, but his best poems are still read for their moral beauty and simple sentiments. He was not a literary figure of the highest stature but was nevertheless an important voice of his age.
 

 

 


George Bancroft



 

George Bancroft, (b. October 3, 1800, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.—d. January 17, 1891, Washington, D.C.), American historian whose comprehensive 10-volume study of the origins and development of the United States caused him to be referred to as the “father of American history.”

Bancroft’s life presented a curious blend of scholarship and politics. Although he was educated at Harvard and several German universities, he initially eschewed an academic career for an eight-year experiment in elementary education at Round Hill, his private school for boys at Northampton, Massachusetts (1823–31). He then turned to anti-Masonic and Democratic politics in Massachusetts. He received his first patronage post as collector of the Port of Boston (1838) and became U.S. secretary of the navy (1845–46) and minister to England (1846–49). Though not an abolitionist, Bancroft broke with the Democrats over the slavery issue in the 1850s and shifted his support to the Republican Party. As a result, he served as minister to Prussia (1867–71) and to the German Empire (1871–74). While in Germany he became closely identified with the German intellectual community.

Throughout his lifetime he fitted his research and writing around his political requirements, so that the compilation of his 10-volume History of the United States extended over a period of 40 years (1834–74). With a few exceptions, earlier American historians had been collectors or annalists, concerned chiefly with state or Revolutionary War histories. Bancroft was the first scholar to plan a comprehensive study of the nation’s past, from its colonial foundations through the end of its struggle for independence. Influenced by the nationalistic German school of historians, he approached his subject philosophically, molding it to fit his preconceived thesis that the American political and social system represented the highest point yet reached in humanity’s quest for the perfect state. He placed great emphasis on the use of original sources, building a vast collection of documents and hiring copyists to translate materials from European archives.

Many critics thought that, in the first three volumes (1834–40), the writer was too strongly influenced by the political attitudes of President Andrew Jackson. Nevertheless, Bancroft’s reputation as the country’s leading historian was firmly established by 1850. Seven succeeding volumes were published between 1852 and 1874. A revised centenary edition (1876) reduced the number of volumes to six, but the author’s basic approach to American history remained unchanged. A still later edition (1885) included a two-volume study, The History of the Formation of the Federal Constitution (1882).

Although Bancroft neglected economic and social forces and wrote what are essentially political and military narratives, he was nevertheless the first to recognize the importance of the colonial period, foreign relations, and the frontier as forces in the history of the United States.
 

 

 


Francis Parkman



 

Francis Parkman, (b. Sept. 16, 1823, Boston, Mass., U.S.—d. Nov. 8, 1893, Jamaica Plain, Mass.), American historian noted for his classic seven-volume history of France and England in North America, covering the colonial period from the beginnings to 1763.

Early years.
Parkman was the son of Francis Parkman, a leading Unitarian minister of Boston. As a boy, he met many of his father’s literary friends and read widely in the family library. He was taught Greek, Latin, and mathematics at the Chauncy Place School in Boston.

At Harvard, Parkman, a talented linguist, read almost as many books in foreign languages as in English, including the original texts of great historians of antiquity. He also devoured the major works of French literature and history. In serious archival studies he was encouraged by his teacher, the renowned historian Jared Sparks. Sparks, a man drawn to adventure and exploration, exerted an enormous influence on Parkman.

Though teachers and books helped to shape Parkman’s thinking in his formative years, he gathered data, as indicated by his letters and journals, through direct observation. During his college years he exhausted friends who struggled to keep pace with him on woodland expeditions through New England and southeastern Canada. Yet he did not neglect to participate in whiskey punch and Indian war cries that sometimes followed dormitory suppers. Pretty girls and horses, he concluded, were “the ‘first-ratest’ things in nature.” After a breakdown in health during his last year in college, he made a grand tour of Europe in 1844. His particular interest in the Roman Catholic church prompted him to observe it at close range, even living for a short time in a monastery in Rome. In the following year, he toured historic sites in the northwest of America and, to please his father, completed requirements for a law degree at Harvard. In the summer of 1846 he embarked on a journey to the Great Plains in which he traveled a portion of the Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie.


Literary career.
Parkman’s literary career had its real beginning after he returned from the West. Despite temporary illness and partial loss of sight, he managed to write a series of Oregon Trail recollections for the Knickerbocker Magazine. Published in 1849 as The California and Oregon Trail, the book’s title was misleading because Parkman had ventured nowhere near California. He keenly regretted the “publisher’s trick” of the mention of California as a stimulus to better sales. The book, in later editions called The Oregon Trail; Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, became one of the best-selling personal narratives of the 19th century.

The Oregon Trail served notice that a new writer, at home on the frontier as well as in staid, provincial Boston, had appeared. Parkman’s History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac, completed just before his marriage to Catherine Scollay Bigelow in 1851, was his first historical work, a comprehensive survey of Anglo-French history and Indian affairs in North America, culminating in the great Ottawa chief’s “conspiracy” and Indian war of 1763. In the “dark years” of illness following the death of his young son (1857) and his wife (1858), Parkman entered a period of depression and semi-infirmity. His complaints of heart trouble, insomnia, painful headaches, semiblindness, water on the knee, and finally arthritis and rheumatism, which fill his correspondence, were probably the result of an underlying neurosis. By personalizing his illness and calling it the “enemy,” Parkman seems to have forced himself to play the role of a man of action at the cost of great tension. His struggle against the “enemy” enabled him to maintain his self-respect and appears to be at least partly responsible for the powerful drive and creative force behind his writings.

