Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Romanticism had started in Germany and had a very fruitful development In England, with poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley, before it came to the States. Some of its main features were the importance given to imagination, emotion and passion as opposed to reason, a celebration of nature (as opposed to civilization), an interest in the past and remote settings, and a spirit of idealism, individualism and political liberalism.
Romanticism in the USA coincided with a period of national expansion, a solidification of national identity and the search for a distinctive American voice. The result of this coincidence was a very creative literary period which includes movements like transcendentalism and the American Romance and which has been called the American Renaissance (a term originally applied only to the years 1850-1855, but that can also be used to talk about the whole period). In fact, Cooper and Irving’s works, although from an earlier stage, could also be considered as a manifestation of the Romantic spirit, because of the importance given to nature and the past.


Transcendentalism was a philosophical and literary movement that flourished in New England as a reaction against rationalism. Its basic beliefs were the identification of the individual soul and of nature with God, and the consideration of feeling and intuition as the way to find the truth. Transcendentalists were also social reformers and abolitionists. They had a magazine (The Dial) and some of them lived in an experimental community (called ‘The Brook Farm Institute’).
The founder of the movement was RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882). He published several famous essays: Nature, The American Scholar or The Over-Soul, where his ideas were developed: the need for a new national vision and the notion of a cosmic over-soul (an all-pervading unitary spiritual power). In them, the influence of Eastern philosophy and religion can be felt strongly. HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1817-1862) was Emerson’s disciple. He was also an essayist who wrote Civil Disobedience (1749), a work of great influence on pacifist movements. He actually went to prison for not paying his taxes to protest against the war with Mexico. His best work is Walden (1854), a long poetic essay about his life in the woods and the search for self-discovery and true wisdom. Another transcendentalist was MARGARET FULLER (1810-1850), editor of The Dial, and an early feminist and essayist.
WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892) was inspired by Transcendentalism and is probably the greatest American poet. His poems are collected in Leaves of Grass (1855-1892), a book that he rewrote and revised throughout his life. In his writings, he identifies the poet with the poem, with the universe and with the reader (‘Walt Whitman, a Cosmos’). His democratic sensibility (‘The United States is essentially the greatest poem’, he said) made him use a plain style, with ordinary vocabulary that could be understood by ordinary people. From a formal point of view, he used free verse, with no stanzas and no rhyme. He was also one of the first poets to celebrate the joy of sex: “I am the Poet of the Body and I am the Poet of the Soul”, he wrote.

► See Classroom Activity # 15 “Nineteenth Century Poetry”, p. 174.

EMILY DICKINSON (1830-1886) shared the chronological space with Whitman, but her poetry, although influenced by Emerson’s ideas, is quite different from her contemporaries, and it anticipates literary sensitivities of the turn of the century. Mainly unpublished till the 1950s, hers is a very personal, private kind of poetry. She inherited the Puritan spirit (“she seldom lost sight of the grave”, said one critic) but infused her poetry with powerful images of a very modern sensitivity: images that are often felt deeply, rather than completely understood.
The ‘Brahmin Poets’ was a group of Boston-based poets and critics who became the literary establishment of the time: a respected and prestigious group of poets and essayists who behaved like a caste (hence, ‘Brahmin’) and who wrote conservative, conventional poetry in imitation of the English style. H. W. LONGFELLOW (1807-1882) spoke to the hearts of ordinary Americans and was extremely popular; OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES (1809-1894) was also an essayist and a novelist. JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL (1819-1891), finally, wrote both poetry and essays.

The American Romance (Hawthorne, Melville and Poe)

The term ‘Romance’ is frequently used to talk about a particular type of prose which has been considered as the distinctive voice of American fiction. As opposed to the realistic English novel of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Trollope, Elliot or Thackeray (or Tolstoi, or Balzac, or Galdós for all that matter) the American Romance is more emotional and symbolic, less realistic and less structured than the novel. The protagonists of the Romance are heroic, mythical figures, typically lonely individuals facing dark forces which in some mysterious ways grow out of their deep unconscious selves. Frequently the hero dies in the end. Setting is not used realistically, but as a space that recreates the psychological world of the characters. Hawthorne defined it as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with nature of the other”. Through Romance, a fiction is created to expose the inner truth of a real situation.
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE (1804-1864). Born in Salem, Massachusetts, his best work is rooted in the Puritan past of 17th-century New England, but it also has a strong allegorical quality. The Scarlet Letter (1850) is the story of the consequences of an adultery (‘A’ for adultery is the letter in the title) and has become the classic portrayal of Puritan America. The book is a love story as well as a study of guilt and punishment, and of the Puritan obsession with morality and sexual repression. It also has a strong romantic (from Romance) character, since it is full of symbolism, allegory and ideology. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is the story of a family ‘cursed’ because of a terrible crime committed in the past, and of the resolution of the curse through love. Hawthorne was also an excellent short story writer (“The Minister’s Black Veil”, “Young Goodman Brown”)

