American Renaissance (2024)

Early Critical Approaches

The phrase “American Renaissance” was introduced in 1941 by the critic F. O. Matthiessen, who identified the period from 1850 to 1855 as an “extraordinarily concentrated moment of literary expression.”1 These years saw the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno,” and other writings; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men; Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. No period in American literary history has yielded so rich an array of writings. Critics have since added two other authors—Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson—to Matthiessen’s five, and the period is commonly understood to have begun with the publication of Emerson’s pamphlet Nature in 1836 and to have lasted at least until the mid-1860s, when Dickinson produced her major poetry.

Matthiessen, writing during the heyday of the New Criticism, emphasized close readings of a restricted canon of literary works with an eye to exploring the ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies of works that, from this vantage point, were most notable for their thematic density and stylistic innovation. This formalist approach was pursued by later critics, notably Lionel Trilling, Charles Feidelson Jr., Richard Chase, and Richard Poirier, who maintained that writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville achieved stylistic transcendence or philosophical depth in a culture that offered few literary materials.2 This view of the major writers as alienated rebels in an arid cultural environment was carried forward by the poststructuralists and the New Formalists, who sustained an interest in “the text itself,” with minimal reference to social or biographical context.

Writings of the American Renaissance have indeed proven worthy of close readings through numerous critical lenses, and doubtless some type of formalism will always be applied in discussions of the period.3 From the 1950s onward, however, there have been significant strides away from purely formalist interpretation, in myth-and-symbol criticism, psychoanalytic approaches, the New Historicism, feminism, gender studies and queer theory, ecocriticism, critical animal studies, post-humanism, and cultural biography.

The myth-and-symbol school, prominent in American Studies from the 1950s through the 1970s, focused on resonant paradigms perceived as central to the American literary and cultural experience. One such paradigm was introduced in Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, which saw in American Renaissance literature a tension between civilization, portrayed by authors as genteel and staid, and the frontier, depicted as natural and free.4 Building on Smith, Leo Marx in The Machine and the Garden discovered a common preoccupation among antebellum authors with the pastoral ideal, threatened by the forces of industrialization and urbanization.5 Another paradigm—the self-reliant, untamed frontiersman—was probed in Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence.6 For R. W. B. Lewis, in contrast, the quintessential national figure was the American Adam, the emblem of an emerging republic that offered endless possibilities for expression and philosophical adventure.7

Whereas the myth-and-symbol school challenged formalism from the cultural side, psychoanalytic criticism countered it with interpretations from autobiographical or psychological perspectives. Leslie Fiedler’s landmark Love and Death in the American Novel explores a fixation on hom*oeroticism, death, or incest in key American texts.8 Joel Porte sees Freud’s anxiety-generated, dynamic ego as the underpinning of American Renaissance texts, which veer between enthusiastic self-assertion and romantic apokalypsis (revelation).9 For Jeffrey Steele, who draws on Freud and Jung as well as Paul Ricoeur, Hans Robert Jauss, and Wolfgang Iser, a struggle for selfhood defines pre–Civil War literary expression, from the self as masquerade (Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe) to the self as inner essence (the transcendentalists and Whitman).10

Cultural Studies and Canon Expansion

With the rise of the New Historicism and cultural studies in the 1980s, noncanonical writings that had been formerly neglected or minimized were brought to the fore. Among them were African American writings, including William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel and autobiographies such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; women’s fiction, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, and Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall; and city-mysteries novels like George Lippard’s The Quaker City and George Thompson’s City Crimes. The era also produced the Fireside Poets (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant), Southwestern humorists (including George Washington Harris and T. B. Thorpe), and accomplished novelists such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Robert Montgomery Bird, and Lydia Maria Child. In light of this variety of literary texts and voices, “American Renaissance” has come to be used in an expansive sense.

Not only has the literary canon expanded, but the very basis of literary criticism has been interrogated. Jane P. Tompkins in Sensational Designs argues that the New Critics and other formalists anachronistically impose modernist values on 19th-century texts, slighting works that do not feature ambiguity or irony. Tompkins points out that a work like Stowe’s influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin is sentimental and yet merits close critical scrutiny because of the cultural work it accomplished.11

Cultural approaches were advanced by critics swayed by the New Historicism. Commentators like Sacvan Bercovitch, Myra Jehlen, and Donald Pease—who, along with others, are called the New Americanists—maintain that hegemonic ideology, derived from Puritanism and fused with nationalist consensus in the pre–Civil War period, absorbed subversive forces of political protest or radical individualism.12 Such ideologically oriented critics have been charged in some circles with reifying the existing canon and neglecting diverse cultural voices. Eric J. Sundquist in To Wake the Nations reveals that literature by whites cannot be understood without reference to imaginative expression by African Americans.13 David S. Reynolds in Beneath the American Renaissance and Walt Whitman’s America demonstrates that authors of the American Renaissance, far from being isolatoes who were distanced from their society or who defanged dissent, actually were deeply engaged in both subversive cultural phenomena whose tropes and themes accounted for much of the richness of their texts. Works like Emerson’s essays, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Leaves of Grass did not represent a “world elsewhere,” apart from the cultural mainstream. To the contrary, American Renaissance authors absorbed and creatively transformed images from popular cultural phenomena such as sermons, reforms tracts, sensational newspapers, crime pamphlets, pulp novels, minstrel shows, and grotesque popular humor.14

The expanded canon was brought into the classroom by reissues of forgotten texts and, most influentially, by the appearance in 1990 of Paul Lauter’s two-volume Heath Anthology of American Literature, which made numerous unfamiliar or previously neglected texts readily available.15 Feminist critics were among the chief players in the retrieval of lost works. What Hawthorne dismissively labeled “a d---d mob of scribbling women”16 became the focus of books by Ann Douglas, Nina Baym, Jane P. Tompkins, Carolyn Sorisio, and others. In Douglas’s view, popular women’s literature was saccharine and lachrymose, providing a “feminized” backdrop to darker, tough-minded writings by the likes of Melville and Margaret Fuller.17 For Baym, women’s fiction, far from being maudlin, highlighted sturdy virtue and independence on the part of heroines faced with daunting challenges.18 Tompkins suggests that the sentimentality of women’s writing was in fact a source of cultural power.19 Sorisio, similarly, shows that women gained agency through sentimental expression and through participation in the commodity culture of capitalism.20 A feminist revision of myth-and-symbol criticism was achieved by Annette Kolodny in The Lay of the Land, which portrays the western frontier as a virginal paradise violently penetrated and mastered by men, and The Land before Her, which explores women’s writings (captivity narratives, diaries, letters, fiction) that reveal how women imagined the wilderness as a sanctuary of domesticity and fertility.21

The focus on gender has also brought about the reassessment of the portrayal of males in antebellum literature. In contrast to the former notion of separate spheres, critics have identified a fluidity of gender roles whereby men and women shared concerns and characteristics. This gender fluidity is openly presented, for example, in Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Melville’s Pierre, and Whitman’s poetry. Leland Person suggests that Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne represented a feminized masculinist poetics through their dark heroines—for example, Ligeia, Hautia, Beatrice, Hester, Zenobia, and Miriam—to whom both the male protagonist and the author felt compelled either to submit to or to convert into an icon.22 David Leverenz sees male antebellum authors caught in a tension between disparate notions of manhood: the fading ideal of patrician gentility, the independent ethos of artisan labor, and the aggressiveness of ascendant entrepreneurial capitalism.23 Critics influenced by queer theory perceive sex and gender roles as performative and culturally shaped, a phenomenon that applies with special force to the antebellum period, decades before sexual categories such as hom*osexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or transsexual gained currency. In an era when same-sex love was an unselfconscious part of mainstream norms, hom*oerotic and hom*osocial passions were expressed in literary moments such as Ishmael’s “marriage” to the cannibal Queequeg (Moby-Dick), the symbiosis of Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth (The Scarlet Letter), or the male bonding that permeates Whitman’s poetry. Critics like Robert K. Martin, Caleb Crain, and David Greven place hom*oeroticism at the heart of literature of the American Renaissance.24

Transatlanticism, Ecocriticism, and the Turn to Philosophy and Religion

While gender criticism has focused on personal relationships and the private psyche, two other strains of cultural studies, transatlanticism and ecocriticism, have probed the exterior phenomena of literary cross-influences and the natural world, respectively. Transatlanticism challenges longstanding views of American exceptionalism by demonstrating continuities between antebellum authors and writers elsewhere in the world, both contemporaneously and throughout history. Critics like Leon Chai and Richard Gravil find analogies between the British and American Romantics, and Wai Chee Dimock mines ancient cultures in “deep time” for elements of style and themes that appeared in the American Renaissance.25 Lloyd Pratt argues that linear views of national time are unsettled by antebellum literary works that incorporate plural temporalities from both ancient and contemporary sources, while Dana Luciano sees the temporal destabilization resulting from affect associated with domesticity, spirituality, and mourning rituals.26 There is ongoing interest in the Oriental roots of antebellum literature and reform, as exhibited, for example, by studies like Arthur Christy’s The Orient in American Transcendentalism, Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, and Arthur Versluis’s American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions and The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance.27

With the rise of the environmental movement, a number of critics have foregrounded ecological themes in American Renaissance authors. Lawrence Buell, who pioneered ecocriticism with the publication of The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of America (1995), interprets nature-oriented works like Walden as reminders of human accountability to the environment.28 Laura Dassow Walls demonstrates that the attitudes toward nature on the part of Thoreau and other antebellum authors were strongly influenced by scientists such as the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.29 Other critics have brought Hawthorne, Melville, Margaret Fuller, and other authors into the conversation, finding in their texts an ecoconsciousness linked to a sensitivity to rising threats to nature posed by industrialism and urbanization.30 There was a definite transatlantic dimension to this theme, as demonstrated by those who compare the nature writing of American and European Romantic authors; but it was the Americans, weaned in Jeffersonian pastoralism and confronted by expanses of unsettled frontier, who brought special urgency to the handling of environmental issues.

