The Emergence of American Literature

The Emergence of “American” Literature

The mid-nineteenth century often has been considered an “American Renaissance” due to the number and quality of literary works produced.

Learning Objectives

Identify the major works of literature produced during the mid-nineteenth century “American Renaissance”

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The decades before the Civil War saw a number of American literary masterpieces.
  • This period, now referred to as the “American Renaissance” of literature, often has been identified with American romanticism and transcendentalism.
  • Literary nationalists at this time were calling for a movement that would develop a unique American literary style to distinguish American literature from British literature.
  • Authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman wrote their best and most famous works during this period.
  • In recent years, female authors such as Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe have been added to the list of great authors from the period.

Key Terms

  • nationalism: The idea of supporting one’s country and culture.
  • transcendentalism: A movement of writers and philosophers in New England in the nineteenth century whose members were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the belief in the essential supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths.
  • American Romanticism: An artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century; in most areas it was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1840.

The American Renaissance

During the mid-nineteenth century, many American literary masterpieces were produced. Sometimes called the “American Renaissance” (a term coined by the scholar F.O. Matthiessen), this period encompasses (approximately) the 1820s to the dawn of the Civil War, and it has been closely identified with American romanticism and transcendentalism.

Often considered a movement centered in New England, the American Renaissance was inspired in part by a new focus on humanism as a way to move from Calvinism. Literary nationalists at this time were calling for a movement that would develop a unique American literary style to distinguish American literature from British literature. The American Renaissance is characterized by renewed national self-confidence and a feeling that the United States was the heir to Greek democracy, Roman law, and Renaissance humanism. The American preoccupation with national identity (or nationalism) in this period was expressed by modernism, technology, and academic classicism, a major facet of which was literature.

Protestantism shaped the views of the vast majority of Americans in the antebellum years. Alongside the religious fervor during this time, transcendentalists advocated a more direct knowledge of the self and an emphasis on individualism. The writers and thinkers devoted to transcendentalism, as well as the reactions against it, created a trove of writings, an outpouring that became what has now been termed the “American Renaissance.”

Major Literary Works

Transcendentalist Writers

Many writers were drawn to transcendentalism, and they started to express its ideas through new stories, poems, essays, and articles. The ideas of transcendentalism were able to permeate American thought and culture through a prolific print culture, which allowed the wide dissemination of magazines and journals. Ralph Waldo Emerson emerged as the leading figure of this movement. In 1836, he published “Nature,” an essay arguing that humans can find their true spirituality in nature, not in the everyday bustling working world of Jacksonian democracy and industrial transformation. In 1841, Emerson published his essay “Self-Reliance,” which urges readers to think for themselves and reject the mass conformity and mediocrity taking root in American life.

Emerson’s ideas struck a chord with a class of literate adults who also were dissatisfied with mainstream American life and searching for greater spiritual meaning. Among those attracted to Emerson’s ideas was his friend Henry David Thoreau, whom Emerson encouraged to write about his own ideas. In 1849, Emerson published his lecture “Civil Disobedience” and urged readers to refuse to support a government that was immoral. In 1854, he published Walden; or, Life in the Woods, a book about the two years he spent in a small cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts.

Walt Whitman also added to the transcendentalist movement, most notably with his 1855 publication of twelve poems, entitled Leaves of Grass, which celebrated the subjective experience of the individual. One of the poems, “Song of Myself,” emphasized individualism, which for Whitman, was a goal achieved by uniting the individual with all other people through a transcendent bond.

Portrait of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, American poet and essayist: Walt Whitman was a highly influential American writer. His American epic, Leaves of Grass, celebrates the common person.

Other Writers

Some critics took issue with transcendentalism’s emphasis on rampant individualism by pointing out the destructive consequences of compulsive human behavior. Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale emphasized the perils of individual obsession by telling the tale of Captain Ahab’s single-minded quest to kill a white whale, Moby Dick, which had destroyed Ahab’s original ship and caused him to lose one of his legs. Edgar Allan Poe, a popular author, critic, and poet, decried, “the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.” These American writers who questioned transcendentalism illustrate the underlying tension between individualism and conformity in American life. Other notable works from this time period include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne, American novelist: Hawthorne was among the foremost American writers of the era, achieving critical and popular success with novels such as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables.