► See Book Presentation Guide 5.1. “The Scarlet Letter”, p. 120.
► See Classroom Activity # 16 “Nineteenth-century short stories”, p.175.

HERMAN MELVILLE (1819-1891) was a sailor in his youth and used that experience to create his masterpiece: Moby Dick (1851), which has been considered as “perhaps the greatest novel of American literature”. On the surface, it is an adventure novel, as well as a (long) realistic description of the whaling business. But it has deep symbolic meaning and many possibilities of interpretation: the whale represents God, or maybe fate. And the quest for the whale is also a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge and success. Captain Ahab is a “grand, ungodly, God-like man”, torn between his dark and his light side, a Faustian character who seems to have signed a pact with the devil. The novel is full of literary, historical, religious and philosophical references and symbols. For example, the narrator, Ishmael, is saved in the end by the coffin of his intimate friend, a heroic Polynesian harpooner called Queequeg (again a relationship between a white man and a non-white); so he is rescued from death by an object of death. It has also been called an American ‘natural epic’, because like many other American novels, it is the story of a group of men alone in wild nature, a subversion of class-oriented, female-dominated, urban civilization. The sea acts then as another kind of frontier, where an initiation theme is also developed using the character of Ishmael. It is a philosophical novel, but also a tragedy: when Ahab finds the whale, his ship is destroyed and he is killed and damned. In other works of Melville (Billy Bud, Typee) we can see the same tragic, dark view of life. In his fiction, man lives in a world divided into two warring parts: good against evil, God against Satan.
EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809-1848) was another writer interested in psychology and the darker side of human nature. He was a Southerner, and preferred to use the past and aristocratic characters more than his Northern contemporaries. He believed in the brevity of the work of art, and, accordingly wrote mainly short stories and poems. His stories are some of the best in the history of literature, in particular his horror stories and his detective stories, with which he single-handedly created this genre. His poetry (rhythmic[1], narrative, more interested in form and aesthetics) also stands out as opposed to the more conversational type represented by Whitman.

He liked to glamorize his past (made up adventures in Greece and Russia), and tried to compose a romantic figure out of his own life, but he was never very successful among the American public. In fact, he died drunk and forgotten in the streets of Baltimore. He has always been more popular in Europe, particularly after Baudelaire and Verlaine vindicated his work.

[1] In English poetry the concept of rhythm is frequently more important than the concept of rhyme. The English language as a whole is based on stress rather than on syllables. In Spanish, there is not as big a difference between stressed syllables and unstressed syllables, but in English stress changes everything: the pitch (like Spanish), the length (stressed syllables last longer) and the quality (unstressed syllables have weak vowels like the ‘schwas’ in the word America).
Rhythm in English poetry is based on that distinction, and uses concepts coming from Latin to talk about the different rhythmic patterns. A line of verse is made up of ‘feet’ or groups of syllables, each containing two, three or four syllables. The commonest foot is the ‘iambus’ (unstressed-stressed). Others are the trochee (stressed-unstressed), dactyl (stressed-unstressed-unstressed), or anapest (unstressed-unstressed-stressed). Depending on the number of feet, a line is a trimeter (3), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), etc.
The most popular line in English is the iambic pentameter, which was used for blank verse (verse without rhyme), the form that Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers used in their dramas and poetry. Iambic pentameter is also used in rhymed stanzas, like the sonnet, the couplet or others. Two examples of iambic pentameter by Shakespeare are: “My mis/tress’ eyes/ are no/thing like/ the sun/” or “To be/ or not/ to be/, that is/ the question.” To the English ear, the repetition of this pattern sounds as ‘poetic’ as rhyme in Classical Spanish drama to a Spanish-speaking audience.

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