By the time the American Civil War ended, Parkman had at least partly overcome his personal “enemy” of illness to complete his Pioneers of France in the New World (1865), a vivid account of French penetration of the North American wilderness that created a setting for his later volumes. In the 27 years following the Civil War, Parkman (who had to content himself with writing militant, patriotic letters to the press during the conflict) completed his elaborate series by writing six more historical works in addition to the Pioneers. The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867) is a powerful narrative of the tragedy of the Jesuit missionaries whose missions among the Hurons were destroyed by persistent Iroquois attacks, and his La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, first published in 1869 as The Discovery of the Great West but later revised after French documents were made available, is in many respects one of the best one-volume biographies in the English language. René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, a hardy, gallant figure who overcame almost every obstacle in his path, was a heroic figure almost made for Parkman’s pen. Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV (1877) tells the story of New France, the early French settlement in Canada, under its most formidable governor, a man of vanity, courage, and audacity. Yet it was in Montcalm and Wolfe (1884)—a true biography of the French general Marquis de Montcalm and the English general James Wolfe, both of whom died at the Battle of Quebec in 1759—that Parkman not only reached his highest achievement in character portrayal but also showed how great biography can be used to penetrate the spirit of an age. By contrast, Parkman’s The Old Régime in Canada, published in 1874, provides a sweeping panorama of New France in her infancy and youth, a pioneer work in social history that holds the interest of the reader no less than his narrative volumes. Parkman’s literary artistry is perhaps best studied in A Half-Century of Conflict (1892), completed shortly before his death. This final link in his history France and England in North America is a fascinating but complex account of events leading up to the French and Indian War.
 




Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman

History also figured in tales and romances of
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the leading New England fictionist of the period. Many tales and longer works—for example, his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850)—were set against a background of colonial America with emphasis upon its distance in time from 19th-century New England. Others, such as The House of the Seven Gables (1851), dealt with the past as well as the present. Still others, such as The Marble Faun (1860), were set in distant countries. Remote though they were at times from what Hawthorne called “the light of common day,” they showed deep psychological insight and probed into complex ethical problems.

Another great American fiction writer, for a time a neighbour and associate of Hawthorne, was Herman Melville. After relatively little schooling, Melville went to sea; a whaling ship, as he put it, was his “Yale College and his Harvard.” His first books were fiction in the guise of factual writing based upon experiences as a sailor—Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847); so were such later works as Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850). Between 1846 and 1851, however, Melville’s reading in philosophy and literary classics, as well as in Hawthorne’s allegorical and symbolic writings, gave him new interests and aims. The first sign of this interest was Mardi (1849), an uneven and disjointed transitional book that used allegory after the model of Rabelais to comment upon ideas afloat in the period—about nations, politics, institutions, literature, and religion. The new techniques came to fruition in Moby Dick; or, The Whale (1851), a richly symbolic work, complex but brilliantly integrated. Only in short stories, Benito Cereno—a masterpiece of its genre—and others, in the psychological novel Pierre (1852), and in the novelette Billy Budd (written 1890?) was Melville later to show sporadic flashes of the genius that created Moby Dick.

An ardent singer of the praise of Manhattan, Walt Whitman saw less of the dark side of life than Melville did. He was a believer in Jacksonian democracy, in the splendour of the common man. Inspired by the Romantic concept of a poet as prophet and also by the Transcendental philosophy of Emerson, Whitman in 1855 published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. As years passed, nine revised and expanded editions of this work were published. This autobiography in verse was intended to show the ideas, beliefs, emotions, and experiences of the common man in a great period of American individualism. Whitman had a hard time winning a following because he was frank and unconventional in his Transcendental thinking, because he used free verse rather than rhymed or regularly metred verse, and because his poems were not conventionally organized. Nevertheless, he steadily gained the approval of critics and in time came to be recognized as one of the great poets of America.
 


Nathaniel Hawthorne



 

American writer

born July 4, 1804, Salem, Mass., U.S.
died May 19, 1864, Plymouth, N.H.

Main
American novelist and short-story writer who was a master of the allegorical and symbolic tale. One of the greatest fiction writers in American literature, he is best-known for The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

Early years
Hawthorne’s ancestors had lived in Salem since the 17th century. His earliest American ancestor, William Hathorne (Nathaniel added the w to the name when he began to write), was a magistrate who had sentenced a Quaker woman to public whipping. He had acted as a staunch defender of Puritan orthodoxy, with its zealous advocacy of a “pure,” unaffected form of religious worship, its rigid adherence to a simple, almost severe, mode of life, and its conviction of the “natural depravity” of “fallen” man. Hawthorne was later to wonder whether the decline of his family’s prosperity and prominence during the 18th century, while other Salem families were growing wealthy from the lucrative shipping trade, might not be a retribution for this act and for the role of William’s son John as one of three judges in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. When Nathaniel’s father—a ship’s captain—died during one of his voyages, he left his young widow without means to care for her two girls and young Nathaniel, aged four. She moved in with her affluent brothers, the Mannings. Hawthorne grew up in their house in Salem and, for extensive periods during his teens, in Raymond, Maine, on the shores of Sebago Lake. He returned to Salem in 1825 after four years at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. Hawthorne did not distinguish himself as a young man. Instead, he spent nearly a dozen years reading and trying to master the art of writing fiction.


