The American Renaissance: Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau
The American Renaissance in Literature – broadly speaking, the term refers to the period between the 1830s and the beginning of the Civil War.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) – Born in Boston, lived in Baltimore, Philadephia, New York. American poet, short story writer, editor, literary critic. He lived much of his life in poverty and tried to support himself from his writings. The cause of his death is still a mystery.
Poetry is a passion for Poe. “To Helen, “The Raven”, “Annabel Lee”, “Eldorado”, etc. “When indeed men speak of beauty, they mean precisely, not a quality as is supposed, but an effect – they refer in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul, not of intellect, or of heart…which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful”. Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem.” (“Philosophy of Composition”)
Tales: Poe learned a great deal from British Gothic and Charles Brockden Brown. He started writing stories with the intention of parodying the Gothic popular stories of the day. He wrote mainly two kinds of stories: tales of the grotesque (clash of rational and irrational forces): “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “Ligeia,” and tales of ratiocination: “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Purloined Letter”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”. Protagonists or narrators go mad, narrators are often unreliable. Human reason is vulnerable and doomed to failure if confronted with irrational powers. Many of his stories are psychological in nature: they describe the sinful and diseased soul of mankind. His fiction also reflects an interest in scientific experiments of his day (mesmerism). The popularity of Poe’s tales increased with the scientific developments in psychology (20th century). The tales of ratiocination are forerunners of detective fiction. Dupin, the highly intelligent mystery-solver, uses method and imagination, the qualities of a mathematician and poet, to solve mysteries. Anonymous narrator friend relates the cases (cf. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Watson).
Literary criticism: ideas about Art expressed in essays, critical reviews. “The Philosophy of Composition” explains the rational and methodical construction of “The Raven”. As opposed to poetry,
the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart are, although attainable, to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth in fact demands a precision, and Passion a homeliness . . . which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which I maintain is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation of the soul”.
Poe’s opinion of contemporary poets and writers: disliked transcendentalist poetry, but admired the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Poe’s influence on French and Russian symbolist literature in the second half of the nineteenth century (and turn of the century) was enormous.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): poet, essayist, lecturer, transcendentalist philosopher.
In 1829 Emerson was appointed Unitarian minister to the Second Church of Boston where the Mathers used to preach. By 1815 fourteen from the 16 churches of Boston adopted Unitarian principles (the decline of Puritanism in New England). Transcendentalism begins with the publication of Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836). Emerson gives up his post as Unitarian minister. Transcendentalism is in part philosophy, part religion, part literature; it is eclectic in nature and can be considered the late and localized manifestation of the European Romantic movement. This movement is characterized by:
the triumph of feeling and intuition over reason,
the importance of the individual over society,
impatience at customs, traditions,
delight in nature.
Sources: neo-Platonism, German idealist philosophy, Eastern mystical writings (Vedantism, Confucianism).
“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God…The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers.…Nature is the symbol of spirit”.
“Higher powers”: Reason as opposed to Understanding – “Reason” is intuition. “Understanding”, or reason, is inferior to it. Since God has made man in his own image, man is also divine. The greatest moral force here on earth is to be found in the example of the lives of noble men. The hero, according to Emerson in “The American Scholar” (1837), is an “approximation to the right state of every man”; this idea is developed in “Self-Reliance” (1841) and “Representative Men” (1850). The great man is humanity at its best; incarnations are Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Goethe, and Napoleon. The Philosopher and poet are dominant. In Representative Men,” he discusses the vatic role of the poet. Relativism is also expressed in some essays:… “It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem…” (“Experience” 1844). The presence of evil is disregarded. Everything has a double-fold nature: for every wicked deed in the world there is somewhere a good one.
“Divinity School Address” (1838) – delivered before the graduating young ministers of Harvard. “The soul is not preached. The church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct….I think no man can go with his thoughts about him into one of our churches, without feeling that what hold the public worship had on men is gone, or going.”
“The American Scholar” (1837) The American Spiritual Declaration of Independence. “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe . . .”
“Self-Reliance” (1841) The great men of history had always spoke what they and not others thought. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men, – that is genius . . . Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Genius is nonconformity. Men should be like children (non-conforming) in this respect.
“The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you, is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-Society, vote with a Great Party either for the Government or against it, . . . under all those screens, I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. . . . A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . . .With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do . . . . Insist on yourself; never imitate.”
If greater self-reliance is exercised then it “must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.” Society is like a wave that moves onward but it is made up of the same water. Prayers should also be different. “As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg.” Emerson was also a poet. E.A. Poe criticized transcendentalist poetry for being too suggestive and flat. (“Philosophy of Composition”)
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Born in Concord, Mass. Graduated from Harvard. Schoolteacher, later handyman at Emerson’s home. Published poems and essays in The Dial, the transcendentalist journal.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) – A travel account full of poems and essays. Only two hundred copies sold.
Poetry is the mysticism of mankind….If you can speak what you will never hear, --if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things . . .
The true poem is not that which the public read. There is always a poem not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped in the poet’s life. It is what he has become through his work. Not how is the idea expressed in stone or on canvas or paper, is the question, but how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the artist. His true work will not stand in any prince’s gallery.
My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.
Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854): written during his twenty-six month stay at Walden Pond. Thoreau wrote this to show the way one should live. Not in the sense that he wanted to be imitated, but in Emerson’s sense of “self-reliance”; one should live the way one thinks it right. Most people do not know how to live: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”:
…I do not speak to those who are well employed or not;--but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them.
There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty. I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.
Thoreau gives details concerning building a cabin, farming and explains how he became completely self-sufficient. “For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.” Only the four necessities of life are really important: Food, Shelter, Clothing, Fuel. He is more like a Puritan in taste (this is characteristic of the transcendentalists in general): speaks up against elaborate architecture, furniture, and luxuries. But he is also against philanthropy and charity. Walden has poetic quality: it is more like poetic prose: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail.”
Resistance to Civil Government (1849): otherwise known as Civil Disobedience. When Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax, he was imprisoned for one night. “I heartily accept the motto, -- That government is best which governs least…”; “…under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” (This essay influenced Mahatma Gandhi).
The Journal:“My Journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste…”