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American Renaissance, Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism

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Literary writers in the American Renaissance (between 1840 and 1860) were in opposition some wanted to expose the evil in humanity heart to prove we could never achieve perfection, while other writers thought man could do no wrong. These writers were known as the Dark Romantics and Transcendentalists. Between 1840, to 1860, there was a literary era known as the American Renaissance. The significance of American Renaissance was that it was the first time in history that American writers were considered equal or even better than European writers (Brooks 1). America was currently a young country with no real literary talent or accomplishments to speak of yet.

An author by the name of F.O. Matthiessen first coined the term “American Renaissance” in 1941 in his book ”American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman”. Matthiessen argued that the movement happened during a much narrower time frame, and only consisted of the five authors Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, who he believed had a profound effect on American literature and society as a whole, according to Christopher N. Phillips in his book the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American Renaissance (Brooks 2).

He neglected to mention Edgar Allan Poe, who had a profound impact upon American literature and the genre of gothic literature as a whole. There were two main literary movements known during the time of the American Renaissance, Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism. Authors such as Herman Melville and Walt Whitman came to the forefront of American consciousness in the 1830 until about the end of the Civil War (Morris and Blair 1). Their literature was of a new sort, because a lot of their works were influenced by Jacksonian Democracy. Jacksonian Democracy refers to the rise and coming of power of Andrew Jackson, and the Democratic Party (History.com 1). The rise was followed and largely defined by the systematic focus on causes such as suffrage, and reorganizing federal institutions (History.com 1). Many people thought that Jackson wasn’t going far enough with his vision of democracy because Jacksonian Democracy appeared to have a “political impulse directly tied to slavery, the subjugation of Native Americans, and the celebration of white supremacy” (History.com 1).

In the years 1840, through the late 1870’s literature was dominated by the movement known as Dark Romanticism. Dark Romanticism comes from both the dark, “pessimistic nature” of the genre, and from the Romantic literary genre from which it was inspired (New World Encyclopedia 1). The genre of Dark Romanticism however, was born from a counter reaction to the Transcendental movement which had taken hold of America in the mid nineteenth century (New World Encyclopedia 1). Transcendentalism literature is an exaggeration on the philosophical/literary motifs of good vs evil. It strongly believes in the power of God, divinity, nature, and miracles (Berman 1). Romanticism had much less to do with God. When God was mentioned, He was seen as an “external force”, rather than a divine spark permeating, and shaping human existence (Berman 1).

Before we get into Transcendentalism let us first look at the background that fostered the necessary conditions for such a movement. America’s history is one of rebellion and conflict; in essence, it is fair to say that the history of America is a struggle to find its identity. Even though America tore itself from British oppression, and struggled to keep itself together in the face of civil uprising, America as a country had yet to define itself with its own voice. It was still dominated by the discourse, values, and traditions of British influence. However this background planted the seeds of ideas within American discourse that by the nineteenth century would then be known as Transcendentalism. Thus, just like the destruction of the house in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan was an allegory for the old ways embodied by the Ushers crumbling in the face of the new world, so too did the old ways of British influence that had permeated American society crumble before the idea of the American Renaissance. One of the big things Transcendentalism represented, then, was a “battle between the old generations of ideas, and the new’ (Encyclopedia Britannica 1).

One of America’s greatest writers, who not only helped create the foundation of American thought, but also stated ideas so universally acknowledged that other men, great by their own right, have been inspired by, and praise the works, of Henry David Thoreau (Encyclopedia Britannica 4). In his most famous work, the essay “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau makes an argument that has become central to the American discourse, and rather important to politics, and philosophy as a whole. He argues that government is inherently wrong, that man should be the arbitrator of his own destiny, and in the face of evil, immoral laws, and acts, one has a duty not only to comply with, and commit good acts, but to also disobey, and disregard evil ones (Encyclopedia Britannica 4). It’s not hard to see a parallel between Thoreau’s idea of the inherent willingness, and duty of men to stand up against evil forces such as corrupt government and society, and the Transcendentalist ideologies that spoke of man as being someone who is inherently good deep down. Indeed the Transcendentalists fully believed that it was society who turns humanity to commit evil acts, and forgo the natural state of harmony that man should have with nature.