First works
In college Hawthorne had excelled only in composition and had determined to become a writer. Upon graduation, he had written an amateurish novel, Fanshawe, which he published at his own expense—only to decide that it was unworthy of him and to try to destroy all copies. Hawthorne, however, soon found his own voice, style, and subjects, and within five years of his graduation he had published such impressive and distinctive stories as “The Hollow of the Three Hills” and “An Old Woman’s Tale.” By 1832, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” two of his greatest tales—and among the finest in the language—had appeared. “Young Goodman Brown,” perhaps the greatest tale of witchcraft ever written, appeared in 1835.

His increasing success in placing his stories brought him a little fame. Unwilling to depend any longer on his uncles’ generosity, he turned to a job in the Boston Custom House (1839–40) and for six months in 1841 was a resident at the agricultural cooperative Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Mass. Even when his first signed book, Twice-Told Tales, was published in 1837, the work had brought gratifying recognition but no dependable income. By 1842, however, Hawthorne’s writing had brought him a sufficient income to allow him to marry Sophia Peabody; the couple rented the Old Manse in Concord and began a happy three-year period that Hawthorne would later record in his essay “The Old Manse.”

The presence of some of the leading social thinkers and philosophers of his day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in Concord made the village the centre of the philosophy of Transcendentalism, which encouraged man to transcend the materialistic world of experience and facts and become conscious of the pervading spirit of the universe and the potentialities for human freedom. Hawthorne welcomed the companionship of his Transcendentalist neighbours, but he had little to say to them. Artists and intellectuals never inspired his full confidence, but he thoroughly enjoyed the visit of his old college friend and classmate Franklin Pierce, later to become president of the United States. At the Old Manse, Hawthorne continued to write stories, with the same result as before: literary success, monetary failure. His new short-story collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, appeared in 1846.


Return to Salem
A growing family and mounting debts compelled the Hawthornes’ return in 1845 to Salem, where Nathaniel was appointed surveyor of the Custom House by the Polk administration (Hawthorne had always been a loyal Democrat and pulled all the political strings he could to get this appointment). Three years later the presidential election brought the Whigs into power under Zachary Taylor, and Hawthorne lost his job; but in a few months of concentrated effort, he produced his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. The bitterness he felt over his dismissal is apparent in “The Custom House” essay prefixed to the novel. The Scarlet Letter tells the story of two lovers kept apart by the ironies of fate, their own mingled strengths and weaknesses, and the Puritan community’s interpretation of moral law, until at last death unites them under a single headstone. The book made Hawthorne famous and was eventually recognized as one of the greatest of American novels.

Determined to leave Salem forever, Hawthorne moved to Lenox, located in the mountain scenery of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. There he began work on The House of the Seven Gables (1851), the story of the Pyncheon family, who for generations had lived under a curse until it was removed at last by love.

At Lenox he enjoyed the stimulating friendship of Herman Melville, who lived in nearby Pittsfield. This friendship, although important for the younger writer and his work, was much less so for Hawthorne. Melville praised Hawthorne extravagantly in a review of his Mosses from an Old Manse, and he also dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. But eventually Melville came to feel that the friendship he so ardently pursued was one-sided. Later he was to picture the relationship with disillusion in his introductory sketch to The Piazza Tales and depicted Hawthorne himself unflatteringly as “Vine” in his long poem Clarel.

In the autumn of 1851 Hawthorne moved his family to another temporary residence, this time in West Newton, near Boston. There he quickly wrote The Blithedale Romance, which was based on his disenchantment with Brook Farm. Then he purchased and redecorated Bronson Alcott’s house in Concord, the Wayside. Blithedale was disappointingly received and did not produce the income Hawthorne had expected. He was hoping for a lucrative political appointment that would bolster his finances; in the meantime, he wrote a campaign biography of his old friend Franklin Pierce. When Pierce won the presidency, Hawthorne was in 1853 rewarded with the consulship in Liverpool, Lancashire, a position he hoped would enable him in a few years to leave his family financially secure.


Last years
The remaining 11 years of Hawthorne’s life were, from a creative point of view, largely anticlimactic. He performed his consular duties faithfully and effectively until his position was terminated in 1857, and then he spent a year and a half sight-seeing in Italy. Determined to produce yet another romance, he finally retreated to a seaside town in England and quickly produced The Marble Faun. In writing it, he drew heavily upon the experiences and impressions he had recorded in a notebook kept during his Italian tour to give substance to an allegory of the Fall of man, a theme that had usually been assumed in his earlier works but that now received direct and philosophic treatment.

Back in the Wayside once more in 1860, Hawthorne devoted himself entirely to his writing but was unable to make any progress with his plans for a new novel. The drafts of unfinished works he left are mostly incoherent and show many signs of a psychic regression, already foreshadowed by his increasing restlessness and discontent of the preceding half dozen years. Some two years before his death he began to age very suddenly. His hair turned white, his handwriting changed, he suffered frequent nosebleeds, and he took to writing the figure “64” compulsively on scraps of paper. He died in his sleep on a trip in search of health with his friend Pierce.


Major novels
The main character of The Scarlet Letter is Hester Prynne, a young married woman who has borne an illegitimate child while living away from her husband in a village in Puritan New England. The husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives in New England to find his wife pilloried and made to wear the letter A (meaning adulteress) in scarlet on her dress as a punishment for her illicit affair and for her refusal to reveal the name of the child’s father. Chillingworth becomes obsessed with finding the identity of his wife’s former lover. He learns that Hester’s paramour is a saintly young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth then proceeds to revenge himself by mentally tormenting the guilt-stricken young man. Hester herself is revealed to be a compassionate and splendidly self-reliant heroine who is never truly repentant for the act of adultery committed with the minister; she feels that their act was consecrated by their deep love for each other. In the end Chillingworth is morally degraded by his monomaniac pursuit of revenge, and Dimmesdale is broken by his own sense of guilt and publicly confesses his adultery before dying in Hester’s arms. Only Hester can face the future optimistically, as she plans to ensure the future of her beloved little girl by taking her to Europe.

