The American literary scene today was built on many years of metamorphosis, as much of a melting pot as the rest of American culture. The literary achievements of the Knickerbocker group of writers were practically accomplished by 1850. During the larger part of that first half century, there had been no question of the literary predominance of New York; New England had played, comparatively, an inconspicuous part in the field of national literature. A few of Longfellows earliest poems were published previous to 1830, and some of Whittiers also; but it was really nearer 1840 than 1830 that either obtained general recognition as a poet.
Emersons first series of Essays was published in 1841, and Hawthornes Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. The Scarlet Letter did not appear until 1850. It was, nevertheless, a period of intellectual activity. In Boston and Cambridge, new ideas were stirring the minds of the thinkers, and throughout the New England States, which were advancing rapidly in material prosperity by the establishment of manufacturing interests and the building up of a rich trade with the East Indies, the intellectual life of the people was feeling the stimulus of its own energy in rather remarkable degree.
The first phase of this new awakening is recognized in the Unitarian movement which spread over New England during the early years of the century. Opposition to the Calvinistic doctrines of the Presbyterian and other orthodox denominations had existed in the colonies even in Revolutionary times, but it was not till near the end of the eighteenth century that this opposition assumed the aspect of an important religious controversy.
The arena in which John Cotton and his grandson, Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, and the many lesser controversialists of the colonial period had waged their theological battles was again the scene of an intellectual and religious agitation which in its immediate effects and subsequent influence was more far reaching even than that celebrated movement of the preceding century, ” the Great Awakening of 1734-44. In 1805, Harvard College ” the fountain-head of New England literature ” elected a Unitarian as professor of Divinity. By the end of the first decade, nearly every prominent Congregational pulpit in eastern Massachusetts was held by a preacher of Unitarian doctrine.
The theological seminary at Andover was founded in 1807 to combat the new teaching. Moses Stuart (1780- 1852) and Leonard Woods (1774-1854) became famous as teachers in this institution and as defenders of the orthodox creed. Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), the father ofHenry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the ablest and best-known champion of orthodoxy in New England. In 1826, he was called from his church in Litchfield, Connecticut, to a prominent Boston pulpit, that he might have a position on the firing-line.
The recognized leader of the Unitarians was William Ellery Channing, who was born at Newport, Rhode Island, and received his education at Harvard. He became the minister of a Boston parish in 1803. Cultured, eloquent, and a persuasive writer, he became famed throughout New England for his oratorical gifts and as a theologian. In seriousness of purpose and in purity of character, Channing represented the strength and virtue of the old Puritan stock.
His portrait, presenting him in the conventional black gown of the clergyman with the white bands at the neck, shows a face highly intellectual and refined, with features delicate, spiritual, almost ascetic in their type. The influence of Dr. Channing was strongly felt; a sermon preached by him at an ordination in Baltimore, in 1819, is especially famous as a rallying-cry of Unitarianism. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good, was his text; the sacredness of the individual conscience and the freedom of individual thought was his theme.
While his writings are largely controversial, he was also a graceful essayist, and his literary influence was felt by contemporary writers who were stirred by his thought and passion. The Romantic movement, which originated in Germany but quickly spread to England, France, and beyond, reached America around the year 1820, some 20 years after William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had revolutionized English poetry by publishing Lyrical Ballads. In America as in Europe, fresh new vision electrified artistic and intellectual circles.
Yet there was an important difference: Romanticism in America coincided with the period of national expansion and the discovery of a distinctive American voice. The solidification of a national identity and the surging idealism and passion of Romanticism nurtured the masterpieces of the American Renaissance. Romantic ideas centered around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature, and metaphors of organic growth. Art, rather than science, Romantics argued, could best express universal truth.
The Romantics underscored the importance of expressive art for the individual and society. In his essay The Poet (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most influential writer of the Romantic era, asserts: For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression. As the unique, subjective self became important, so did the realm of psychology.
Exceptional artistic effects and techniques were developed to evoke heightened psychological states. The sublime ” an effect of beauty in grandeur produced feelings of awe, reverence, vastness, and a power beyond human comprehension. Romanticism was affirmative and appropriate for most American poets and creative essayists. Americas vast mountains, deserts, and tropics embodied the sublime. The Romantic spirit seemed particularly suited to American democracy: It stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the inspired imagination for its aesthetic and ethical values.