To describe Transcendentalism in the most simplest of ways would be to say that Transcendentalism believes in the inherent goodness of man, and in nature (Morris and Blair 1). It was defined by the idea that people could trust each other to do what is good and what is right, and that they can do no wrong (Berman 1). As a philosophical movement, it could largely be compared to existentialism (CrashCourse). Which is a philosophy stating that it is up to humanity to define its own existence and that true freedom and authority comes not from others, but from the individual. But it is also a philosophy which stated that man is not solely a rational and intellectual creature, but one that is, and ought to be in tune with, and aware of his emotional side; a position that was put forward by Scottish philosopher David Hume, with his famous proclamation “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (Life).

Individuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were closely associated with this way of thinking. Emerson was a Harvard educated writer, instructor, and speaker. He believed that people were naturally good, and urged Americans to stop looking towards Europe for inspiration, and find it within themselves (Poets.org. 2) Though Emerson was the most famous beloved American Literary figure if this time period, he could not afford to ignore the literary critic by the name of Edgar Allan Poe. He did take the time to dismiss Poe by the basis of “The Raven” as a “Jingle man”. Like many other writers in his time, he regarded Poe as simply “tasteless” (Sartwell 1).

Emerson became known for challenging traditional thought.  Emerson became the chief spokesman for Transcendentalism movement centered in New England during the nineteenth century. Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836), is perhaps the best expression of his Transcendentalism,

the belief that everything in our world—even a drop of dew—is a microcosm of the universe” (Poets.org 1). His concept of the Over-Soul—a Supreme Mind that every man and woman share—allowed Transcendentalists to disregard external authority and to rely instead on direct experience (Poets.org 2). “Trust thyself,’ Emerson’s motto, became the code of Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and W. E. Channing (Poets.org 2). Emerson’s philosophy is characterized by its reliance on intuition as the only way to comprehend reality, and his concepts owe much to the works of Plotinus, Swedenborg, and Böhme (Poets.org 3). A believer in the “divine sufficiency of the individual”, Emerson was a steady optimist (Poets.org 3).

His refusal to “grant the existence” of evil caused Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe and many others, to doubt his judgment. In spite of their skepticism, Emerson’s beliefs are of central importance in the history of American culture (Poets.org 3). Conversely, Dark Romanticism focused on the macabre, along with the mundane. The movement emerged from the same quandaries that gave birth to the Transcendentalists (Ezis 1). The search for an American identity, and the moral questions that plagued America, such as those of Slavery, and women’s suffrage gave rise to the Dark Romantics (Ezis 1). President Abraham Lincoln was a public voice who opinions fell very much in line with the philosophical ideas of the countries triumphs, failures, and tragedies espoused by the Dark Romantic authors, whose works were published shortly before the American Civil War (Ezis 3). Speaking with an eloquent, yet course voice, President Lincoln rose to lead the country with a truly, distinctive American voice (Ezis 3).

Literary works around this time that took place with the genre of Dark Romanticism usually focused on the internal battle within the human heart, and the strife that these two contradictory ideas created. The idea that humanity is naturally good and the opposing idea that humanity is ultimately flawed created (Berman 1).  Writers in this genre believed that man could never be perfect, and used this idea to explore tragedies that arose from the sin, or dark secrets that can lie in a person’s heart. One such perfect example is the nameless protagonist from the “Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. Within the story the protagonist commits the horrible sin of murdering someone whom he is charged with caring for.