The House of the Seven Gables is a sombre study in hereditary sin based on the legend of a curse pronounced on Hawthorne’s own family by a woman condemned to death during the witchcraft trials. The greed and arrogant pride of the novel’s Pyncheon family down the generations is mirrored in the gloomy decay of their seven-gabled mansion, in which the family’s enfeebled and impoverished poor relations live. At the book’s end the descendant of a family long ago defrauded by the Pyncheons lifts his ancestors’ curse on the mansion and marries a young niece of the family.

In The Marble Faun a trio of expatriate American art students in Italy become peripherally involved to varying degrees in the murder of an unknown man; their contact with sin transforms two of them from innocents into adults now possessed of a mature and critical awareness of life’s complexity and possibilities.


Assessment
Hawthorne’s high rank among American fiction writers is the result of at least three considerations. First, he was a skillful craftsman with an impressive arthitectonic sense of form. The structure of The Scarlet Letter, for example, is so tightly integrated that no chapter, no paragraph, even, could be omitted without doing violence to the whole. The book’s four characters are inextricably bound together in the tangled web of a life situation that seems to have no solution, and the tightly woven plot has a unity of action that rises slowly but inexorably to the climactic scene of Dimmesdale’s public confession. The same tight construction is found in Hawthorne’s other writings also, especially in the shorter pieces, or “tales.” Hawthorne was also the master of a classic literary style that is remarkable for its directness, its clarity, its firmness, and its sureness of idiom.

A second reason for Hawthorne’s greatness is his moral insight. He inherited the Puritan tradition of moral earnestness, and he was deeply concerned with the concepts of original sin and guilt and the claims of law and conscience. Hawthorne rejected what he saw as the Transcendentalists’ transparent optimism about the potentialities of human nature. Instead he looked more deeply and perhaps more honestly into life, finding in it much suffering and conflict but also finding the redeeming power of love. There is no Romantic escape in his works, but rather a firm and resolute scrutiny of the psychological and moral facts of the human condition.

A third reason for Hawthorne’s eminence is his mastery of allegory and symbolism. His fictional characters’ actions and dilemmas fairly obviously express larger generalizations about the problems of human existence. But with Hawthorne this leads not to unconvincing pasteboard figures with explanatory labels attached but to a sombre, concentrated emotional involvement with his characters that has the power, the gravity, and the inevitability of true tragedy. His use of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter is particularly effective, and the scarlet letter itself takes on a wider significance and application that is out of all proportion to its literal character as a scrap of cloth.

Hawthorne’s work initiated the most durable tradition in American fiction, that of the symbolic romance that assumes the universality of guilt and explores the complexities and ambiguities of man’s choices. His greatest short stories and The Scarlet Letter are marked by a depth of psychological and moral insight seldom equaled by any American writer.
 

 

 


Herman Melville
"Moby Dick or The Whale"  Illustrated by Rockwell Kent

 


Herman Melville      


"Moby Dick or The Whale" PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV, PART V

Illustrated by Rockwell Kent 


American author

born Aug. 1, 1819, New York City
died Sept. 28, 1891, New York City

Main
American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, best known for his novels of the sea, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851).

Heritage and youth
Melville’s heritage and youthful experiences were perhaps crucial in forming the conflicts underlying his artistic vision. He was the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill, in a family that was to grow to four boys and four girls. His forebears had been among the Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York and had taken leading roles in the American Revolution and in the fiercely competitive commercial and political life of the new country. One grandfather, Maj. Thomas Melvill, was a member of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and was subsequently a New York importer. The other, Gen. Peter Gansevoort, was a friend of James Fenimore Cooper and famous for leading the defense of Ft. Stanwix, in upstate New York, against the British.

In 1826 Allan Melvill wrote of his son as being “backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension . . . of a docile and amiable disposition.” In that same year, scarlet fever left the boy with permanently weakened eyesight, but he attended Male High School. When the family import business collapsed in 1830, the family returned to Albany, where Herman enrolled briefly in Albany Academy. Allan Melvill died in 1832, leaving his family in desperate straits. The eldest son, Gansevoort, assumed responsibility for the family and took over his father’s felt and fur business. Herman joined him after two years as a bank clerk and some months working on the farm of his uncle, Thomas Melvill, in Pittsfield, Mass. About this time, Herman’s branch of the family altered the spelling of its name. Though finances were precarious, Herman attended Albany Classical School in 1835 and became an active member of a local debating society. A teaching job in Pittsfield made him unhappy, however, and after three months he returned to Albany.


Wanderings and voyages
Young Melville had already begun writing, but the remainder of his youth became a quest for security. A comparable pursuit in the spiritual realm was to characterize much of his writing. The crisis that started Herman on his wanderings came in 1837, when Gansevoort went bankrupt and the family moved to nearby Lansingburgh (later Troy). In what was to be a final attempt at orthodox employment, Herman studied surveying at Lansingburgh Academy to equip himself for a post with the Erie Canal project. When the job did not materialize, Gansevoort arranged for Herman to ship out as cabin boy on the “St. Lawrence,” a merchant ship sailing in June 1839 from New York City for Liverpool. The summer voyage did not dedicate Melville to the sea, and on his return his family was dependent still on the charity of relatives. After a grinding search for work, he taught briefly in a school that closed without paying him. His uncle Thomas, who had left Pittsfield for Illinois, apparently had no help to offer when the young man followed him west. In January 1841 Melville sailed on the whaler “Acushnet,” from New Bedford, Mass., on a voyage to the South Seas.