Certainly the New England Transcendentalists ” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and their associates ” were inspired to a new optimistic affirmation by the Romantic movement. In New England, Romanticism fell upon fertile soil. The Transcendentalist movement was a reaction against 18th century rationalism and a manifestation of the general humanitarian trend of 19th century thought. The movement was based on a fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God. The soul of each individual was thought to be identical with the world ” a microcosm of the world itself.
The doctrine of self- reliance and individualism developed through the belief in the identification of the individual soul with God. Transcendentalism was intimately connected with Concord, a small New England village 32 kilometers west of Boston. Concord was the first inland settlement of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony. Surrounded by forest, it was and remains a peaceful town close enough to Bostons lectures, bookstores, and colleges to be intensely cultivated, but far enough away to be serene.
Concord was the site of the first battle of the American Revolution, and Ralph Waldo Emersons poem commemorating the battle, Concord Hymn, has one of the most famous opening stanzas in American literature: By the rude bridge that arched the floodTheir flag to Aprils breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world. Concord was the first rural artists colony, and the first place to offer a spiritual and cultural alternative to American materialism. It was a place of high-minded conversation and simple living.
Emerson, who moved to Concord in 1834, and Thoreau are most closely associated with the town, but the locale also attracted the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the feminist writer Margaret Fuller, the educator Bronson Alcott, and the poet William Ellery Channing. The Transcendental Club was loosely organized in 1836 and included, at various times, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Channing, Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson , Theodore Parker, and others. The Transcendentalists published a quarterly magazine, The Dial, which lasted four years and was first edited by Margaret Fuller and later by Emerson.
Reform efforts engaged them as well as literature. A number of Transcendentalists were abolitionists, and some were involved in experimental utopian communities such as nearby Brook Farm (described in Hawthornes The Blithedale Romance) and Fruitlands. Unlike many European groups, the Transcendentalists never issued a manifesto. They insisted on individual differences ” on the unique viewpoint of the individual. American Transcendental Romantics pushed radical individualism to the extreme. American writers often saw themselves as lonely explorers outside society and convention.
The American hero ” like Herman Melvilles Captain Ahab, or Mark Twains Huck Finn, or Edgar Allan Poes Arthur Gordon Pym ” typically faced risk, or even certain destruction, in the pursuit of metaphysical self-discovery. For the Romantic American writer, nothing was a given. Literary and social conventions, far from being helpful, were dangerous. There was tremendous pressure to discover an authentic literary form, content, and voice ” all at the same time. It is clear from the many masterpieces produced in the three decades before the U. S.
Civil War (1861-65) that American writers rose to the challenge. In their time, the Boston Brahmins supplied the most respected and genuinely cultivated literary arbiters of the United States. Their lives fitted a pleasant pattern of wealth and leisure directed by the strong New England work ethic and respect for learning. In an earlier Puritan age, the Boston Brahmins would have been ministers; in the 19th century, they became professors, often at Harvard. Late in life they sometimes became ambassadors or received honorary degrees from European institutions.
Most of them travelled or were educated in Europe: They were familiar with the ideas and books of Britain, Germany, and France, and often Italy and Spain. Upper class in background but democratic in sympathy, the Brahmin poets carried their genteel, European- oriented views to every section of the United States, through public lectures at the 3,000 lyceums and in the pages of two influential Boston magazines, the North American Review and the Atlantic Monthly. The writings of the Brahmin poets fused American and European traditions and sought to create a continuity of shared Atlantic experience.
These scholar-poets attempted to educate and elevate the general populace by introducing a European dimension to American literature. Ironically, their overall effect was conservative. By insisting on European things and forms, they retarded the growth of a distinctive American consciousness. Well-meaning men, their conservative backgrounds blinded them to the daring innovativeness of Thoreau, Whitman , and Edgar Allan Poe . They were pillars of what was called the genteel tradition that three generations of American realists had to battle.
Partly because of their benign but bland influence, it was almost 100 years before the distinctive American genius of Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, and Poe was generally recognized in the United States. New England sparkled with intellectual energy in the years before the Civil War. Some of the stars that shine more brightly today than the famous constellation of Brahmins were dimmed by poverty or accidents of gender or race in their own time. Modern readers increasingly value the work of abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier and feminist and social reformer Margaret Fuller.