Saturday, December 24, 2011

Romanticism in American Literature

So about a week ago, a friend of mine informed me that she doesn't believe I'm an English major because of my blog's atrocious spelling/grammatical errors. I retorted that here, I write as a speak--very different from the "professional" tone I use for school assignments.

She still was skeptical, so I said: "What would it take for you to believe me? Reading one of my papers?"

Apparently. ;)

So without further ado, Johanna, this is for you! And it's probably still full of spelling and grammatical errors. ;) (Sorry, it's so much later than I promised!)

[Side note: due to the 10-13 cited sources that nobody but my professor cares about, I've purposefully omitted them from this post. Also, some of the formatting has changed (ex. indented paras). Do not use without permission .]

Romanticism in American Literature
by Talia B.

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity." In his book, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens encapsulates what has been since called the "age of Revolution" (Dickens). The late 1700s and early 19th century brought with it many historical enterprises, including a wave of literary talent whose impact is still felt today. It is easy to look at the present world and wonder how we can ever follow suit. What we fail to realize is that like today, the artists and writers of yesteryear were of their own time and place; individuals each having one voice. But their song was not to go unheard. Together, they expressed new thoughts and ideas, revolutionizing every aspect of society, and creating what became known as the Romantic movement.

History is full of eras where certain philosophies have predominated over others. There was the Dark Ages, a time of artistic and scientific obscurity, where the Roman Catholic church heavily influenced freedom of expression; the Renaissance, whose Protestant Reformation saw the rebirth of these pursuits; and the Age of Enlightenment, a period that placed particular emphasis on logic and intellectualism. It also served as a platform for the Industrial Revolution. But in response to the changing times, people also changed. A discontent swept over society, beginning in England and Germany and eventually spreading to America and the rest of Europe.

Contrary to the popular ideas of the time, Romanticism embraced individualism, inner spiritualism, and a reverence for simplistic living. It called for peace with God, man, nature, and oneself, untainted by the rigidity and formal structure of neoclassicism. Most historians believe that the origin of this movement began around 1798, with the advent of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads ("Romanticism"). Although some assert that the rise of Romanticism came about so slowly that no hard-and-fast definition is plausible, most scholars agree on the qualities that define this age (Holman and Harmon).

Romantics by and large focused on three principal values: a love of nature, the inherent goodness of mankind, and a pursuit of the exotic (Kreis, Brians). Whereas the Enlightenment advocated technical and mechanical precision, order, and clarity, Romanticism focused more on artistic expression, interpretation, and imagination (Morner and Rausch). This "predominance of imagination over reason..." is probably best described in the words of William Hazlitt. He recognized the "classic beauty of a Greek temple in its actual form [with] its obvious connotations," versus "the 'romantic' beauty of a Gothic building or ruin associated [with] ideas that the imagination conjure[s] up (Holman and Harmon)." Among the "Characteristics of ...Romanticism [are included] subjectivity and an emphasis on individualism, spontaneity...solitary life rather than life in society, the belief that imagination is superior to reason...and [a] fascination with the past--especially the myths and mysticism of the Middle Ages (Morner and Rausch)." Others have more generally defined it as "A movement...that marked the reaction in literature, philosophy, art, religion, and politics from the neoclassicism and formal orthodoxy of the preceding period ("Romanticism").

As it pertains to the arts, the 19th century left its greatest impression on literature and prose. Beginning with the "great six"--Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats--poetry assumed more of a free-flowing tone that reiterated sensuality over structure. Romantic writers sought to make their audiences feel and experience all the more passionately, the power of the written word. Their work sought not only to express ideas involving the physical world, but more importantly, the "world within" ("Romanticism"). As a result, the first-person lyric came into prominence, a style most famously employed by Coleridge in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

But Romanticism was not merely confined to Europe's poetry however. America too, contributed her own fair share of literary and prosaic expertise. Men such as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman were among the more well-known figures of the time. Although they all wrote poetry, with the exceptions of Whitman and Thoreau, most are remembered primarily for their works of fiction (Morner and Rausch).

In that regard, perhaps no American author has had the same lasting effect as the Father of the Short Story, Edgar Allan Poe. Author of such famous stories as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe drew heavily upon the Romantic notion of horror: the "pleasing terror" designed to shock a rational public. In light of this fact, he is sometimes referred to as a Dark Romantic (Wikipedia). Many of his works allude to the fact that Poe harbored an affinity for the supernatural, yet another quality of the Romantic movement. One story in particular--Ligeia--rejects the classical conventions of the Enlightenment and replaces it with the novel, yet alluring ideology of the Romantic period. In the words of Floramaria Deter:

"Poe repeatedly points out flaws in the classical appearance of Rowena, 'the fair-haired, the blue-eyed,' by comparing her to Ligeia whose 'features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen'...Poe clearly rejects classical beauty by killing off Rowena and having Ligeia, the heroine and the personification of Romantic beauty, live on through Rowena's body (Deter)."