Ecocriticism has been accompanied by a growing concern with other themes: science and medicine, with a combined focus on nature, the human body, and the body politic; critical animal studies, which bring attention to the heterogeneous animal images in American Renaissance literature; and posthuman criticism, a materialist approach that deconstructs binaries such as human/nature and human/animal in an effort to dismantle the anthropocentric understanding of the universe.31

Even as criticism has followed a path toward materialism, there has been a countervailing movement toward a reconsideration of philosophy and religion that reflects the post–9/11 concern with the intersection of religion and politics. Several commentators—including Cornel West, Joan Richardson, and Roger V. Bell Jr.—find continuities between philosophical expression during the American Renaissance and later thinkers, such as William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Thomas Dewey, and poststructuralists.32 “The religious turn” is a phrase used to describe newer approaches that move beyond earlier paradigms emphasizing Puritan origins, institutional histories, or hegemonic national vision (à la Perry Miller, Alan Heimert, Sacvan Bercovitch, etc.) and toward multidisciplinary approaches that encompass, for example, popular culture, cultural geography, gender, sexuality, race, class, or transnationalism.33

Biography and Literary History

Recent biographical and historical criticism has forcefully challenged the idea, long prevalent among formalists and theorists, that an author’s life and contexts tell us little about literary works. The supposed autonomy of literature is a notion that the American Renaissance authors themselves flatly rejected. Emerson used the term “Representative Men” to describe authors like Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Goethe because of his view of them as unusually observant people living in specific times and places and attuned to the world around them. As he writes, “[T]he ideas are in the air, and infect all who breathe it … We learn of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of our skin.”34 Literary genius, Emerson writes, consists in “being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass through the mind.” Melville, in his essay on Hawthorne, wrote, “[G]great geniuses are parts of the times; they themselves are the times; and possess a correspondent coloring.”35 In “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Whitman described the poet “hanging on [the nation’s] neck with incomparable love,/Plunging his seminal muscle into its merits and demerits.”36 Whitman went so far to insist that the poet must be “the age transfigured.”37

This recognition of the crucial importance of life facts in their historical context has informed a number of recent biographies of American Renaissance figures. Some scholars have adopted the term “cultural biography” to describe their work. Cultural biography treats historical milieu not as window dressing—as something “out there,” on the fringes of personal life—but rather as a dynamic entity constantly seeping into the subject’s psyche and shaping his or her behavior. For instance, in Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, David S. Reynolds shows that Whitman’s immersion in many phenomena—party politics, the slavery debate, science and pseudoscience, book and newspaper publishing, art and photography, music, religion and philosophy, sexual mores—indelibly shaped his attitudes and his poetry. Similarly, in John Brown, Abolitionist Reynolds contextualizes Brown in light of the slave revolts, guerrilla warfare, and revolutionary Christianity that inspired him and the literati, principally the Transcendentalists, who elevated him to a near-saintly level after his antislavery raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.38 Carolyn Karcher takes a similarly contextual approach in The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Karcher depicts Child as a novelist and reformer devoted to the causes of African Americans, immigrants who were engaged in all the major social and political movements of her time.39 Joan D. Hedrick’s biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe brings to bear women’s parlor literature, literary clubs, and changes in evangelical religion to help explain the broad appeal of Stowe’s novels.40 Robert Richardson’s biographies of Emerson and Thoreau explore the wide-ranging reading of the Concord thinkers to show how their lives and ideas were shaped by their intellectual heritage.41

Among the most vital Americanist undertakings of recent times have been group biographies. Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters interweaves the biographies of the authors and educators Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody with accounts of the authors they were close to (including the Transcendentalists, Hawthorne, and Horace Mann) as well as the era’s politics, society, and religion.42 John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father is a joint biography of the transcendentalist thinker Amos Bronson Alcott and his novelist daughter that considers the two in the context of reform movements and popular culture.43 John Stauffer in Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln investigates Douglass and Lincoln as self-made men who transformed themselves in the context of changing ideals of personal liberty that they appealed to as they worked together to direct the nation toward justice and human rights.44

Biographers who have taken the more traditional approach of sticking closely to an individual’s life have proved resourceful in bringing new information to bear. For instance, Phyllis Cole’s biography of Emerson’s aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, mines Mary’s spiritual diaries to demonstrate her formative influence on Emerson’s philosophical growth.45 Jerome Loving’s wide-ranging reading of Walt Whitman’s journalism and correspondence brings originality to his biography of the poet.46 Margaret Fuller has been freshly illuminated in well-researched biographies by Charles Capper, John Matteson, and Megan Marshall.47 Hershel Parker’s monumental two-volume Melville biography brings together virtually every known fact about Melville—his family, his friends, his homes, his publishers, his writings and reviews of them—to create a what feels like day-by-day portrait of the novelist’s life.48

Emerson and the Transcendentalist Movement

The American Renaissance is customarily said to have been initiated by the New England philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. This view of Emerson as “the cow from which the rest drew their milk,” as Matthiessen put it,49 has been challenged by those who bring attention to other culturally influential authors; but there can be no doubt that Emerson’s pamphlet Nature (1836) and the first and second series of his Essays (1841 and 1844, respectively), as well as his later speeches and writings, had a remarkably widespread impact. Part of this impact is captured in Matthiessen’s statement that Emerson was the force “on which Thoreau built, to which Whitman gave extension, and to which Hawthorne and Melville were indebted by being forced to react against its philosophical assumptions.” But Emerson’s influence was far broader than that: his ideas spread variously toward elite and popular authors, philosophy and politics, conservativism and radicalism, piety and skepticism, capitalism and communitarianism, toward a metaphysics of presence and toward modernist aporia.

Descended from several generations of prominent New England ministers, Emerson attended Harvard as both an undergraduate and a divinity student before entering the Unitarian ministry at Boston’s Second Church. His later philosophical outlook was shaped by Unitarian doctrines, including God’s benevolence, the humanity of Jesus, and self-culture. In 1832, Emerson left the pulpit because he could no longer take literally the Christian ritual of communion. His increasingly liberal views were enriched by his exposure to various cultural currents: idealistic philosophy, from Plato to Kant and beyond; Asian religions; the metaphysics of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg; the poetry and prose of Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Coleridge; the writings of German authors such as Goethe and Friedrich Schleiermacher; and the French savants Pierre-Simon Laplace and Adolphe Quetelet.

As indebted as Emerson was to such transatlantic sources, he was determined to forge a literature that was identifiably American. He declared, “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draw to a close. The millions, that around us are rushing into life cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.”50 He hoped to cultivate a literature that reflected what he regarded as the freshness, vigor, and fertility of the expanding American nation. He found many of these qualities in American popular and folk culture. In frontier speeches, western humor, and zestful reform writings he found the indigenous spirit he thought would energize American literature. Describing what he saw as significant sources of “a new and stronger tone in literature,” he wrote: “The Kentucky stump-oratory, the exploits of Boon[e] and David Crockett, the journals of western pioneers, agriculturalists, and socialists, and the letters of Jack Downing, are genuine growths, which are sought with avidity in Europe, where our European-like books are of no value.”51

A major popular-cultural figure who influenced Emerson and other antebellum authors was Edward Thompson (“Father”) Taylor, the colorful Methodist preacher at the Seamen’s Bethel Church in Boston. Walt Whitman, who heard Taylor preach in 1860, called Taylor America’s only “essentially perfect orator.”52 Melville, who also reportedly attended a Taylor sermon, had Father Taylor in mind when he limned the salty, slang-spouting Father Mapple in Moby-Dick. Other Taylor admirers included Thoreau, Edward Everett, and visiting foreigners such as Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens.