As often happens, historians emphasize the works produced by white men during the American Renaissance, but many African Americans and women produced great literary works, too. Emily Dickinson began writing poetry in the 1830s, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) rose to a prominent reputation in the late 1970s. African-American literature during this time, including slave narratives by such writers as Frederick Douglass and early novels by William Wells Brown, has gained increasing recognition as well.

Romanticism in America

American Romanticism emphasized emotion, individualism, and personality over rationalism and the constraints of religion.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the central commitments of American Romanticism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Romanticism, which reached American from Europe in the early 19th century, appealed to Americans as it emphasized an emotional, individual relationship with God as opposed to the strict Calvinism of previous generations.
  • Romanticism emphasized emotion over reason and individual decision-making over the constraints of tradition.
  • The Romantic movement was closely related to New England transcendentalism, which portrayed a less restrictive relationship between God and the universe.
  • Romanticism gave rise to a new genre of literature in which intense, private sentiment was portrayed by characters who showed sensitivity and excitement, as well as a greater exercise of free choice in their lives.
  • The Romantic movement also saw a rise in women authors and readers. Prominent Romantic writers include Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville.

Key Terms

  • transcendentalism: A movement of writers and philosophers in New England in the 19th century who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the belief in the essential supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths.
  • rationalism: The theory that the basis of knowledge is reason rather than experience or divine revelation.
  • Calvinism: The Christian denomination which places emphasis on the sovereignty of God and distinctively includes the doctrine of predestination (that a special few are predetermined for salvation, while others cannot attain it).

American Romanticism

The European Romantic movement reached America during the early 19th century. Like the Europeans, the American Romantics demonstrated a high level of moral enthusiasm, commitment to individualism and the unfolding of the self, an emphasis on intuitive perception, and the assumption that the natural world was inherently good while human society was filled with corruption.

Romanticism became popular in American politics, philosophy, and art. The movement appealed to the revolutionary spirit of America as well as to those longing to break free of the strict religious traditions of the early settlement period. The Romantics rejected rationalism and religious intellect. It appealed especially to opponents of Calvinism, a Protestant sect that believes the destiny of each individual is preordained by God.

Relation to Trascendentalism

The Romantic movement gave rise to New England transcendentalism, which portrayed a less restrictive relationship between God and the universe. The new philosophy presented the individual with a more personal relationship with God. Transcendentalism and Romanticism appealed to Americans in a similar fashion; both privileged feeling over reason and individual freedom of expression over the restraints of tradition and custom. Romanticism often involved a rapturous response to nature and promised a new blossoming of American culture.

Romantic Themes

The Romantic movement in America was widely popular and influenced American writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. Novels, short stories, and poems replaced the sermons and manifestos of earlier days. Romantic literature was personal and intense; it portrayed more emotion than ever seen in neoclassical literature.

America’s preoccupation with freedom became a great source of motivation for Romantic writers, as many were delighted in free expression and emotion without fear of ridicule and controversy. They also put more effort into the psychological development of their characters, and the main characters typically displayed extremes of sensitivity and excitement. The works of the Romantic Era also differed from preceding works in that they spoke to a wider audience, partly reflecting the greater distribution of books as costs came down and literacy rose during the period. The Romantic period also saw an increase in female authors and readers.

Prominent Romantic Writers

Romantic poetry in the United States can be seen as early as 1818 with William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl”. American Romantic Gothic literature made an early appearance with Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) and Rip Van Winkle (1819), followed from 1823 onwards by the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper. In his popular novel Last of the Mohicans, Cooper expressed romantic ideals about the relationship between men and nature. These works had an emphasis on heroic simplicity and fervent landscape descriptions of an already-exotic mythicized frontier peopled by “noble savages”. Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of the macabre and his balladic poetry were more influential in France than at home, but the romantic American novel developed fully with the atmosphere and melodrama of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).