In June 1842 the “Acushnet” anchored in the Marquesas Islands in present-day French Polynesia. Melville’s adventures here, somewhat romanticized, became the subject of his first novel, Typee (1846). In July Melville and a companion jumped ship and, according to Typee, spent about four months as guest-captives of the reputedly cannibalistic Typee people. Actually, in August he was registered in the crew of the Australian whaler “Lucy Ann.” Whatever its precise correspondence with fact, however, Typee was faithful to the imaginative impact of the experience on Melville. Despite intimations of danger, Melville represented the exotic valley of the Typees as an idyllic sanctuary from a hustling, aggressive civilization.

Although Melville was down for a 120th share of the whaler’s proceeds, the voyage had been unproductive. He joined a mutiny that landed the mutineers in a Tahitian jail, from which he escaped without difficulty. On these events and their sequel, Melville based his second book, Omoo (1847). Lighthearted in tone, with the mutiny shown as something of a farce, it describes Melville’s travels through the islands, accompanied by Long Ghost, formerly the ship’s doctor, now turned drifter. The carefree roving confirmed Melville’s bitterness against colonial and, especially, missionary debasement of the native Tahitian peoples.

These travels, in fact, occupied less than a month. In November he signed as a harpooner on his last whaler, the “Charles & Henry,” out of Nantucket, Mass. Six months later he disembarked at Lahaina, in the Hawaiian Islands. Somehow he supported himself for more than three months; then in August 1843 he signed as an ordinary seaman on the frigate “United States,” which in October 1844 discharged him in Boston.


The years of acclaim
Melville rejoined a family whose prospects had much improved. Gansevoort, who after James K. Polk’s victory in the 1844 presidential elections had been appointed secretary to the U.S. legation in London, was gaining political renown. Encouraged by his family’s enthusiastic reception of his tales of the South Seas, Melville wrote them down. The years of acclaim were about to begin for Melville.

Typee provoked immediate enthusiasm and outrage, and then a year later Omoo had an identical response. Gansevoort, dead of a brain disease, never saw his brother’s career consolidated, but the bereavement left Melville head of the family and the more committed to writing to support it. Another responsibility came with his marriage in August 1847 to Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. He tried unsuccessfully for a job in the U.S. Treasury Department, the first of many abortive efforts to secure a government post.

In 1847 Melville began a third book, Mardi (1849), and became a regular contributor of reviews and other pieces to a literary journal. To his new literary acquaintances in New York City he appeared the character of his own books—extravert, vigorous, “with his cigar and his Spanish eyes,” as one writer described him. Melville resented this somewhat patronizing stereotype, and in her reminiscences his wife recalled him in a different aspect, writing in a bitterly cold, fireless room in winter. He enjoined his publisher not to call him “the author of Typee and Omoo,” for his third book was to be different. When it appeared, public and critics alike found its wild, allegorical fantasy and medley of styles incomprehensible. It began as another Polynesian adventure but quickly set its hero in pursuit of the mysterious Yillah, “all beauty and innocence,” a symbolic quest that ends in anguish and disaster. Concealing his disappointment at the book’s reception, Melville quickly wrote Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) in the manner expected of him. In October 1849 Melville sailed to England to resolve his London publisher’s doubts about White-Jacket. He also visited the Continent, kept a journal, and arrived back in America in February 1850. The critics acclaimed White-Jacket, and its powerful criticism of abuses in the U.S. Navy won it strong political support. But both novels, however much they seemed to revive the Melville of Typee, had passages of profoundly questioning melancholy. It was not the same Melville who wrote them. He had been reading Shakespeare with “eyes which are as tender as young sparrows,” particularly noting sombre passages in Measure for Measure and King Lear. This reading struck deeply sympathetic responses in Melville, counterbalancing the Transcendental doctrines of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose general optimism about human goodness he had heard in lectures. A fresh imaginative influence was supplied by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, a novel deeply exploring good and evil in the human being, which Melville read in the spring of 1850. That summer, Melville bought a farm, which he christened “Arrowhead,” near Hawthorne’s home at Pittsfield, and the two men became neighbours physically as well as in sympathies.

Melville had promised his publishers for the autumn of 1850 the novel first entitled The Whale, finally Moby Dick. His delay in submitting it was caused less by his early-morning chores as a farmer than by his explorations into the unsuspected vistas opened for him by Hawthorne. Their relationship reanimated Melville’s creative energies. On his side, it was dependent, almost mystically intense—“an infinite fraternity of feeling,” he called it. To the cooler, withdrawn Hawthorne, such depth of feeling so persistently and openly declared was uncongenial. The two men gradually drew apart. They met for the last time, almost as strangers, in 1856, when Melville visited Liverpool, where Hawthorne was American consul.