For Emerson, Taylor was a revelation. Emerson frequently attended the Seamen’s Bethel Church and sometimes served as a substitute preacher there. He worked with Taylor on Boston charities, and the two became friends. Later, Taylor visited Emerson in Concord, lectured there, and spent a night in Emerson’s home. Extolling Taylor’s “free happy expression of himself,” Emerson wrote of Taylor, “He is an example—I, at this moment, say the single example--we have of an inspiration.”53 Emerson saw in the self-assured Taylor the same kind of brash individualism that he admired in Daniel Boone and David Crockett. It was a small step from Taylor’s pronouncement “I am no man’s model, no man’s copy, no man’s agent” to Emerson’s ringing affirmations of self-trust. Marveling at the imaginativeness of Taylor’s metaphors, Emerson called Taylor “the Shakespeare of the sailor & the poor,” a speaker who “rolls the world in a ball and tosses it from hand to hand,” creating “bright chaos come again.”54 Emerson noted that “the wonderful and laughing life of his illustrations keeps us broad awake. A string of rockets all night.”55

Such popular sources merged with high-literary and philosophical ones to nurture Emerson’s resonant and varied essays, lectures, and poems. Emerson’s philosophy cannot be summed up tidily—indeed, its untidiness is part of its message—but certain Emersonian concepts have proved especially influential: self-reliance, nonconformity, the primacy of the imagination, the insufficiency of fixed symbols, the importance of active thinking, and an appreciation of nature both for its physical beauty and its spiritual suggestions.

These ideas had a leavening effect on intellectual life in Massachusetts and elsewhere.56 In Boston, Emerson was joined by a group of writers, ministers, and thinkers—Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, George Putnam, Jones Very, Christopher Pearse Cranch, and others—who met periodically between 1836 and 1840 to discuss literature, philosophy, and theology. The group, known as the Transcendental Club, sparked other cultural activities. The Dial, the group’s literary magazine, appeared from 1840 to 1844 under the editorship of Margaret Fuller and George Ripley. The Dial disseminated the ideas of the Transcendentalists by featuring some of their writings, such as Bronson Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings,” Emerson’s “Lectures on the Times,” and Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.”

Fuller expanded the latter piece and published it separately as Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the first full-length exposition of women’s rights published in America. This landmark work called for the full development of women’s capacities in all areas of life. “We would have every path laid open to women as freely as to men,” she wrote, “[L]et them be sea captains, if you will.”57 The brilliant, well-educated Fuller hosted public conversations (many of then monologues, actually) that attracted leading intellectuals. She published her travel journal Summer on the Lakes and then wrote for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, for which she became America’s first international correspondent when she relocated to Europe and reported foreign news, including the working-class revolutions of 1848.

Another important outgrowth of Transcendentalism was Brook Farm, an experimental community established by George Ripley in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The most famous of scores of utopian communities established in 19th-century America, which also included Bronson Alcott’s short-lived Fruitlands, Brook Farm was aimed, as Elizabeth Peabody explained, at creating “the embryo of the Kingdom to come” by providing an environment favorable to “the unfolding of the individual man into every form of perfection, without let or hindrance.”58 In practice, this meant a loosely organized club that combined manual labor (mainly farming) with education, entertainments, and endless conversation. Some of the leading thinkers of the day spent time at Brook Farm: Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing, to name a few—but not Emerson, who refused several invitations to join the community, which he dismissed as “arithmetic & comfort, … a room in the Astor House hired for the Transcendentalists,” “a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty-pan.”59 The community increasingly espoused the socialism of the French reformer Charles Fourier. Dwindling membership and a destructive fire led to its demise in 1847. However, as an ex-member recalled, “There were never such witty potato patches and sparkling cornfields before or since.”60

Thoreau and Whitman

Transcendentalism influenced many others as well, none so powerfully as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. The product of a middle-class Concord background, Thoreau was inspired when in his senior year at Harvard he read Emerson’s Nature. Emerson in 1834 had moved to Thoreau’s native Concord, and the two became friends and mutual sources of inspiration. Thoreau tested out various occupations before establishing himself as a surveyor, naturalist, and author. Putting into action Emersonian self-reliance, Thoreau wrote that “a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind.”61 Thoreau’s two most famous actions—going to jail for refusing to pay a tax and living for two years alone in the Concord woods (recorded in Resistance to Civil Government and Walden, respectively)—revealed the potentially immense impact of principled individualism. The first of these works pushed Emersonian individualism toward political protest; Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience against a slavery-supporting government inspired later nonviolent resisters such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Emersonianism also manifested itself in Walden. The self-reliance, nonconformity, and communion with nature Emerson had championed is enacted in Walden as Thoreau’s firm resistance to bourgeois conventions and capitalist materialism coupled with his aesthetic and spiritual appreciation of the beautiful Walden Pond and its environs.

Equally stimulated by Transcendentalism was Walt Whitman, who declared, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”62 One sees Emerson’s influence throughout Whitman’s ever-expanding poetry volume Leaves of Grass, which went through six editions from its first appearance in 1855 until Whitman’s death in 1892. Whitman’s flowing, prose-like lines implemented Emerson’s idea about an organic style that followed the rhythms of nature. Emerson’s call for “a genius in America, who with tyrannous eye” would survey the entire national experience—including, Emerson wrote, “our log rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boats, … the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas”—was answered by Whitman, who poeticized what Emerson called “the near, the low, the common” with loving attentiveness, especially in his poetic catalogs.63 Also like Emerson, Whitman saw the physical as symbolic of the spiritual. “I am the poet of the body, / And I am the poet of the soul,” Whitman writes in “Song of Myself.” 64 For Whitman, all aspects of the body were wondrous. “Divine am I inside and out, … / The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer, / This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.” Whitman welcomes “every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean, / Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.” Whitman brought a sexual candor to poetry that was unprecedented in its boldness and yet which he intended as a natural, physiological alternative to what his supporter John Burroughs called “the morbid, venereal, … club-house lust, which is in every novel and most of the poetry of our times”65—a reference to the prurient pulp literature hawked in street bookstalls and railway stations. Whitman’s overriding goal was to absorb even the most sensational, disruptive forces in his contemporary culture and transform them in his poetry.

The Transcendentalists Challenge Slavery

The Transcendentalists and Whitman, described by some critics as devoted to literature and philosophy rather than politics, in fact were in the thick of the slavery controversy. The Concord thinkers cannot be fully understood without the recognition that philosophy, politics, ecology, and ethics came together in their vision. Early on, Emerson slighted certain reform movements. But his increasing awareness of social injustice soon impelled him to speak out forcefully on political issues, as critics like Joel Myerson and Len Gougeon have made clear.66 In 1838, he wrote a letter to President Martin Van Buren protesting against Cherokee removal, and six years later he delivered his ardent “Address on Emancipation in the British West Indies.” The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the proslavery law that impelled Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, led Emerson to direct his longstanding philosophical idealism toward an assault on revered American institutions. He excoriated the Fugitive Slave Act, which, he said, proved that “no forms, neither constitutions nor laws nor covenants nor churches nor bibles, are of any use in themselves; the devil nestles comfortably into them all.”67 When an enraged Southerner nearly killed the antislavery senator Charles Sumner by pummeling him with a gold-headed cane, Emerson declared that Sumner was “an abolitionist; as if every sane human being were not an abolitionist, or a believer that all men should be free”68—a controversial comment that sped like a ricocheting bullet through American culture via newspapers and word of mouth. Even more inflammatory was a statement Emerson made about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a bold but doomed effort to topple slavery by inciting widespread slave insurrections. After Brown was brought to trial and sentenced to death on three counts, Emerson publicly announced that Brown would “make the gallows glorious like the cross”69—a comparison of the violent antislavery warrior with Jesus Christ that inspired the North and outraged the South.

Thoreau also set off political sparks by his involvement in the antislavery cause. He and other Transcendentalists, including Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, protested publicly against the cruel treatment of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, who in 1854 was captured in Boston, brought to trial, and forcibly returned to slavery in Virginia.70 At a rally where William Lloyd Garrison burned the Constitution, which abolitionists considered a proslavery document, Thoreau delivered his searing speech “Slavery in Massachusetts.” He declared, “My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.”71 Five years later, Thoreau preceded and surpassed Emerson in his daring support of John Brown. He hired a hall in Concord, announced that he was going to speak, and delivered his memorable address “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” which reached a nationwide audience when it appeared in the New-York Tribune. Thoreau placed John Brown among the greats of history, including Christ and the heroes of the American Revolution. Brown’s willingness to sacrifice his life for the ideal of emancipating America’s four million enslaved blacks made him, in Thoreau’s words, “a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles.”72

The promotion of John Brown by Thoreau and Emerson, widely regarded as America’s leading thinkers, rescued Brown from infamy at a time when even most abolitionists viewed the violent Brown with suspicion. When we realize that several others associated with the Concord group—Higginson, Parker, and Franklin Sanborn—were also ardent supporters of Brown, we see that Transcendentalism was a major vehicle for political activism on the era’s most controversial topic. Transcendentalism’s impact on antislavery politics puts to rest the canard about the Concord thinkers’ allegedly solipsistic philosophizing or aloofness from society. For Emerson, Thoreau, and their ilk, abolitionism was in line with the physical world and metaphysical ideals—all were profoundly moral. Because ethical laws permeated society as well as individuals and nature, politics and philosophy were inseparable.73

Literature and Social Reform: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Writers on both the elite and popular levels were confronted with political and social paradoxes that raised deep philosophical and ethical questions. How could a republic founded on the ideal of human equality condone slavery or Indian removal? How could a society that promised social mobility and economic advance tolerate widespread oppression of laborers, women, and marginalized ethnic or religious groups? Writers like Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, John Greenleaf Whittier, and George Lippard answered with scathing irony, generating oxymoronic characters like the Christian slaveholder who used “republican whips, democratic chains”74 on enslaved blacks, or the church-going capitalist who ignored the starving poor, or missionaries who distributed tracts abroad while ignoring the needy or the enslaved at home.