Deter also notes Ligeia's supernatural effect upon the narrator such that he cannot identity the moment he first met her, nor how she came back from the dead. Unexplainable events similar to these also appear throughout Poe's other stories. In The Tell-Tale Heart, for example, the narrator is haunted by the still-beating heart of a man he murdered; The Black Cat alludes to an animal presence that never truly dies; and The Masque of Red Death to the personification of a disease that kills 1,000 courtiers in a single night. In each of these tales, the horror that is inspired by these combinations of macabre and magical cement Poe as a true-to-form Romantic.

Playing upon this mysticism, 19th century writers also revealed their love for the unnatural. Nathanial Hawthorne was particularly renowned for this quality, tweaking conventional norms at a time when society functioned on principles of tradition and order. Indeed, where the contrast between black and white could not have been more distinct, Hawthorne sought to encompass the grey areas of human existence--its complexities as well as its uncertainties. He did this by focusing on man's susceptibility to sin, the aggregations of symbolism, and the belief that all may not what it seems. Such ideas and more work together in what many consider to be Hawthorne's greatest work, The Scarlet Letter.

By paralleling an "enlightened" society with that of the early Puritans, Hawthorne, through his character Hester Prynne, obliterates three models of thinking. Firstly, he elevates an adulterer to the position of heroine; secondly, he suggests that, like Dr. Chillingworth, not all physicians have their patient's best interests at heart; and finally, he dismisses the age-old belief that men of God are incapable of serious sin. As a Romantic writer, Hawthorne adhered to the notion of individualism. This meant that he rejected the neoclassical preference for "half-god-half-mortal" hero/heroines and instead embraced "less-likely" choices: the outcast, impoverished, and even the deformed. Thus, Hester becomes the noble victim while those who hold traditional positions of power--like the doctor and the minister--falter and fall ("Romanticism").

Hawthorne also declares himself a Romantic by failing to explain all the details within his plots. This sort of purposeful negligence appears many times throughout The Scarlet Letter, manifest in the "elf-like" behavior of Hester's daughter, Pearl. The illegitimate child of an adulterous affair, we never understand why Pearl acts so strangely; in actuality, we are never meant to. Hawthorne uses ambiguity to advance his belief in the supernatural, especially as it pertains to heavenly or demonic activity. The idea of "all is not what is seems" is a key component to the Romantic ideology. It characterizes most of Hawthorne's short stories, including Young Goodman Brown, The Birthmark, and Rappacinni's Daughter. In all three of these examples, extraordinary events happen to people whom we believe to be ordinary. Goodman Brown receives first-hand insight into the hypocrisy of the human soul; an ambitious scientist inadvertently kills his wife trying to cure her; and an ill-fated young man falls in love with the poisoned daughter of a demented physician.

Yet being a perceptive writer, Hawthorne does not leave these events as simply "unexplainable" phenomena. Instead, he incorporates heavy use of symbolism and metaphor to make a point. In the words of Josh Rahn, "He [espouses] the conviction that objects can hold significance deeper than their apparent meaning, and that the symbolic nature of reality [is] the most fertile ground for literature (Rahn)." Most of Hawthornian literature focuses on one central object that reappears throughout the story. The Scarlet Letter for example, centers on the letter "A" as a symbol of shame and adultery; The Minister's Black Veil on a mysterious kerchief which the Reverend Hooper wears over his face; and Young Goodman Brown on Faith's pink ribbons. By using symbolism, Hawthorne not only tells a story, but also asserts his views on those subjects for which his stories stand: "guilt, family, honor, politics, and society (Rahn).

But if Nathaniel Hawthorne is America's master of symbolism in literature (Rahn), then Walt Whitman is America's master of symbolism in poetry. More than any other writer of the 19th century, "Whitman invented the myth of democratic America." He wrote: "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States is essentially the greatest poem (Chapter 3)." Romantics believed that the ultimate source of poetry was the poet himself ("Romanticism"). They also resurrected many literary conventions of previous centuries--like the blank verse--which fostered renewed appreciation for the works of Shakespeare and Milton. Whitman, though heavily influenced by the lyric poetry of England, employed this style in most of his poems. He also held fast to the notion of individualism, a quality exalted throughout his greatest work and crowning legacy, Song of Myself.

One of the tell-tale signs of Whitman's affiliation with the Romantic movement is his love and worship of nature. In addition to celebrating mankind, Song spends a good portion of its fifty-two sections deifying inanimate objects. As one source put it: "Whitman makes a practice of presenting commonplace items in nature--'ants,' 'heap'd stones,' and 'poke-weed'--as containing divine elements...[referring] to the 'grass' as a natural 'hieroglyphic,' 'the handkerchief of the Lord ("Romanticism").'" Such romanticism, in terms of word choice, also corresponds to the notion of "organic poetry," a belief which linked nature with art. Romantics believed that art, rather than science, was the only way to express absolute truth (Chapter 3). Whitman gave great credence to nature as having a passionate affect on his soul. He even went so far as to equate its power with that of a sexual experience. But while Whitman tended to see the great outdoors through the eyes of an artist, his contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, would view it in somewhat a different light.