The overall theme of the story is the narrator trying to convince the reader of his sanity all the while describing a story that could only happen with the faculties of a mad man. His reason for killing the person within his care? The man’s “vulture eye” as it is described drove the narrator mad. After the horrible act is committed, the narrator is haunted by the beating of the dead man’s heart (Poe). The parallels between the narrator as he is trying to convince us of his sanity and his high regard for the person whom he killed, compared to his revulsion at the man’s deformed eye, his ability, even willingness, to kill the man, and his psychological breakdown at the horror of what he has done perfectly demonstrate the conflicting ideals that Dark Romanticism was known for.

There has been perhaps no greater individual that has embodied the ideas and works of Dark Romanticism better than Edgar Allan Poe. In contrast to the hopeful optimism and in fallible belief in the inherent goodness of humanity, Poe’s work focused on the rationality of the human mind, the pessimistic, and the darkness that lay within the human heart (New World Encyclopedia 2). The Dark romantics were very much opposed to the idea of the perfection of man (New World Encyclopedia 1). As a literary critic Poe was very much familiar with the Transcendentalist writings of Emerson, and though he regarded him as a “figure worth reverence”, Poe considered him overrated and lacking basic logic and rationality (Sartwell 1). Truly it can be said that Emerson and Poe were perfecting opposed, a dichotomy of light and darkness (Sartwell 1). While Emerson was thought to be an architect of the new identity of America one of unbridled hope and ambition, Poe’s vision, one of the dark surreal, intimate, and macabre was a vision of America that while stanchly different than Emerson’s, was no “less real” (Sartwell 1).

Poe was staunchly opposed to the abolitionist and individualist ideas of his contemporaries. He found them drab, boring, derivative, and full of nothing but plagiarists (Sartwell 3). One of the few writers he held in high regard was Nathaniel Hawthorne whom he described as “the greatest of American writers” (Sartwell 1), and such was his concept of Concord Massachusetts, the dwelling town of many prominent Transcendentalists that Poe urged him to “get the hell out of Concord” (Sartwell 2). Truly no Transcendentalists could have wrote the works of Poe for his attitudes of human nature were more complex than the Transcendentalists whose ideas of morality were far too simple for such works (Sartwell 2).

The Dark Romantic movement was mainly oppose to the ideas of Transcendentalism. Poe’s works are notable for being inspired for the Gothic genre of European literature. Gothic literature is very much defined by staples commonly found in the genre such as accounts of the macabre and supernatural, haunted houses, and the search for identity all with the purpose of “inspiring terror” in the reader (New World Encyclopedia 2). These Gothic characteristics are seen in many of Poe’s works such as “The Masque of the Red Death” which encircles everyone and not even the wealthiest of people can escape. Many of Poe’s themes and the atmosphere in his works were very similar to the famous William Shakespeare during the Renaissance.

The “Tell-Tale Heart” has a much similar atmosphere to Macbeth, and Hamlet. They both explore dark themes and the sin of murder, however the writing style between Poe and Shakespeare could not be more worlds apart. While the “Tell-Tale Heart” focuses more on the narrator trying to convince the reader of his own sanity, Macbeth is a story about the ambiguous nature of man’s choices vs the impotence of human power over fate and destiny. In Hamlet, the current king and uncle of Prince Hamlet murdered his own brother in cold blood (Shakespeare Act I Scene 5). Claudius keeps his sanity throughout the story, he struggles more with his own guilt and possible consequences in the afterlife (Shakespeare Act III). Another major difference is that William Shakespeare’s era was still very strongly influenced by religious values and the concept of divinity.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a Dark Romantic writer, but he had close ties to the Transcendental Movement. He was interested in ideas “swirling around the Transcendentalists” (Wolfe 1). He was so interested that he choose to join the experimental community, however he choose to leave after a mere six months. He became discouraged, not only with his community, but with the Transcendentalist community in general (Wolfe 1). In his masterpiece known as The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850 he explored the dangers of religious moralism, which was represented by the puritans, and mirrored the transcendental philosophy. The novel used themes that imposed judgment and punishment for those who commit sin. At the end of the book, Hester Prynne, the protagonist of the novel, stoically embraces the suffering inflicted towards her, which is a stark contrast to the ideologies of the time (Hawthorne XXIII). Hawthorne’s most famous novel examined the human soul and man’s morality. The Scarlet Letter is certainly a cautionary tale about the dangers of well-intended social reform where there is no separation of church and state religion rules the laws of the land.