The most popular novel of the period, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, combined such irony with a passionately religious plea for the abolition of slavery. Stowe presents a gallery of Southern slaveholders, several of whom are well-intentioned and pious and yet are forced by the exigencies of economy or personal misfortune to sell their chattel, who in turn fall into cruel situations. In Stowe’s novel, slaveholders are not intrinsically evil; instead, they themselves are victims of the institution of slavery, which twists ethics, warps religion, and inverts American principles. If Stowe offers nuanced portraits of Southerners, she is especially affecting in her depiction of enslaved blacks. The original subtitle of her novel, The Man that Was a Thing, points up the dehumanizing effects of slavery. The prevailing view of blacks, in both the North and the South, was that they were less than human. Racism was rampant in the North, and enslaved blacks in the South were treated as property to be bought, sold, and, frequently, maltreated. Uncle Tom’s Cabin revealed the emotions that the enslaved shared with other humans. As Henry James wrote, Stowe’s novel was “for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and consciousness in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried.”75 Sympathetic readers were thrilled when the fugitive slave Eliza Harris carried her child across the ice floes of the Ohio River and when her slave husband, George, fought off slave catchers in a mountain pass. They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They were appalled by the sexual exploitation of enslaved woman like Prue and Cassy, and they were horrified by the fatal lashing of the gentle, strong Uncle Tom. Stowe combined human emotion and evangelical religion so successfully that Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold over three hundred thousand copies in America and some two million copies internationally within one year. Stowe’s stated aim in the novel was to make us “feel right” about slavery, and doubtless she had that effect on countless readers.76 Indeed, her novel fed into the rise of the antislavery Republican Party and fanned the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War.77

Because of the extraordinary international visibility of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—not only as a novel but on the stage and in games, figurines, china, and other so-called Tomitudes78—Stowe’s novel is often singled out as a political juggernaut in an era of otherwise largely apolitical literary works. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is hard to point to a single author of the antebellum period who was not in some way caught up in the political and social currents of the age. Not only was there a substantial body of political writing produced by African Americans, but stirring antislavery works were produced by poets like Whittier, Lowell, and Longfellow and by novelists such as Lydia Maria Child and Richard Hildreth. Southern authors were drawn into the political maelstrom, as evidenced by the nearly thirty “anti-Tom novels” penned by proslavery writers in the wake of Stowe’s novel.79 With the slavery problem becoming increasingly intractable as time passed, antislavery passions became more militant. Stowe, who had recommended Christian forbearance and compassion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, devoted her next novel, Dred, to the depiction of a Nat Turner–like slave rebel who plotted a violent uprising against whites that was thwarted when he was killed. Stowe became a fervent supporter of John Brown, whom she called “the man who has done more than any man for the honor of the American name.80 Stowe was at first dubious about Abraham Lincoln, whom she considered halting in his position on slavery, but when it became clear that the Civil War was aimed at emancipating the slaves, she ardently supported the president. When she visited him in the White House in November 1862 to urge him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, he reportedly greeted her by saying, “Is this is the little woman who made this great war?”81—a statement that may be apocryphal but that speaks to the undeniably immense impact of Stowe’s bestselling antislavery fiction.

Currents in Popular Culture: Sentimental-Domestic and the Sensational Literature

Popular culture came into its own in the antebellum period, taking on dimensions that have lasted until this day. Bestselling literature fell into two general categories: the sentimental-domestic and the sensational. Sentimental-domestic literature included conventional reform pamphlets, religious fiction and poetry, magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies’ National Magazine, and domestic fiction, such as the immensely popular novels Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World and Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter. This literature, aimed mainly at women, purveyed what modern scholars identify as the cult of true womanhood, promoting the values of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.82

The contrasting genre, sensational literature, included crime pamphlets, penny newspapers, pulp adventure fiction, and the city-mysteries novel. America witnessed a succession of popular crime pamphlets and collections such as Record of Crimes in the United States (1833) The Pirates Own Book (1837), and The Lives of the Felons, or American Criminal Calendar (1847), that fed into popular sensational fiction by Joseph Holt Ingraham, Ned Buntline, Sylvanus Cobb, and others, much of it published in so-called mammoth story weeklies. This literature, under a thin veil of didacticism, often presented criminals as dashing, clever, or no more corrupt than outwardly respectable types. The engaging villain came in various guises: the likable outlaw, who won the reader’s sympathy through bravado or coolness, the justified criminal, whose misdeeds were said to be motivated by a corrupt social system, the adventure feminist, the tough, sometimes lawless heroine who flouted conventions, the appealing but treacherous confidence man, and the reverend rake, who used religion as a vehicle for seduction.

In the eyes of conservative critics, the engaging villain was a real threat to society. The Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher blasted “novels of the infernal school,” with their “humane murderers, lascivious saints, holy infidels, honest robbers.”83 His sister Harriet Beecher Stowe likewise complained of the “great rage for pickpockets, highwaymen, murderers” in “the trash literature of the day”—particularly fiction that “figured largely in our mammoth sheets”—that ran “very much in a foul and muddy current, full of the slang and filth of low and degraded society.”84

Penny newspapers, aimed at the wallets and tastes of America’s increasingly rowdy working class, supplanted the stodgy six-pennies of the past with a new brand of journalism that was brash, zestful, and above all sensational. Anything lively—an “Awful Accident,” a “Double Suicide,” “Incest by a Clergyman”—was fit news to print in the penny papers. James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the nation’s leading penny paper, the New York Herald, found that Americans “were more ready to seek six columns of the details of a brutal murder, or the testimony of a divorce case, or the trial of a divine for improprieties of conduct, than the same amount of words poured forth by the genius of the noblest author of our times.”85 By the 1840s, every major American city had one or more penny papers. Emerson noted in his journal that most of his countrymen spent their time “reading all day murders & railroad accidents” in newspapers.86 The visiting Charles Dickens, despite his own interest in criminality, charged the American papers with “pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste”87; in Martin Chuzzlewit he portrayed American newsboys peddling papers with scabrous titles like the New York Sewer and the New York Stabber. Whitman, weaned in New York journalism, noted that foreign papers had a superior tone to American ones and confessed, “Scurrility—the truth may as well be told—is a sin of the American newspaper press.”88

Among the most popular sensational genres of the period was the city-mysteries novel, which transferred Gothic darkness to the complex urban environment. The city was suddenly perceived as a strange and overwhelming place, full of hidden crime, racial and class divisions, violence, and squalor, phenomena reflected in fiction that was volatile and often nightmarish.89 This urban genre arose with the publication of The Mysteries of Paris (1842) by the French author Eugene Sue, who depicted the city’s underworld of prostitutes, pimps, thieves, and murderers while exposing upper-class hypocrisy and venality. Sue’s novel was quickly followed by G. W. M. Reynolds’s novel The Mysteries of London and similar fiction about the “mysteries” of other European cities (including Berlin, Hamburg, Brussels, and Vienna). In America, there appeared “mysteries and miseries” of numerous locales, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, and even Lowell and Nashua. American authors tried to outdo each other in the vividness with which they described urban sensations. The winners in this grisly competition were George Lippard and George Thompson. Lippard’s The Quaker City (1845), America’s bestselling novel before the appearance of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), made the labyrinthine Monk Hall, a fictional gentlemen’s club, the 19th-century equivalent of the Gothic castle, whose “monks” were secretly depraved Philadelphians and whose keeper was the lowly, monstrous Devil-Bug, who is perhaps the most sad*stic character in American literature and yet whose open wickedness is deemed preferable to the covert villainy of the novel’s ruling-class characters. George Thompson wrote scores of urban novels, typified by City Crimes (1849), whose freakishly disfigured protagonist, the Dead Man, and his ghoulish son, known as The Image, live among criminals in the excrement-filled Dead Vaults, a subterranean sewer system below New York where “the crime of incest is as common among them as dirt! I have known a mother and her son—a father and his daughter—a brother and sister—to be guilty of criminal intimacy.”90 American city-mysteries novels also tended to be more gory than the European fiction—a reflection of the turbulence of Jacksonian society itself—and were enlivened by street slang and the “flash” talk of criminals, which was more linguistically varied than any European novel due to America’s uniquely polyglot urban environment.