Thoreau belonged to the league of Transcendentalists, one of many branches of the Romantic movement. He saw nature as more of a functionalist, asserting that nature afforded healing powers both emotionally and economically. In his book, Walden, Thoreau explored the idea that man is but the personification of nature itself. As such, he believed it ought to be protected but at the same time, utilized to best serve and reform society. Nature, in its fullest sense, served many purposes for this great American philosopher, writer, teacher, economist, and poet. One of these was self-realization. In the words of Wendell Glick: "A walk in the woods [for Thoreau]...was a search for spiritual enlightenment, not merely a sensory pleasure. One should look 'through' nature...not merely 'at' her (Wendell).

Another function of nature, Thoreau believed, was the bettering of mankind. By allowing people to return to their natural state--in this case, the banks of Walden Pond-- they would be able to "transcend" themselves into a greater, moral beings. Primitive living allows one to discover what is truly important in life. Thoreau believed that by "endorsing economic [would] better perceive the world, see what constrains [his or her] life, freer to explore [his or her] inner self for divine insight" (Poetry Foundation).

Although he expressed an interest in science towards the latter part of his life, Thoreau is best known for his philosophical writings. His essay, Civil Disobedience, may well be considered a political manifesto for the Romantic movement. It voiced how 19th century Americans ought to view government and their place in it. As corresponds to the Romantic notion of individualism, Thoreau believed that martial law often denied people the ability to exercise moral law. "Obey the conscience, not the majority," he says (Thoreau's Civil Disobedience). His approach differs drastically from that of the Enlightenment. Although invoking reason, logic, and rhetoric, Thoreau's object is not the human intellect, but rather the human heart--the emotions. This is what distinguishes him from previous philosophers like Voltaire. Unlike his predecessors, Thoreau rallies his audience to action through the art of language.

Perhaps no one understood this concept of engaging readers so well as Herman Melville. Author of the well-beloved Billy Budd, Sailor, Melville understood the dichotic power of man versus nature. He also understood the potential of the romantic hero, calling into question the struggle of light against the forces of darkness. As a Romantic writer, Melville allowed some form of this evil to prevail in his stories. His classic Moby Dick is a notorious example. But other occurrences, such as Bartleby the Scrivener, also demonstrate this pattern.

The victim of a cruel and calloused society, Bartleby is a symbol of a thwarted existence. If ever he is asked to do something, he responds that he would simply "prefer not to." While this show of defiance initially incites anger on the part of the reader, eventually we come to realize that Bartleby is apathetically and inhumanely killing himself. As a result, our compassion is aroused and we come to pity the young scrivener, even as he is ostracized from the rest of the world and from himself.

This same dilemma is further developed in the story Billy Budd. Pride of the King's Navy and endowed with good looks, Billy represents the icon of Rousseauian "noble savagery." But after committing an act of mutiny in self-defense, his life is forfeited to the execution of justice. The sentence to hang Billy Budd has long baffled reader and literary scholar alike. On one hand, there is the concept of divine justice--the moral obligation of one innocent being to another; on the other, Melville presents the unforgiving rigidity of martial law. This recurring theme, combined with a flair for killing off his characters, has led people to indisputably classify Melville as a Dark Romantic (Wikipedia).

There is little doubt that all five of these men contributed something great to mankind. Whether it be in the power of their works, the ideas they presented, or the illusions they fashioned, each one stands as a shining emblem of a by-gone age. The Romantic era revolutionized America, and indeed all of Europe, in ways from which this world has yet to recover. Poe opened our eyes to the psychological potential of the human mind; Hawthorne to the concept of secret sin; Whitman, to the beauty of nature; Thoreau to our moral and political responsibilities; and Melville to the archaic contest between good and evil. The wisdom and the foolishness of the 19th century, its best of times and darkest hours, its successes and its failures, make it one of the most influential eras of history. And although its name brands has faded from view, as in Hawthorne's story, the beliefs and ideologies of that time have branded into our bosoms their own scarlet letter--one that will take on a life of its own, enduring until the end of time.


michelle said...

I kept waiting fo r the paragraph on Chopin in the romanticism era. ;) I really miss our weekly mornings together. Can we do coffee some morning?

Talia said...

I know. ;) I wish I could have researched more about Romantic art and music, but I had to stick with those five authors only. :( Oh, Chopin...*sighs* where would I be without you? lol

I REALLY miss you, too. :) I've been wanting to get together for a long time, but I thought'd you'd be busy with the baby. (He's SO cute, by the way!) Yes, we should definitely do coffee! I'll email you once I know my work schedule for this week. ;)

Love ya!

madeline blair said...