Moby Dick was published in London in October 1851 and a month later in America. It brought its author neither acclaim nor reward. Basically its story is simple. Captain Ahab pursues the white whale, Moby Dick, which finally kills him. At that level, it is an intense, superbly authentic narrative of whaling. In the perverted grandeur of Captain Ahab and in the beauties and terrors of the voyage of the “Pequod,” however, Melville dramatized his deeper concerns: the equivocal defeats and triumphs of the human spirit and its fusion of creative and murderous urges. In his private afflictions, Melville had found universal metaphors.

Increasingly a recluse to the point that some friends feared for his sanity, Melville embarked almost at once on Pierre (1852). It was an intensely personal work, revealing the sombre mythology of his private life framed in terms of a story of an artist alienated from his society. In it can be found the humiliated responses to poverty that his youth supplied him plentifully and the hypocrisy he found beneath his father’s claims to purity and faithfulness. His mother he had idolized; yet he found the spirituality of her love betrayed by sexual love. The novel, a slightly veiled allegory of Melville’s own dark imaginings, was rooted in these relations. When published, it was another critical and financial disaster. Only 33 years old, Melville saw his career in ruins. Near breakdown, and having to face in 1853 the disaster of a fire at his New York publishers that destroyed most of his books, Melville persevered with writing.

Israel Potter, plotted before his introduction to Hawthorne and his work, was published in 1855, but its modest success, clarity of style, and apparent simplicity of subject did not indicate a decision by Melville to write down to public taste. His contributions to Putnam’s Monthly Magazine—“Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855)—reflected the despair and the contempt for human hypocrisy and materialism that possessed him increasingly.

In 1856 Melville set out on a tour of Europe and the Levant to renew his spirits. The most powerful passages of the journal he kept are in harmony with The Confidence-Man (1857), a despairing satire on an America corrupted by the shabby dreams of commerce. This was the last of his novels to be published in his lifetime. Three American lecture tours were followed by his final sea journey, in 1860, when he joined his brother Thomas, captain of the clipper “Meteor,” for a voyage around Cape Horn. He abandoned the trip in San Francisco.


The years of withdrawal
Melville abandoned the novel for poetry, but the prospects for publication were not favourable. With two sons and daughters to support, Melville sought government patronage. A consular post he sought in 1861 went elsewhere. On the outbreak of the Civil War, he volunteered for the Navy, but was again rejected. He had apparently returned full cycle to the insecurity of his youth, but an inheritance from his father-in-law brought some relief and “Arrowhead,” increasingly a burden, was sold. By the end of 1863, the family was living in New York City. The war was much on his mind and furnished the subject of his first volume of verse, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), published privately. Four months after it appeared, an appointment as a customs inspector on the New York docks finally brought him a secure income.

Despite poor health, Melville began a pattern of writing evenings, weekends, and on vacations. In 1867 his son Malcolm shot himself, accidentally the jury decided, though it appeared that he had quarrelled with his father the night before his death. His second son, Stanwix, who had gone to sea in 1869, died in a San Francisco hospital in 1886 after a long illness. Throughout these griefs, and for the whole of his 19 years in the customs house, Melville’s creative pace was understandably slowed.

His second collection of verse, John Marr, and Other Sailors; With Some Sea-Pieces, appeared in 1888, again privately published. By then he had been in retirement for three years, assisted by legacies from friends and relatives. His new leisure he devoted, he wrote in 1889, to “certain matters as yet incomplete.” Among them was Timoleon (1891), a final verse collection. More significant was the return to prose that culminated in his last work, the novel Billy Budd, which remained unpublished until 1924. Provoked by a false charge, the sailor Billy Budd accidentally kills the satanic master-at-arms. In a time of threatened mutiny he is hanged, going willingly to his fate. Evil has not wholly triumphed, and Billy’s memory lives on as an emblem of good. Here there is, if not a statement of being reconciled fully to life, at least the peace of resignation. The manuscript ends with the date April 19, 1891. Five months later Melville died. His life was neither happy nor, by material standards, successful. By the end of the 1840s he was among the most celebrated of American writers, yet his death evoked but a single obituary notice.

In the internal tensions that put him in conflict with his age lay a strangely 20th-century awareness of the deceptiveness of realities and of the instability of personal identity. Yet his writings never lost sight of reality. His symbols grew from such visible facts, made intensely present, as the dying whales, the mess of blubber, and the wood of the ship, in Moby Dick. For Melville, as for Shakespeare, man was ape and essence, inextricably compounded; and the world, like the “Pequod,” was subject to “two antagonistic influences . . . one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal.” It was Melville’s triumph that he endured, recording his vision to the end. After the years of neglect, modern criticism has secured his reputation with that of the great American writers.

D.E.S. Maxwell
 

 

 


Walt Whitman

"Leaves of Grass"




American poet
in full Walter Whitman
born May 31, 1819, West Hills, Long Island, N.Y., U.S.
died March 26, 1892, Camden, N.J.

American poet, journalist, and essayist whose verse collection Leaves of Grass is a landmark in the history of American literature.

Early life.
Walt Whitman was born into a family that settled in North America in the first half of the 17th century. His ancestry was typical of the region: his mother, Louisa Van Velsor, was Dutch, and his father, Walter Whitman, was of English descent. They were simple farm people, with little formal education. The Whitman family had at one time owned a large tract of land, but it was so diminished by the time Walt was born that his father had taken up carpentering, though the family still lived on a small section of the ancestral estate. In 1823 Walter Whitman, Sr., moved his growing family to Brooklyn, which was enjoying a boom. There he speculated in real estate and built cheap houses for artisans, but he was a poor manager and had difficulty in providing for his family, which increased to nine children.