Poe: Sculpting the Popular

Edgar Allan Poe knew well the sentimental-domestic and the sensational genres that dominated the literary marketplace. As a reviewer, Poe commented on every sort of literature, from the moralistic to the sensational. He denounced what he called “the heresy of The Didactic.”91 Imaginative literature must not preach; that was the province of nonfictional writing. At the same time, Poe criticized what he regarded as the excesses of popular sensational fiction. He had no toleration for the common character type of the engaging criminal—the evildoer shown in a positive light. For instance, he wrote that his “principal objection” to Joseph Holt Ingraham’s Lafitte: the Pirate of the Gulf, was that its hero was “a weak, a vaccillating [sic] villain, a fratricide, a cowardly cut-throat, … Yet he is never mentioned but with evident respect.”92 Nor did he approve of fiction that harped at length on gore or physical suffering. He charged the novelist William Gilmore Simms with “villainously bad taste” for describing the “minutest details of a murder committed by a maniac” who suffocates his victim in mud, an act “dwelt upon by Mr. Simms with that species of delight with which we have seen many a ragged urchin spin a co*ckchafer [i.e., a may bug] on a needle.” Simms, wrote Poe, shows “a certain fondness for the purely disgusting or repulsive, where the intention was or should have been merely the horrible.”

In his own fiction and poetry, Poe tried to avoid “the purely disgusting or repulsive.” His tales, most of them originally published in the popular press, teem with bizarre or macabre images: live burial, bloody murder, sadism, necrophilia, and so forth. But the narrators of his murder stories are so clearly insane or deluded, as in “The Black Cat” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” that they thrill us without winning our sympathy. The sadism and perversity of which they are guilty is communicated not through extensive descriptions of blood but through portraits of their diseased psychology. Poe at his best brings order and control to the horrific or sensational. He sculpts terror, using controlling devices such as the first-person narrator, understatement, and singleness of effect. His invention of the detective genre stems from his effort to apply logic and intuitive reason to crimes of the sort that were commonly reported in the penny press. In poetry, his careful regulation of rhyme, meter, and other techniques, famously described in “The Philosophy of Composition,” structures emotion even in poems of wild passion like “The Raven.” Another controlling device is geographical distancing, by which he chooses foreign cities as settings even for sensational events based directly on reports in the American penny papers—as in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” his Parisian take on the widely reported murder of the New York cigar saleswoman Mary C. Rogers. His fascination with codes, cryptograms, puns, and the like shows his overriding concern with various kinds of logic.

Poe, then, was in the ambivalent position of a writer immersed in popular culture and yet in some ways repelled by it. He was simultaneously the alienated genius and the panderer to the mass audience. As magazine editor, fiction-writer, and poet, he knew he had to emphasize the sensational themes that captivated popular readers. He borrowed freely: “The Cask of Amontillado,” for instance, was indebted to “A Man Built in a Wall,” a shocking magazine tale by Joel Tyler Headley. Poe declared that “the truest and surest test of originality is the manner of handling a hackneyed subject.”93 He loathed popular themes when they were handled ineptly, without control. By asserting such control in his own works, he produced enduring literary art.

Hawthorne’s Ironic Puritanism

Like Poe, Hawthorne was a professional writer with an eye on the literary market. One segment of the popular readership, he knew, was attracted to pious, hopeful literature, much of it produced by the “scribbling women” who wrote sentimental-domestic fiction. Unlike Poe, he catered to this market on occasion. One group of his short stories shared the preachiness and optimism of conventional literature. For instance, his short stories “Sights from the Steeple,” “The Gentle Boy,” “Little Annie’s Ramble,” “The Vision of the Fountain,” and “The Village Uncle”—all first published in popular gift books or magazines—used conventional images such as simple piety, angelic visions, domestic bliss, and childhood purity. Hawthorne even wrote a temperance tale, “A Rill from the Town-Pump” (1835), in which he had a water pump call himself “the grand reformer of the age” and vow to wipe out the many ills that came from alcohol.94

But Hawthorne was also profoundly aware of the contrasting strain in American culture, associated with darkness and violence. Much of his interest in gloomy themes came from his guilt-ridden preoccupation with the Puritan past. He counted among his ancestors two Puritan leaders, William Hathorne, who persecuted Quakers, and John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne probed the harshness of Puritans in his fiction, and their Calvinistic faith provided the basis for his preoccupation with human sin. As Melville put it, “this great power of blackness” in Hawthorne “derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.”95 Much of his other fiction—from his Gothic novel Fanshawe through short stories like “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” to the novels of his major phase, like The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun—dramatized human frailty with an intensity that harked back to early Calvinism.

Hawthorne, however, was neither a Puritan nor a Calvinist. Instead, he frequently imported into Puritan settings motifs from 19th-century sensational writings. He once admitted that he was a voracious reader of “all sort of good and good-for-nothing books.”96 He loved Gothic novels and crime narratives. One of his favorite childhood books was an old crime anthology, which his son Julian called “the forerunner of the yellow literature … so signally popular these days,” a “medieval Police Gazette” whose gory plots “would be a godsend to the criminal-fiction school of today.” Julian reported his father had a “pathetic craving” for these kinds of murder stories. Among Hawthorne’s favorites was the 1833 volume The Record of Crimes in the United States, containing the lives of twenty-three American criminals with accounts of their perverse crimes. Hawthorne sketched the outline for a tale about “A show of wax-figures, consisting almost wholly of murderers and their victims,” listing many of the pirates, seducers, and killers of the day.97 Although he never wrote the story, much of his major fiction contains themes or images from popular sensational writing, including scaffold confessions, adultery, persons outside the law, and foes of mainstream society.

The Scarlet Letter showed Hawthorne’s fascination with the seamy side of American culture. The characters he chose for the novel were common in sensational literature. Hawthorne knew of actual scandals in Puritan history, such as that of a Maine minister’s wife, Mary Bachelor, who was branded with the letter A for having adulterous relations with one George Rogers. Hawthorne was doubtlessly aware of popular fiction along these lines, such as “The Magdalen,” an 1833 tale in the Salem Gazette about a sinful woman who lives alone in an isolated cottage and penitently works for a nearby village, or Sylvester Judd’s 1845 novel Margaret, which has a subplot about a woman forced to live alone with “a significant red letter” sewed on her clothes.98

Hawthorne followed in the wake of popular sensational novelists who used subversive characters to puncture pious pretensions of supposedly respectable people. Many city-mysteries novels of the 1840s, notably George Lippard’s The Quaker City, exposed alleged hypocrisy and corruption of the ruling class. Among the favorite character types in the Lippardian vein were the reverend rake, or the minister who seduced female parishioners; the fallen, adulterous woman, who used sex to climb socially; the vindictive cuckold, who went to devilish extremes to avenge his wife’s infidelity; and the magnetic pseudoscientist, who exploited mesmerism and other powers to control others. Another common character was the wayward child, typified by Jack the Prig in George Thompson’s 1849 novel City Crimes, who refused to learn the Christian catechism and engaged in other naughty behavior (the proudly wicked Topsy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was another example of the bad-child figure).

Hawthorne used similar characters in his tale of an adulterous woman who was involved with a clergyman and who had a misbehaving child and a vindictive husband with the powers of a demonic pseudoscientist.

There were, however, notable differences between The Scarlet Letter and popular novels. Hawthorne put stereotypical characters in a fully realized early New England setting. He invested these characters, who were portrayed with lip-smacking prurience in popular fiction, with new resonance and depth. Arthur Dimmesdale possesses both the illicit passions of the reverend rake and the conscience of the sincere Puritan preacher. A hypocrite, he is nonetheless truly tormented and humanly believable. Hester Prynne is the adulterous wife but much more as well: she is a charity worker, a skilled seamstress, a bold thinker, and, above all, a woman committed to her lover. Her wayward daughter, Pearl, and her betrayed husband, Roger Chillingworth, come close to being stock characters, but they too have dimensions unseen in popular stereotypes. Pearl is not just the undisciplined rebel who refuses to recite her catechism; she is also a force for honesty, since she constantly demands that her mother and her paramour publicly confess their love. Even Chillingworth, an unsavory combination of the vengeful cuckold and the satanic pseudoscientist, serves a moral function by helping keep alive a sense of sin within Arthur Dimmesdale. By placing subversive 19th-century characters in the moral context of bygone Puritan culture, Hawthorne creates a masterpiece of irony, symbolism, and psychological complexity.