Later transcendentalist writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson still show elements of its influence and imagination, as does the romantic realism of Walt Whitman. Emerson, a leading transcendentalist writer, was highly influenced by romanticism, especially after meeting leading figures in the European romantic movement in the 1830s. He is best known for his romantic-influenced essays such as “Nature” (1836) and “Self-Reliance” (1841). The poetry of Emily Dickinson—nearly unread in her own time—and Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick can be taken as epitomes of American Romantic literature. By the 1880s, however, psychological and social realism were competing with Romanticism in the novel.

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Washington Irving, American Writer and Historian: Washington Irving’s writings, such as the Legends of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow, contained romantic elements such as the celebration of nature and romantic virtues such as simplicity.

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James Fenimore Cooper, American novelist and political writer: In his popular novels, such as Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper expressed romantic ideals about the relationship between men and nature.

Newspapers

During the middle of the nineteenth century, newspapers went from serving as mouthpieces of political parties to addressing broader public interests.

Learning Objectives

Identify the distinctive trends in newspaper journalism that emerged over the course of the eighteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the early nineteenth century, most newspapers were controlled by political parties and served to support those parties’ ideas and candidates. Journalism soon changed to address broader public interests, covering new topics that were important and relevant to everyone instead of a select few.
  • Many of the changes that came with this shift brought about new features of journalism that remain important today, such as the editorial page, personal interviews, business news, and foreign-news correspondents.
  • Advances in technology, such as the telegraph and railroad, made it possible to receive and report on news faster than ever before.
  • Penny press newspapers began to publish sensational human-interest stories and relied on advertising, instead of subscriptions, to sell issues.
  • Some reform movements published their own newspapers, and abolitionist papers in particular were met with a great deal of controversy as they reported on the evils of slavery.

Key Terms

  • penny press: Cheap, tabloid-style newspapers produced in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.
  • editorial page: A newspaper section on which the leading article (United Kingdom), or leader (United States), is an opinion piece written by the senior editorial staff or publisher of a newspaper or magazine.
  • William Lloyd Garrison: Prominent American abolitionist, journalist, and social reformer (December 10, 1805–May 24, 1879).

Introduction

During the middle of the nineteenth century, newspapers changed from being mouthpieces of political parties to serving a broader public appeal. Many of the changes that came with this shift brought about new features of journalism that remain important today, such as the editorial page, personal interviews, business news, and foreign-news correspondents.

Many newspapers in the early part of the nineteenth century were published by political parties and served as political mouthpieces for the beliefs and candidates of those parties. Over the next few decades, however, the influence of these “administrative organs” began to fade away. Newspapers and their editors began to show greater personal and editorial influence as they realized the broader appeal of human-interest stories.

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November 16, 1864 edition of the New York Tribune: Some penny papers were closely associated with political parties; the New York Tribune backed the Whigs and later the Republicans.

Birth of Editorial Comment

The editorial voice of each newspaper grew more distinct and important, and the editorial page began to assume something of its modern form. The editorial signed with a pseudonym gradually died, but unsigned editorial comment and leading articles did not become established features until after 1814, when Nathan Hale made them characteristic of the newly established Boston Daily Advertiser. From then on, these features grew in importance until they became the most vital part of the greater papers.

News Becomes Widespread

Nearly every county and large town sponsored at least one weekly newspaper. Politics were of major interest, with the editor-owner typically deeply involved in local party organizations. However, the papers also contained local news, and presented literary columns and book excerpts that catered to an emerging middle class and literate audience. A typical rural newspaper provided its readers with a substantial source of national and international news and political commentary, typically reprinted from metropolitan newspapers. In addition, the major metropolitan dailies often prepared weekly editions for circulation to the countryside.

Systems of more rapid news-gathering and distribution quickly appeared. The telegraph, put to successful use during the Mexican-American War, led to numerous far-reaching results in journalism. Its greatest effect was to decentralize the press by rendering the inland papers (in such cities as Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, and New Orleans) independent of those in Washington and New York. The news field was immeasurably broadened; news style was improved, and the introduction of interviews, with their dialogue and direct quotations, imparted papers with an ease and freshness. There was a notable improvement in the reporting of business, markets, and finance. A foreign-news service was developed that reached the highest standard yet attained in American journalism in terms of intelligence and general excellence.