Walt, the second child, attended public school in Brooklyn, began working at the age of 12, and learned the printing trade. He was employed as a printer in Brooklyn and New York City, taught in country schools on Long Island, and became a journalist. At the age of 23 he edited a daily newspaper in New York, and in 1846 he became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a fairly important newspaper of the time. Discharged from the Eagle early in 1848 because of his support for the Free Soil faction of the Democratic Party, he went to New Orleans, La., where he worked for three months on the Crescent before returning to New York via the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. After another abortive attempt at Free Soil journalism, he built houses and dabbled in real estate in New York from about 1850 until 1855.

Whitman had spent a great deal of his 36 years walking and observing in New York City and Long Island. He had visited the theatre frequently and seen many plays of William Shakespeare, and he had developed a strong love of music, especially opera. During these years he had also read extensively at home and in the New York libraries, and he began experimenting with a new style of poetry. While a schoolteacher, printer, and journalist he had published sentimental stories and poems in newspapers and popular magazines, but they showed almost no literary promise.

By the spring of 1855 Whitman had enough poems in his new style for a thin volume. Unable to find a publisher, he sold a house and printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass at his own expense. No publisher’s name, no author’s name appeared on the first edition in 1855. But the cover had a portrait of Walt Whitman, “broad shouldered, rouge fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr.” Though little appreciated upon its appearance, Leaves of Grass was warmly praised by the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote to Whitman on receiving the poems that it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom” America had yet contributed.

Whitman continued practicing his new style of writing in his private notebooks, and in 1856 the second edition of Leaves of Grass appeared. This collection contained revisions of the poems of the first edition and a new one, the “Sun-down Poem” (later to become “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”). The second edition was also a financial failure, and once again Whitman edited a daily newspaper, the Brooklyn Times, but was unemployed by the summer of 1859. In 1860 a Boston publisher brought out the third edition of Leaves of Grass, greatly enlarged and rearranged, but the outbreak of the American Civil War bankrupted the firm. The 1860 volume contained the “Calamus” poems, which record a personal crisis of some intensity in Whitman’s life, an apparent homosexual love affair (whether imagined or real is unknown), and “Premonition” (later entitled “Starting from Paumanok”), which records the violent emotions that often drained the poet’s strength. “A Word out of the Sea” (later entitled “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”) evoked some sombre feelings, as did “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” “Chants Democratic,” “Enfans d’Adam,” “Messenger Leaves,” and “Thoughts” were more in the poet’s earlier vein.


Civil War years.
After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Whitman’s brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, and Whitman went there in 1862, staying some time in the camp, then taking a temporary post in the paymaster’s office in Washington. He spent his spare time visiting wounded and dying soldiers in the Washington hospitals, spending his scanty salary on small gifts for Confederate and Unionist soldiers alike and offering his usual “cheer and magnetism” to try to alleviate some of the mental depression and bodily suffering he saw in the wards.

In January 1865 he became a clerk in the Department of the Interior; in May he was promoted but in June was dismissed because the secretary of the Interior thought that Leaves of Grass was indecent. Whitman then obtained a post in the attorney general’s office, largely through the efforts of his friend, the journalist William O’Connor, who wrote a vindication of Whitman in The Good Gray Poet (published in 1866), which aroused sympathy for the victim of injustice.

In May 1865 a collection of war poems entitled Drum Taps showed Whitman’s readers a new kind of poetry, moving from the oratorical excitement with which he had greeted the falling-in and arming of the young men at the beginning of the Civil War to a disturbing awareness of what war really meant. “Beat! Beat! Drums!” echoed the bitterness of the Battle of Bull Run, and “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” had a new awareness of suffering, no less effective for its quietly plangent quality. The Sequel to Drum Taps, published in the autumn of 1865, contained his great elegy on President Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” His horror at the death of democracy’s first “great martyr chief ” was matched by his revulsion from the barbarities of war. Whitman’s prose descriptions of the Civil War, published later in Specimen Days & Collect (1882–83), are no less effective in their direct, moving simplicity.


Later life.
The fourth edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1867, contained much revision and rearrangement. Apart from the poems collected in Drum Taps, it contained eight new poems, and some poems had been omitted. In the late 1860s Whitman’s work began to receive greater recognition. O’Connor’s The Good Gray Poet and John Burroughs’ Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867) were followed in 1868 by an expurgated English edition of Whitman’s poems prepared by William Michael Rossetti, the English man of letters. During the remainder of his life Whitman received much encouragement from leading writers in England.

Whitman was ill in 1872, probably as a result of long-experienced emotional strains related to his sexual ambiguity; in January 1873 his first stroke left him partly paralyzed. By May he had recovered sufficiently to travel to his brother’s home in Camden, N.J., where his mother was dying. Her subsequent death he called “the great cloud” of his life. He thereafter lived with his brother in Camden, and his post in the attorney general’s office was terminated in 1874.

Whitman’s health recovered sufficiently by 1879 for him to make a visit to the West. In 1881 James R. Osgood published a second Boston edition of Leaves of Grass, and the Society for the Suppression of Vice claimed it to be immoral. Because of a threatened prosecution, Osgood gave the plates to Whitman, who, after he had published an author’s edition, found a new publisher, Rees Welsh of Philadelphia, who was shortly succeeded by David McKay. Leaves of Grass had now reached the form in which it was henceforth to be published. Newspaper publicity had created interest in the book, and it sold better than any previous edition. As a result, Whitman was able to buy a modest little cottage in Camden, where he spent the rest of his life. He had many new friends, among them Horace Traubel, who recorded his talk and wrote his biography. The Complete Poems and Prose was published in 1888, along with the eighth edition of Leaves of Grass. The ninth, or “authorized,” edition appeared in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death.


