Romanticism in America

The French Revolution of 1789 marked a watershed for the future of Europe, a fact keenly discerned by writers on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Irving Babbitt and Matthew Arnold. Not only did that Revolution initiate the political ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, a struggle continued through the violent European revolutions of 1830 and 1848; but also its dimensions were so momentous, overturning the centuries-old economic edifice of feudalism and absolutism, as well as their sanction in classical Christian thought, that its imprint was indelibly impressed on all areas of life, economic, religious, philosophical, scientific, and literary.

The major characteristics of capitalist development in America during the nineteenth century were consonant with those in Europe. Henry Adams observed an “instinctive kinship” between the later nineteenth-century bourgeoisie of Paris and London and that of New England; for the latter, “England’s middle-class government was the ideal of human progress.” In both Europe and America, industrial capitalism, where business interests had been predominantly organized as individual enterprises or partnerships, began to be superseded in mid-century by the much more impersonal organization of finance capitalism, so called because of the monopolization of industry by huge investment banking empires. The new ruling class now comprised industrialists and investment bankers. Adams effectively captured the ruthless spirit of this transition: “The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy. They were revolutionary, troubling all the old conventions and values . . .They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot.” In the 1880s John D.Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie became symbols of such monopoly through their respective enterprises in petroleum and steel. By the 1860s it was the railroads which represented the most powerful economic interest in America; the rapid expansion and incorporation of the railroad network in the following years paved the way for large corporations and centralized management in other industries such as steel. It is no accident that in Adams’ autobiography the railroad becomes a subtle metaphor for the restructuring of society by industrial interests.

These developments were accompanied by a massive increase in population from about five million in 1800 to around a hundred million in 1914, as well as by a huge influx of immigration and, as in Europe, a large-scale movement of people from the countryside to the towns. By the late nineteenth century there had arisen a vast urban industrial landscape linked by railroad and telegraph, a metallic and concrete world in which the rhythms of rural life, the seasonal work cycles, the links between successive generations, the sense of identity between individual and community, and the strength of family ties were all severely shaken. The greater part of individual identity, as Ferdinand Tonnies suggests, was endowed by a person’s social role. Equally consequent upon this increasing division of labor was the disintegration of the individual’s psychic unity into a one-dimensional orientation toward utilitarian and rational practice at the expense of what many writers called sensibility. All of these features – finance capitalism, the railroad, centralization of management and authority, a mechanical concept of time (as money), and the displacement of Gemeinschaft by Gesellschaft – formed the conditions to which American Romantics responded.

Like Europe, America had its fair share of economic liberals such as Nassau Senior, as well as its propagators of the myth of the “self-made man,” a myth through whose core ran the Puritan Protestant ethic of hard work and thrift. As stated above, the notion of self-creation through work or labor lies at the center of a nexus of bourgeois  ideals which, as Engels, Max Weber, and others have argued, are underpinned by a devotion to the rational organization of society and in particular the rational accumulation of capital. In America, economic liberalism (which, however, was constrained by America’s protectionist policy since 1816 and the emergence of corporations and monopolies) was somewhat tempered by the “gospel of wealth,” which was but one of numerous attempts to argue the commensurability of capitalism and Christianity. This doctrine, elaborated for example in Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth (1901), decreed that possession of wealth brought along with it a Christian responsibility to donate to the good of the community. Many churches in fact formulated their doctrines so as to harmonize with contemporary economic practice and material conditions. One of these was the Unitarian Church, whose liberalism facilitated the influx into America of European Romantic ideas.

Romanticism in America flowered somewhat later than in Europe, embroiled as the new nation was in the struggle for self-definition in political, economic, and religious terms. It was American independence from British rule, achieved in 1776, that opened the path to examining national identity, the development of a distinctly American literary tradition in the light of Romantically reconceived visions of the self and nature. The major American Romantics included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville. While some of these writers were influenced by European Romantics and philosophers, nearly all of them were inspired by a nationalistic concern to develop an indigenous cultural tradition and a distinctly American literature. Indeed, they helped to define – at a far deeper and more intelligent level than the crude definitions offered by politicians since then until the present day – the very concept of American national identity. Like the European Romantics, these American writers reacted against what they perceived to be the mechanistic and utilitarian tenor of Enlightenment thinking and the industrial, urbanized world governed by the ethics and ideals of bourgeois commercialism. They sought to redeem the ideas of spirit, nature, and the richness of the human self within a specifically American context.

It was Emerson who laid the foundations of American Romanticism. Utilizing the ideas of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, he developed organicist ideas of nature, language, and imagination, and called for American writers to depart from the strict genres and formal hierarchies of European literary tradition and to forge their own modes of expression. Both Emerson and Walt Whitman referred to America as a “poem” which needed to be written. In the preface to his Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman saw himself as writing “the great psalm of the republic,” and in a subsequent preface identified the expression of individual identity with national identity. Like Emerson, he reacted against the strictures of genre and form and wrote in a freer form using colloquial speech, or what Whitman called “the dialect of common sense,” intended to convey the vastness of the American spirit. He saw the “genius” of the United States as residing in the common people, and thought that the redemption of America from its rotten commercialism lay in the realization of its authentic self. Whitman’s Song of Myself begins with the line “I celebrate myself.” But the narrative “I” that controls the movement of this poem is symbolic (“In all people I see myself,” l. 401). Emphasizing a common humanity, Whitman locates this human nature in both soul and body, spurning didactic aims and boldly celebrating the divine in all dimensions of his humanity, and assuming indifference to conventional morality, as in his questioning “What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?” (l. 468). Whitman moves toward a total acceptance of humanity, free from the artifice of conventional perception, and the false imposition of coherence: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then . . . I contradict myself; / I am large . . . I contain multitudes” (ll. 1314–1316). Whitman saw the human personality as integrating and accommodating all kinds of development, scientific, artistic, religious, and economic. Another major figure influenced by Emerson, as well as by Thomas Carlyle, was Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). In his most famous work, Walden (1854), based on his sojourn at Emerson’s property at Walden pond, he advocated a life free of social artifice, routine, and consumerism, simplified in its needs, devoted to nature and art, imaginatively exploring the depths of the self, and developing an authentic language. Thoreau’s highly Romantic and eccentric vision was also expressed in his views of the rights of the individual and of the need to resist oppression; he was a fervent abolitionist, and his essay Resistance to Civil Government (1849; later entitled Civil Disobedience) influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence from British rule as well as the American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) also voiced fervent opposition to what she saw as a society soiled by material greed, crime, and the perpetuation of slavery. Influenced at various times by Goethe, Carlyle, Mary Wollstonecraft, and George Sand, and a friend of Emerson’s, she edited the transcendentalists’ journal the Dial from 1840 to 1842, and published a notable feminist work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844), in which she argued that the development of men and women cannot occur in mutual independence, there being no wholly masculine man, or purely feminine woman. She was distinctive in making gender an issue, and this text can be read as an effort to make Emersonian self-reliance an option for women. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) drew upon Emerson’s theories, Enlightenment philosophy, and Coleridge’s views on imagination to define the genre of romance fiction as a locus where the real and the imaginary intersect and influence each other, in a unified vision. For Hawthorne, recognition of textual history and the history of American institutions is just an integral element of such a vision as is nature. Both Hawthorne and his friend and admirer Herman Melville reacted, like the other American Romantics, against the mechanism and commercialism at the core of American life. Striving to attain the passion and originality to develop a national literature, they yet recognized that the modern fragmented world defied the attempts of romance and imagination to achieve a harmonious and comprehensive vision of life.

Source: A History of  Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present Editor(s): M. A. R. Habib

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