This idea of the newspaper for its own sake, the unprecedented aggressiveness in news-gathering, and the blatant methods by which the cheap papers were popularized, aroused the antagonism of the older papers, but created a competition that could not be ignored. The growth of these newer papers meant the development of great staffs of workers that exceeded in numbers anything dreamed of in the preceding period. Indeed, the years between 1840 and 1860 saw the beginnings of the scope, complexity, and excellence of our modern journalism.

The Penny Press

Background

In the early 1800s, newspapers had catered largely to the elite and took two forms: mercantile sheets that were intended for the business community and contained ship schedules, wholesale product prices, advertisements and some stale foreign news; and political newspapers that were controlled by political parties or their editors as a means of sharing their views with elite stakeholders. Journalists reported the party line and editorialized in favor of party positions.

Appealing to the Commoner

Some editors believed in a public who would not buy a serious paper at any price; they believed the common person had a vast and indiscriminate curiosity better satisfied with gossip than discussion and with sensation rather than fact, and who could be reached through their appetites and passions. To this end, the “penny press” papers, which sold for one cent per copy, were introduced in the 1830s. Penny press newspapers became an important form of popular entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century, taking the form of cheap, tabloid-style papers. As the East Coast’s middle and working classes grew, so did the new public’s desire for news, and penny papers emerged as a cheap source that covered crime, tragedy, adventure, and gossip. They depended much more on advertising than on high priced subscriptions, and they often aimed their articles at broad public interests instead of at perceived upper-class tastes.

Mass production of inexpensive newspapers became possible when technology shifted from handcrafted to steam-powered printing. The penny paper was famous for costing one cent, unlike its competitors, which could cost as much as six cents. This cheap newspaper was revolutionary because it made the news available to lower-class citizens for a reasonable price. To be profitable at such a low price, these papers needed large circulations and feature advertisements; they needed to target a public who had not been accustomed to buying papers and who would be attracted by news of the street, shop, and factory.

The Sun and the Herald 

Benjamin Day, an important and innovative publisher of penny newspapers, introduced a new type of sensationalism: a reliance on human-interest stories. He emphasized common people as they were reflected in the political, educational, and social life of the day. Day also introduced a new way of selling papers, known as the London Plan, in which newsboys hawked their newspapers on the streets. Penny papers hired reporters and correspondents to seek out and write the news, and the news began to sound more journalistic than editorial. Reporters were assigned to beats and were involved in the conduct of local interaction.

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The newspaper, The New York Sun: Benjamin Day’s newspaper, The New York Sun.

James Gordon Bennett’s newspaper The New York Herald added another dimension to penny press papers that is now common in journalistic practice. Whereas newspapers had generally relied on documents as sources, Bennett introduced the practices of observation and interviewing to provide stories with more vivid details. Bennett is known for redefining the concept of news, reorganizing the news business, and introducing newspaper competition. The New York Herald was financially independent of politicians because it had large numbers of advertisers.

Abolition: A Thorny Issue

In a period of widespread unrest and social change, many specialized forms of journalism sprang up, focusing on religious, educational, agricultural, and commercial themes. During this time, workingmen were questioning the justice of existing economic systems and raising a new labor issues; Unitarianism and transcendentalism were creating and expressing new spiritual values; temperance, prohibition, and the political status of women were being discussed; and abolitionists were growing more vocal, becoming the subject of controversy most critically related to journalism. Some reform movements published their own newspapers, and abolitionist papers in particular were met with a great deal of controversy as they rallied against slavery.

The abolitionist press, which began with The Emancipator of 1820 and had its chief representative in William Lloyd Garrison ‘s Liberator, forced the slavery question upon the newspapers, and a struggle for the freedom of the press ensued. Many abolitionist papers were excluded from the mails, and their circulation was forcibly prevented in the South. In Boston, New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, editors were assaulted, and offices were attacked and destroyed.