Leaves of Grass.
Walt Whitman is known primarily for Leaves of Grass, though his prose volume Specimen Days contains some fine realistic descriptions of Civil War scenes. But Leaves of Grass is actually more than one book. During Whitman’s lifetime it went through nine editions, each with its own distinct virtues and faults. Whitman compared the finished book to a cathedral long under construction, and on another occasion to a tree, with its cumulative rings of growth. Both metaphors are misleading, however, because he did not construct his book unit by unit or by successive layers but constantly altered titles, diction, and even motifs and shifted poems—omitting, adding, separating, and combining. Beginning with the third edition (1860), he grouped the poems under such titles as “Chants Democratic,” “Enfans d’Adam” (later “Children of Adam”), “Calamus,” “Poems of Joy,” and “Sea-Drift.” Some of his later group titles were highly connotative, such as “Birds of Passage,” “By the Roadside,” “Autumn Rivulets,” “From Noon to Starry Night,” and “Songs of Parting,” suggesting a life allegory. But the poems were not arranged in order of composition, either within a particular group or from one group to another. After 1881 Whitman made no further shifts in groups or revisions of poems within the groups, merely adding the poems of “Sands at Seventy” and “Good-Bye My Fancy.”

Under the influence of the Romantic movement in literature and art, Whitman held the theory that the chief function of the poet was to express his own personality in his verse. The first edition of Leaves of Grass also appeared during the most nationalistic period in American literature, when critics were calling for a literature commensurate with the size, natural resources, and potentialities of the North American continent. “We want” shouted a character in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Kavanagh (1849), “a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies.” With the same fervour, Whitman declared in his 1855 preface, “Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves.” In Leaves of Grass he addressed the citizens of the United States, urging them to be large and generous in spirit, a new race nurtured in political liberty, and possessed of united souls and bodies.

It was partly in response to nationalistic ideals and partly in accord with his ambition to cultivate and express his own personality that the “I” of Whitman’s poems asserted a mythical strength and vitality. For the frontispiece to the first edition, Whitman used a picture of himself in work clothes, posed nonchalantly with cocked hat and hand in trouser pocket, as if illustrating a line in his leading poem, “Song of Myself”: “I cock my hat as I please indoors and out.” In this same poem he also characterized himself as:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs,

a kosmos,

Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drink-

ing and breeding,

. . . Divine am I inside and out, and I make

holy whatever I touch or am touched from . . .

From this time on throughout his life Whitman attempted to dress the part and act the role of the shaggy, untamed poetic spokesman of the proud young nation. For the expression of this persona he also created a form of free verse without rhyme or metre, but abounding in oratorical rhythms and chanted lists of American place-names and objects. He learned to handle this primitive, enumerative style with great subtlety and was especially successful in creating empathy of space and movement, but to most of his contemporaries it seemed completely “unpoetic.” Both the content and the style of his verse also caused Whitman’s early biographers, and even the poet himself, to confuse the symbolic self of the poems with their physical creator. In reality Whitman was quiet, gentle, courteous; neither “rowdy” (a favourite word) nor lawless. In sexual conduct he may have been unconventional, though no one is sure, but it is likely that the six illegitimate children he boasted of in extreme old age were begotten by his imagination. He did advocate greater sexual freedom and tolerance, but sex in his poems is also symbolic—of natural innocence, “the procreant urge of the world,” and of the regenerative power of nature. In some of his poems the poet’s own erotic emotions may have confused him, but in his greatest, such as parts of “Song of Myself” and all of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” sex is spiritualized.

Whitman’s greatest theme is a symbolic identification of the regenerative power of nature with the deathless divinity of the soul. His poems are filled with a religious faith in the processes of life, particularly those of fertility, sex, and the “unflagging pregnancy” of nature: sprouting grass, mating birds, phallic vegetation, the maternal ocean, and planets in formation (“the journey-work of stars”). The poetic “I” of Leaves of Grass transcends time and space, binding the past with the present and intuiting the future, illustrating Whitman’s belief that poetry is a form of knowledge, the supreme wisdom of mankind.


Reputation.
At the time of his death Whitman was more respected in Europe than in his own country. It was not as a poet, indeed, but as a symbol of American democracy that he first won recognition. In the late 19th century his poems exercised a strong fascination on English readers who found his championing of the common man idealistic and prophetic.

Whitman’s aim was to transcend traditional epics, to eschew normal aesthetic form, and yet by reflecting American society to enable the poet and his readers to realize themselves and the nature of their American experience. He has continued to hold the attention of very different generations because he offered the welcome conviction that “the crowning growth of the United States” was to be spiritual and heroic and because he was able to uncompromisingly express his own personality in poetic form. Modern readers can still share his preoccupation with the problem of preserving the individual’s integrity amid the pressures of mass civilization. Scholars in the 20th century, however, find his social thought less important than his artistry. T.S. Eliot said, “When Whitman speaks of the lilacs or the mockingbird his theories and beliefs drop away like a needless pretext.” Whitman invigorated language; he could be strong yet sentimental; and he possessed scope and inventiveness. He portrayed the relationships of man’s body and soul and the universe in a new way, often emancipating poetry from contemporary conventions. He had sufficient universality to be considered one of the greatest American poets.

Alexander Norman Jeffares
Gay Wilson Allen
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

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