Melville and Popular Paradoxes

Another all-absorptive work shaped by the contemporary scene was Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). Having returned in 1844 from five years at sea, Melville set out to record some of his experiences in his adventurous early novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). Featuring cannibalism, hairbreadth escapes, exotic settings, and eroticism, these novels fit into the sensational-adventure mode that was then popular—they were, as Melville said of Typee, “certainly calculated for popular reading, or for none at all.”99 In the allegorical adventure novel Mardi (1849) he amplified the paradoxical popular stereotype of the engaging criminal. The novel’s narrator, Taji, is a criminal who is both likable and justified. The first in a line of mixed Melville criminals that would come to include the confidence man and Billy Budd, Taji elicits our admiration when he kills the priest in order to save Yillah, our sympathy when he is pursued by the priest’s followers, and our pity when he vainly pursues the lost Yillah. But, all the while, we cannot forget that he is a murderer. Melville continued to explore the engaging criminal in his portrayal of the sailor Henry Jackson in Redburn (1849). A “horrid desperado” who dresses “like a Bowery Boy,” talks of “rowdies,” and is “spontaneously an atheist and an infidel,” Jackson regales the other crewmen with endless grisly stories: “His whole talk was this kind; full of piracies plagues and poisonings.”100 And yet, Melville tells us, “there seemed even more woe than wickedness about the man; … and for all his hideousness, there was that in his eye at times, that was ineffably pitiable and touching.” In his next novel, White-Jacket, Melville presents us with a ship that is “a sort of sea-Newgate” whose crew is made up of thieves and desperadoes and whose master-at-arms, Bland, is a slick confidence man.101 Bland’s villainy, however, is better than institutionalized criminality masked by law and religion—what the narrator calls “undetected guilt … sheltered by the aristocratic awning of our quarter-deck.”

Such paradoxes, many of them rooted in popular culture, culminated in Moby-Dick. In this towering novel, popular paradoxes are notably enriched by Melville’s mixture of them with themes and images derived from many literary arenas, ancient through contemporary. The result is a uniquely rich array of paradoxical characters: the irreverent yet likable Ishmael; the savage but humane cannibal Queequeg; the ship’s s crew of “meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways” who nonetheless have “high qualities”;102 the mate Stubb, who speaks in contradictions, telling his oarsmen in one breath to “pull, my children; pull, my little ones … softly, softly” and in the next “snap your oars, you rascals” and “start her like grim death and grinning devils”; in the wicked but admirable Steelkilt of “The Town-Ho’s Story,” who justifiably kills the oppressive mate Radney; and above all in Captain Ahab, who is described paradoxically as “a grand, ungodly, god-like man,” a “swearing good man,” on a mad yet justified quest for the whale that has wounded him. Melville projects paradoxes onto the ocean, which has a “blue blandness” and an underlying “devilish charm,” and especially onto Moby Dick, whose whiteness is described paradoxically as “the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors,” suggesting “a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” In Melville’s paradoxical word, conventionally good characters, such as the “pious, good man” Bildad and Starbuck (similarly called “a good man, and a pious”), are rendered powerless or satirized as hypocrites, while a potentially stainless hero, Bulkington, is briefly introduced early on and dropped from the novel. It is perhaps understandable, given the prominence of culturally based paradoxes in the novel, Melville, when describing the book to Hawthorne, described it paradoxically: “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the Lamb.”103

The Centripetal and the Centrifugal

The greatest paradox of American democracy, Walt Whitman averred, was the relation between the individual and the mass—or, on the political level, the relation between the separate states and the Union, which, along with slavery, was at issue in the Civil War. Whitman wrote, “There are two distinct principles—aye, paradoxes—at the life-fountain of the States: one, the sacred principle of Union, the right of ensemble, at whatever sacrifice—and yet another, an equally sacred principle, the right of each State, consider’d as a separate sovereign individual, in its own sphere.”104 Either “the centrifugal law” alone or “the centripetal law” alone, he emphasized, would be fatal to the nation. He tried to achieve this balancing act in the lines that opened the 1855 Leaves of Grass: “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”105—an assertion of the self and the mass later rephrased as “One’s-Self I sing—a simple, separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.”

Whitman’s perception of conflicting forces in American culture—the centrifugal and the centripetal—provides insight into literary expression during the American Renaissance. Several forms of literature were characterized by narrative discontinuities, oddly juxtaposed imagery, and confusions between dream and reality that were manifested in a centrifugal style. Tocqueville noted that the bumptious, egalitarian spirit of the young American republic yielded a literature that was defiantly disruptive. “By and large,” Tocqueville wrote, “the literature of a democracy will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected or actually despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, and almost always strong and bold.” Tocqueville noted that Americans “often mix their styles together in an odd way, sometimes putting words together which, in the mother tongue [British English] are carefully kept apart.”106 The centrifugal style defined what Mark Twain identified as the most thoroughly indigenous American genre, the tall tale: the structureless string of weird digressions and improbabilities that go nowhere. In the antebellum period, such comic wildness permeated popular forms—including the Crockett almanacs, Old Southwest humor, minstrel shows, frontier sermons—that featured bizarre, kaleidoscopic images and fragmented structure.107

Styistically, this popular literature was characterized by discontinuity and randomness. A typical humorist, George Washington Harris, has his protagonist, Sut Lovingood, say, “I ladles out my words at random like a calf kickin at yaller-jackets.”108 Another popular writer, Mortimer Neal Thompson, announces in the preface to his humorous poem Plu-Ri-Bus-Tah his intention to “distort facts, to mutilate the records, to belie history, to outrage common sense” in a work “without plot, plan, or regard for the rules of grammar.”109

The unleashed style of such popular genres reflected centrifugal forces in American culture that the major writers tried to regulate with countervailing centripetal devices. Emerson combined the centripetal and centrifugal with unique suggestiveness. Although he admired the sturdy independence of the Crocketts, Boones, and Father Taylors, whom he considered “genuine” indigenous growths, he saw the need to deepen and expand American individualism. Emersonian self-reliance is a well-spring of intuition that yields self-confidence and defiance of tradition. There is also a distinctly centripetal aspect to Emerson’s prose, which is full of memorable one-liners, such as “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” “To be great is to be misunderstood,” “[M]en in the world to-day are bugs, spawn …,” and so on.110

Along with this individualist, centripetal tendency in Emerson, however, goes a notably centrifugal one. His sentences are strung together with a looseness that has proven variously inspirational and baffling over the years. Hawthorne in “The Celestial Railroad” conjures up a Giant Transcendentalist who appears as a “heap of fog and duskiness,” emitting “so strange a phraseology” that observers are mystified.111 Poe, likewise, lampooned “the quips, quirks, and curt oracularities” of Emerson and his followers.112 For Carlyle, Emerson’s sentences are “strong and simple,” possessing “clearness and beauty,” but they did not “rightly stick to their foregoers and followers,” so that the typical Emerson paragraph was a “bag of duck-shot held together by canvas.”113 James Russell Lowell, similarly, called Emerson’s prose “a chaos full of shooting-stars.”114 Even Emerson admitted that he wrote “with very little system, and … with the most fragmentary result: paragraphs incompressible each sentence an infinitely repellent particle.”115

This loose form had cultural meaning. In Emerson’s eyes, America itself was teeming, unstructured. In his journal he called America “the ungirt, the diffuse, the profuse, procumbent, one wide ground juniper, … it all runs to leaves, to suckers, to tendrils, to miscellany … formless, has no terrible & no beautiful condensation.”116 It was Emerson’s culturally based multiplicity of images and ideas that made him such a potent force in so many cultural arenas, and that proved especially inspiring to later thinkers. Emersonian fluidity fed into William James’s philosophy of contingency and his stream-of-consciousness psychology, Charles Sanders Peirce’s emphasis on chance and spontaneity, George Santayana’s radically skeptical empiricism, and John Dewey’s experiential philosophy. Dewey countered the common complaint of a “lack of method,” an “absence of continuity” in Emerson by insisting that Emerson’s “ideas are not fixed upon any Reality that is beyond or behind or in any way apart … They are versions of the Here and Now, and flow freely.”117 It is this fluidity or forward-motion of Emerson’s thought that especially appeals to Stanley Cavell, who puts Emerson into conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Cavell emphasizes “the thing Emerson calls ‘onward thinking,’ the thing Heidegger means in taking thinking as a matter essentially of getting ourselves ‘on the way.’”118

Just as Emerson transformed America’s centripetal-vs.-centrifugal paradox into a simultaneous affirmation of radical individualism and philosophical fluidity, so other antebellum writers projected the paradox in their own ways.

Thoreau, like Emerson, was intent on enriching the formlessness of American culture. Thoreau was appalled by what he called in Walden the “confused tintinnabulum” of his contemporaries, the noise and superficiality that made him wish “not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century.”119 In popular newspapers, he found endless reportage of “startling and monstrous events” and “a singular disposition to wit and humor” that led him to write, “What a grovelling appetite for profitless jest and amusem*nt our countrymen have!” The central theme of Walden—the necessity for thoughtful, deliberate living in an increasingly frenetic and materialistic age—is reinforced by Thoreau’s effort to rescue popular images from the nonsensical and pointless. “The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkey in America do the same,” “We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches,” [We lay a cable under the Atlantic to hear foreign news,] “but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear is that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough”120—these and many other memorable lines in Walden possess the oddness and incongruities of American humor, but they are put into the service of meaningful social commentary. Rescuing sensational popular images from pointlessness, Thoreau supplied tenors to bizarre linguistic vehicles in order to convey serious social or philosophical ideas. Take this line: “I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” Like much popular American discourse, this sentence juxtaposes disparate realities in a weird way. But the juxtaposed realities are beautiful nature images that communicate Thoreau’s yearning for philosophical living and oneness with nature’s beauty.