Another influential writer of the time was Herman Melville; his writing however was completely different from that of Poe and Hawthorne. Melville’s works focused on his themes of “the truths of ragged edges”. “He is best known for his travel books such as Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener” that explores the blind ambition, cruelty, and defiance of God” (New World Encyclopedia 3). These two works of Melville’s are notable examples of the dark romanticism genre which the themes of madness, mystery, and triumph of evil.

On the eve of the Civil War Melville wrote in a letter that he was disillusioned with Emerson’s “Transcendentalisms, myths, and oracular gibberish”. Shortly two years later Melville would publish what would arguably be his greatest work Moby Dick. Which would take on the task of deconstructing Emerson’s Transcendentalists ideas in cautionary tale, much like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (Moch 1).

In his novel both Ishmael and Ahab are presented as transcendentalists, the story then goes to focus on home such an ideology cannot sustain them. Ahab does not wish to become one with nature and the divine, he instead hopes to destroy it in the effort to understand the “unknown but still reasoning thing” that “puts forth the moldings if its features from behind the unreasoning mask. Ishmael and Ahab share the same fate in understanding that it will never be enough will continue to drive Ahab towards his demise as he forcefully tries to “strike through the mask”. This was shows that Melville opposes the transcendental view of absolute goodness in man. Moby Dick shows that both man and nature are both destructive forces if left to their own devices (Moch 2).

Melville wrote a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851 that stated it is not in fact and inconsistency to “assert unconditional democracy in all things” as he does, “and yet confess a dislike to all mankind in the mass”. His belief is reflected in Moby-Dick as the reader witnesses the rise of Ahab as an absolute ruler and a danger to the democracy of the ship. The foundation of his transcendental quest, culminating in his defeat, not as a result of any actions of his crew members. The question of revolt is frequent in that of the destruction of the text, much of it stems for Ahab’s absolute power. Melville does agree with Emerson on one thing that “the whole history is in one man” (Moch 3). The epilogue of Moby-Dick Ahab successful passes the baton to Ishmael, putting history into Ahab’s hands sharing the same fate.  However, Ishmael differs from Ahab in this way, he could attribute meaning to his life by chasing after his own death but instead breaks the cycle and not taking the same path set up for him. For Melville religious doubt was unspoken as seen in much of his fiction (Moch 2).

There is a very significant difference between Transcendentalism and Romanticism, with their views of the purpose of life and their ideas of God and the human spirit. But they had similarities, as well. With the time frame of both movements, it indicates that Transcendentalism was the natural reaction of the Romantics who fought for “the rights of the individual on the physical plane ;”( Berman 2) The next step is into Transcendentalist thinking,

that there is more there than just what happens to one’s physical being” (Berman 2). The rights of the spirit, as well as the rights of the body, begin to be considered. Rather than being diametrically opposed, one is merely the result of the other. Neither movement could have flourished without the other—Transcendentalism began in the realm of Romanticism, and Romanticism would have died alone and forgotten had it not been for the continuation of some of its basic ideas through the Transcendentalist movement. Two things can be very different and still be of vital importance to each other (Berman 2).

The American Renaissance was defined by two very different literary movements with two very different opposing ideas. Is it more realistic to think mankind is naturally good and can do no wrong? Or will mankind always be tainted by darkness and sin? Writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville proved the idea through their writings that Humanity could never achieve perfection.

Works Cited

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  2. Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “History of the American Renaissance in New England.” History of
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