Poe was also uncomfortable with the centrifugal style he saw in popular culture, but his literary refashioning of the popular differed notably from Emerson’s and Thoreau’s. Poe called George Lippard’s perfervid Gothic novel The Ladye Annabel brilliant but chaotic.121 He found that Nathaniel P. Willis’s sensational play Tortesa suffered from “the great error [of] inconsequence. Underplot is piled on underplot,” as Willis gives us “vast designs that terminate in nothing.”122 He judged Cornelius Mathews’ Wakondah “a mere jumble of incongruous nonsense” with “neither beginning, middle, nor end.” Similarly, he saw “very little plot or connexion” in William Gilmore Simms’ The Partisan, and he found Longfellow’s Hyperion “without design, without shape.”

Such manifestations of the centrifugal style led Poe to regulate popular themes artistically through his original use of centripetal devices. His emphasis on tightness and unity was a direct reaction to the directionlessness he perceived in popular works. Poe carefully pared away excess and utilized first-person narration or ratiocination in the interest of manipulating the irrational. He famously defined plot as that from which nothing can be removed without detriment to the mass.123 In his theory and practice of poetry, he clung to rules of prosody and syntax with almost neurotic devotion in order to resist what he called “the new licentious ‘schools’ of poetry,” which “in their rashness of spirit, much in accordance with the spirit of the age,” would dispense with all poetic form.124 His focus on form, structure, sound, and effect influenced the art-for-art’s sake ethos of the Symbolists and Modernists. In particular, the French authors Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry sparked a Poe revival that has lasted to this day.

A tight balance between the centrifugal and the centripetal is achieved in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Certain images in the novel—Dimmesdale’s screeching laughter on the scaffold at night, his perverse fantasies as he walks back to town from the forest, the unruliness of little Pearl and the demonic scheming of Chillingworth—project the wildness and subversiveness of the centrifugal impulse. Controlling the centrifugal throughout the novel are powerful centripetal devices: the four multilayered central characters, whose symbiotic interrelationship unifies the narrative; structuring images such as the three scaffold scenes; and a prevalent allegorical suggestiveness, especially visible in the “A,” the rich symbol at the heart of the novel.

Melville’s Moby-Dick is in many ways a centrifugal text. It incorporates voices and perspectives from many cultural levels, indigenous and international, with unique democratic openness. The result is a polyvalent novel with brief chapters that point in many directions. As Melville writes, “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects grow the chapters.”125 But Melville reins in the centrifugal impulse through centripetal techniques, most notably Ishmael’s voice, Ahab’s unrelenting quest, and the all-absorbing symbol of the White Whale, that prevent the centrifugal from lapsing into the chaotic or the anarchic. Throughout Moby-Dick every potentially anarchic image or character related to formless American culture is fused with some counterbalancing image or character that prevents it from tumbling into thematic bedlam. In the hands of a lesser writer, Ishmael could have become another prankish Bowery B’hoy like the typical Mose and Sikesey of popular fiction and plays, just as Queequeg could have degenerated into an uncontrolled savage like the bloodthirsty, scythe-wielding Black Sampson of George Lippard’s best-selling Legends of the American Revolution. But Melville infuses thoughtfulness to the b’hoy and goodness into the cannibal, and through their “marriage” he affirms their shared humanity. Such images of human interconnectedness or union can be seen almost everywhere in the novel: in the reference to the Pequod’s diverse crew “federated along one keel”; in the crew’s adoption of Ahab’s monomaniacal purpose; in Ishmael’s joining the wild shout of the sailors after their forecastle revel; in the passage about that “democratic dignity” that radiates “from God Himself” and unites all human hearts; in the image of the monkey-rope, symbolizing symbiotic relationships among all human beings; in the loving squeeze of hands in the sperm vat. Besides incorporating such elements of togetherness and fusion, Melville generates depth and meaning by coupling 19th-century archetypes from classic literature and philosophy. Ahab, for instance, is not only a paradoxical figure characteristic of American popular culture; he also has resonances of Prometheus, Faust, Ahab of 1 Kings, Lear, and the overreachers of Marlowe’s plays. Moby-Dick absorbs numerous American images and treats them not frivolously or haphazardly but instead takes them seriously, salvages them from the anarchically directionless, and gives them new humanity and mythic reference.

The political and ethical tensions created by the slavery crisis were reflected in changing patterns in American literature between 1850, when the infamous Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and 1865, when slavery came to an end after four years of civil war. This fifteen-year period witnessed the publication of many antislavery works, including Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred, Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, Frederick Douglass’s novel The Heroic Slave and his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. While these and other writings vivified African American subjectivity in order to expose the cruelty and injustice of slavery, a sizable body of proslavery works portrayed slavery as a wonderful, time-tested institution, sanctioned by the Bible and the Constitution.

For some authors, the social crisis disrupted the balance between the centrifugal and the centripetal that characterized their finest works. In Hawthorne’s case, the rich characterization and allegorical resonance that had provided unity in The Scarlet Letter gave way to the more dispersed characterization, plots, and themes of his later novels, such as House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun. During the Civil War, Hawthorne, who was a Copperhead (or Southern-leaning Democrat), lost his sense of artistic direction. At his death in 1864 he left behind the manuscripts of several unfinished novels, including The Dolliver Romance and Septimius Felton, whose aimlessness and thinness suggest that he had surrendered to the centrifugal forces he had regulated so masterfully in The Scarlet Letter.

Melville’s writings, too, underwent dispersal and fragmentation. Having dramatized the complexities of slavery in “Benito Cereno” and of urban life in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, Melville ended his major period with his enigmatic novel The Confidence-Man, which ushered the antebellum centrifugal style toward modernism by abolishing narrative structure and coherent characterization. Transforming the confidence man into an impostor who appears under eight avatars with different names, Melville creates a palimpsest of sham appearances, heterogeneous poses, and futile schemes. Melville’s debt to the popular literature of his day is underscored in a digression on fiction writing, which contains the generalization: “In nearly all the original characters, loosely accounted such in works of invention, there is discernible something prevailingly local, or of the age.”126 In The Confidence-Man, as is his earlier fiction, there is indeed something “prevailingly local” and “of the age.” The confidence man character came out of American popular culture, where he represented expert gamesmanship in a world of outwardly civilized knaves and hypocrites. Characters like Algernon Fitz-Cowles in Lippard’s The Quaker City and the Dead Man in George Thompson’s City Crimes assume various bourgeois poses in order to dupe and ensnare others. The first fictional use of a character called a “confidence man” was in Ned Buntline’s 1850 pamphlet novel The G’hals of New York, in which a slick operator, Joseph Skinkle, exploits the word “confidence” with the aim of extorting money and sometimes playing psychological and linguistic games. Melville’s eight-faced protagonist also plays endlessly on the notion of confidence and broadens the cultural references by gamboling with images from patent medicine, institutional philanthropy, Transcendentalism, spiritualism, women’s rights, temperance, abolitionism, and sensational crime pamphlets. In his previous fiction, Melville had determinedly transformed cultural images with the aim of bringing new depth and resonance to them. In The Confidence-Man such images become empty signifiers in a shell game, unattached to serious signifieds, mere scraps floating in a premodernist stew.127 Thereafter, Melville virtually gave up writing until the post–Civil War period, when he sporadically wrote poetry and, just before his death in 1891, the unfinished novella Billy Budd.

Poetry and the Crisis of the Union: Whitman and Dickinson

Walt Whitman tried more vigorously than any other writer to staunch the fragmentation of American society. In the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), he offered his poetry as the surest avenue to healing and unity to a nation on the verge of unraveling. He wrote of the American people: “Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.”128 In the twelve untitled, free-flowing poems of the 1855 edition, he integrated virtually all concerns of contemporary society—slavery, gender, religion, science, politics, popular culture, the city and the country, and so forth. Whitman’s prose-like verse would have been purely centrifugal if he had not utilized regulatory devices such as parallelism, voice-based rhythms, and, especially, the all-absorbing “I” that embraced all states, creeds, and ethnicities in the interest of promoting equality and togetherness. In an overt effort to balance the conflicting impulses in America culture, Whitman’s speaker announces himself as “one of that centripetal and centrifugal gang.”

Whitman, who saw himself as the Answerer, had a messianic faith that his volume, which he called “the new Bible,” would gain a wide audience and would effect social change.129 Hoping that his book would help to hold his nation together by affirming universal comradeship, Whitman confidently predicted, “The proof of the poet is that his nation absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”130 The nation, however, did not absorb him. The first two editions of Leaves of Grass sold poorly and received generally harsh reviews. Whitman confessed in a private note that he was experiencing “Depressions / Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious.—I doubt whether my greatest thoughts, as I supposed them, are not shallow—[…] My pride is impotent, my love gets no response.”131

Although he continued to write poetry until the end of his life, he realized that what America really needed was fresh leadership. He wrote scathingly that the dough-faced Franklin Pierce “eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it,” and he generalized that “the Presidentiads of Fillmore and Buchanan” proved “the weakness and wickedness of elected rulers.”132 A completely new kind of president was called for. Whitman wrote in 1856, “I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, fully-inform’d, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced America blacksmith or boatman come down from the West across the Alleghenies, and walk into the Presidency.”133

Five years later, as if by a miracle, that president arrived. The White House was now occupied by a man who, in Whitman’s words, had been “rais’d through the commonest average of life—a rail-splitter and a flat-boatman,” one who was “quite thoroughly western, original, non-conventional.”134 Whitman jotted in his notebook plans for a brochure about “Two characters as of a Dialogue between A. L—n and W [illeg.]—as in? a dream / or better? Lessons for a President elect / Dialogue between WW. / and ‘President elect.’”135 Although Whitman never had such a dialogue with Lincoln, the poet lived in Washington, D.C., during the 1860s and saw the president frequently riding in his carriage through the streets of the capital. In Whitman’s eyes, Lincoln possessed all the qualities of the “I” of Leaves of Grass: self-reliance, compassion, humor, tolerance, nonconformity, and a philosophical dimension. No longer did Whitman feel that he needed to fashion an all-encompassing poetic speaker who would heal the fractured nation. Lincoln accomplished that task, not only in his exemplary life but in his tragic death, which, Whitman wrote, provided “a cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying, than any thing written in constitution, or courts or armies.”136 Whitman, who had formerly celebrated himself, now celebrated America’s Martyr Chief. Not only were two of his most famous poems, “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” eulogies to Lincoln, but a source of income in his later years was his popular, oft-repeated lecture “The Death of Abraham Lincoln.”

Whereas the war years brought a sense of resolution to Whitman, they opened up complexity and existential questions for the other great American Renaissance poet, Emily Dickinson. Of Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 poems, about half were written from 1861 through 1865, when she peaked in both creative output and literary quality. Unlike Whitman, who did what he could to disseminate and publicize his poetry, Dickinson claimed in a letter that publishing was as “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.”137 Only a handful (perhaps ten) of her poems were published in scattered newspapers over the course of her lifetime, apparently without her authorization. Most of her poems were published when, shortly after her death in 1886, her sister Lavinia discovered the manuscripts of hundreds of poems, many of which were published, with regularized spelling and punctuation, in three volumes (1890, 1891, and 1896) edited by family friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Shy and home-centered, Emily Dickinson left her native Massachusetts only once, on an excursion with her father to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. It’s inaccurate, however, to use Dickinson’s reclusiveness as the basis for making a distinction between Whitman as a “public” poet and Dickinson as a “private” one. Like Leaves of Grass, her poetry registers multitudinous cultural voices.

Following Whitman and the other major antebellum authors, Dickinson adroitly melds the centripetal and the centrifugal. But in Dickinson, these terms have an utterly different connotation than they do for the others. On the one hand, her poems are centripetal to an unprecedented degree. They are highly compressed in both line length and the number of verses. Most of them consist of two or more quatrains whose lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, adopted from standard hymn meter as established by Isaac Watts. Despite their compactness, however, Dickinson’s poems often strain toward the centrifugal. Strong caesurae, usually in the form of dashes, break up her lines, and half rhymes or slant rhymes abound, disrupting standard rhythm. Even more unconventional is Dickinson’s language, which freely mixes parts of speech, sense impressions, the abstract and the concrete, and markers of time and space in ways that are unorthodox and, in many instances, cryptic. Her poems possess the irregularity and bizarre juxtapositions that Tocqueville associated with the literature of democracy.

Despite her confined lifestyle, she was a voracious reader, and she was immersed in the more chaotic, subversive elements of the culture around her. During her formative period, she got great amusem*nt from the disasters and tragedies that filled the sensational newspapers of the day. Hungry for sensational news, she once wrote to her brother Austin, then in Boston, to send her “anything … that’s startling” in the newspapers, explaining: “I don’t think deaths or murders can ever come amiss in a young woman’s journals.”138 Given her interest in sensational news, it is small wonder that she integrated violent, disruptive images into her poems. In a poem about American popular culture, she wrote: “The Popular Heart is a Cannon first— / Subsequent a Drum— / Bells for an Auxiliary / And an Afterward of Rum.”139 She completes the poem by saying that the popular heart is cut off from both the past and the future, and it has “Ditches for Realms and a Trip to Jail / For a Souvenir.” The popular culture she perceived, then, was described in images pertaining to war, weapons, drinking, ditches, and prison, and it thrived on a blithe interest in crime (“a Trip to Jail / For a Souvenir”).

In this connection, it is notable that sensational images crowd Dickinson’s early poetry, written in the 1850s. One early poem (#43) is a tiny poetic sensational narrative that describes a road at night haunted by banditti, a wolf, an owl, and a serpent. Another poem (#38) portrays a piratelike day burying its treasure in the surrounding hills. This simplistic use of the sensational imagery is visible in lines like these: “I never hear the word ‘escape’ / Without a quicker blood” (#144) and “My friend attacks my friend! / Oh Battle picturesque!” (#103).

A deepening of Dickinson’s imagination came with the advent of the Civil War. It was the bleak side of war that elicited her deepest emotions. “He scanned it— Staggered—” (#994) focuses on a wounded soldier who, confronted with death, “Caught helpless at a sense as if / His Mind were going blind—,” then “Groped up, to see if God were there— / Groped backward at Himself / Caressed a Trigger absently / And wandered out of Life—.” In these lines, God is vaguely groped at by a dying soldier who wearily sinks back into himself and then drifts into death. This debunking of the Good Death—the consoling trope of the soul’s entrance into an angel-filled heaven—is amplified in “My Portion is Defeat—today—” (#704), where Dickinson describes mass carnage on a battlefield:

Tis populous with Bone and stain—And Men too straight to stoop again—And Piles of solid Moan—And Chips of Blank—in Boyish Eyes—And scraps of Prayer—And Death’s surprise,Stamped visible—in Stone—

Skeptical musing about death or the afterlife came in many poems of the 1861–1865 period, including “This world is not conclusion” (#373), “Because I could not stop for Death” (#479), “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” (#591) “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (#340), and “Pain—has an Element of Blank” (#760). In these poems, the centrifugal treatment of death, pain, or depression opens up vistas of suggested meaning without providing answers. The stark physicality of death, the possibility of nothingness beyond the grave, the insignificance of humans in the universe, and the emotional stiffness and time distortion caused by depression: these and other gloomy themes receive innovative treatment in the poems of Dickinson’s major period.

But a remarkable aspect of these productive years was Dickinson’s refusal to tie herself to any attitude, melancholy or otherwise. Indeed, her poetry can be viewed as the culmination of many themes that the previous American Renaissance writers had treated from their own perspectives. Her handling of philosophical skepticism, mental illness, and false appearances reached back to Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, and there were moments of exuberance in her 1860s poetry that matched even the brightest passages in Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Dickinson’s speakers are capable of being intoxicated by nature’s beauty (“I taste a liquor never brewed” [#207]), replacing church worship with nature worship (“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” [#236]), or indulging in erotic fantasy (“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” [#269]). If we hear echoes of previous American Renaissance writers in these lines, there is one area in which Dickinson stands alone: her unusually flexible treatment of gender. Dickinson could satirize female gentility (“What Soft—Cherubic Creatures / These Gentlewomen are—” [#675]) or the cult of domesticity (“I’m ‘wife’—I’ve finished that” [#225]) and elsewhere play the strong woman defending her “Master” (“My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun” [#764]) or the devoted lover (“You left me—Sire—two legacies—” [#713]). Her ever-shifting speaker took on a range of poses and guises, from the impish Daisy to the imperious Queen, and many in between. If women writers of the era such as Fanny Fern, Alice Cary, and Louisa May Alcott had converted role-playing into a positive force for women, so Dickinson was empowered by the sheer variety of her poetic performances.140

Dickinson experienced fragmentation and dispersal of meaning every bit as much as did writers like Melville or Hawthorne. She forged evocatively indeterminate poetry in a time of national division and bloodletting. In her poetry, both the centripetal and the centrifugal forces of democratic America became the essence of a new kind of poetry.

American Renaissance (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Patricia Veum II

Last Updated:

Views: 5618

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (44 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Patricia Veum II

Birthday: 1994-12-16

Address: 2064 Little Summit, Goldieton, MS 97651-0862

Phone: +6873952696715

Job: Principal Officer

Hobby: Rafting, Cabaret, Candle making, Jigsaw puzzles, Inline skating, Magic, Graffiti

Introduction: My name is Patricia Veum II, I am a vast, combative, smiling, famous, inexpensive, zealous, sparkling person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.