American History Chapter 4-10

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The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Fiction Protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals Edgar Allan Poe (© AP Images) (The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, Outline of American Literature.) The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Fiction By Kathryn VanSpanckeren Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and the Transcendentalists represent the first great literary generation produced in the Unit
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  The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Fiction Protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals Edgar Allan Poe (© AP Images) (The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, Outline of AmericanLiterature .)The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: FictionBy Kathryn VanSpanckerenWalt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and theTranscendentalists represent the first great literary generation produced in the United States. In thecase of the novelists, the Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the Romance, a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not love stories,but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings.Instead of carefully defining realistic characters through a wealth of detail, as most English orcontinental novelists did, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe shaped heroic figures larger than life, burningwith mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienatedindividuals. Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter  , Melville's Ahabin Moby-Dick  , and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe's tales are lonely protagonistspitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepestunconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit.One reason for this fictional exploration into the hidden recesses of the soul is the absence of settled,traditional community life in America. English novelists – Jane Austen, Charles Dickens (the greatfavorite), Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, William Thackeray – lived in a complex, well-articulated,traditional society and shared with their readers attitudes that informed their realistic fiction. Americannovelists were faced with a history of strife and revolution, a geography of vast wilderness, and a fluidand relatively classless democratic society. American novels frequently reveal a revolutionary absenceof tradition. Many English novels show a poor main character rising on the economic and social ladder,perhaps because of a good marriage or the discovery of a hidden aristocratic past. But this buried plotdoes not challenge the aristocratic social structure of England. On the contrary, it confirms it. The riseof the main character satisfies the wish fulfillment of the mainly middle-class readers.In contrast, the American novelist had to depend on his or her own devices. America was, in part, anundefined, constantly moving frontier populated by immigrants speaking foreign languages andfollowing strange and crude ways of life. Thus the main character in American literature might find  himself alone among cannibal tribes, as in Melville's Typee , or exploring a wilderness like JamesFenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking, or witnessing lonely visions from the grave, like Poe's solitaryindividuals, or meeting the devil walking in the forest, like Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown.Virtually all the great American protagonists have been loners. The democratic American individualhad, as it were, to invent himself.The serious American novelist had to invent new forms as well hence the sprawling, idiosyncraticshape of Melville's novel Moby-Dick  and Poe's dreamlike, wandering Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym .Few American novels achieve formal perfection, even today. Instead of borrowing tested literarymethods, Americans tend to invent new creative techniques. In America, it is not enough to be atraditional and definable social unit, for the old and traditional gets left behind; the new, innovativeforce is the center of attention. THE ROMANCE  The Romance form is dark and forbidding, indicating how difficult it is to create an identity without astable society. Most of the Romantic heroes die in the end: All the sailors except Ishmael are drownedin Moby-Dick  , and the sensitive but sinful minister Arthur Dimmesdale dies at the end of  The Scarlet Letter  . The self-divided, tragic note in American literature becomes dominant in the novels, evenbefore the Civil War of the 1860s manifested the greater social tragedy of a society at war with itself. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)  Nathaniel Hawthorne, a fifth-generation American of English descent, was born in Salem,Massachusetts, a wealthy seaport north of Boston that specialized in East India trade. One of hisancestors had been a judge in an earlier century, during trials in Salem of women accused of beingwitches. Hawthorne used the idea of a curse on the family of an evil judge in his novel The House of the Seven Gables .Many of Hawthorne's stories are set in Puritan New England, and his greatest novel, The Scarlet Letter  (1850), has become the classic portrayal of Puritan America. It tells of the passionate,forbidden love affair linking a sensitive, religious young man, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, andthe sensuous, beautiful townsperson, Hester Prynne. Set in Boston around 1650 during early Puritancolonization, the novel highlights the Calvinistic obsession with morality, sexual repression, guilt andconfession, and spiritual salvation.For its time, The Scarlet Letter  was a daring and even subversive book. Hawthorne's gentle style,remote historical setting, and ambiguity softened his grim themes and contented the general public,but sophisticated writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville recognized the book's hellish power. It treated issues that were usually suppressed in 19th-century America, such as theimpact of the new, liberating democratic experience on individual behavior, especially on sexual andreligious freedom.The book is superbly organized and beautifully written. Appropriately, it uses allegory, a technique theearly Puritan colonists themselves practiced.Hawthorne's reputation rests on his other novels and tales as well. In The House of the SevenGables (1851), he again returns to New England's history. The crumbling of the house refers to afamily in Salem as well as to the actual structure. The theme concerns an inherited curse and itsresolution through love. As one critic has noted, the idealistic protagonist Holgrave voices Hawthorne'sown democratic distrust of old aristocratic families: The truth is, that once in every half-century, atleast, a family should be merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget about itsancestors. Hawthorne's last two novels were less successful. Both use modern settings, which hamper the magicof romance. The Blithedale Romance (1852) is interesting for its portrait of the socialist, utopian BrookFarm community. In the book, Hawthorne criticizes egotistical, power-hungry social reformers whose  deepest instincts are not genuinely democratic. The Marble Faun (1860), though set in Rome, dwellson the Puritan themes of sin, isolation, expiation, and salvation.These themes, and his characteristic settings in Puritan colonial New England, are trademarks of manyof Hawthorne's best-known shorter stories: The Minister's Black Veil, Young Goodman Brown, and My Kinsman, Major Molineux. In the last of these, a naïve young man from the country comes to thecity – a common route in urbanizing 19th-century America – to seek help from his powerful relative,whom he has never met. Robin has great difficulty finding the major, and finally joins in a strangenight riot in which a man who seems to be a disgraced criminal is comically and cruelly driven out of town. Robin laughs loudest of all until he realizes that this criminal is none other than the man hesought – a representative of the British who has just been overthrown by a revolutionary Americanmob. The story confirms the bond of sin and suffering shared by all humanity. It also stresses thetheme of the self-made man: Robin must learn, like every democratic American, to prosper from hisown hard work, not from special favors from wealthy relatives. My Kinsman, Major Molineux casts light on one of the most striking elements in Hawthorne's fiction:the lack of functioning families in his works. Although Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales manage tointroduce families into the least likely wilderness places, Hawthorne's stories and novels repeatedlyshow broken, cursed, or artificial families and the sufferings of the isolated individual.The ideology of revolution, too, may have played a part in glorifying a sense of proud yet alienatedfreedom. The American Revolution, from a psychohistorical viewpoint, parallels an adolescent rebellionaway from the parent-figure of England and the larger family of the British Empire. Americans wontheir independence and were then faced with the bewildering dilemma of discovering their identityapart from old authorities. This scenario was played out countless times on the frontier, to the extentthat, in fiction, isolation often seems the basic American condition of life. Puritanism and its Protestantoffshoots may have further weakened the family by preaching that the individual's first responsibilitywas to save his or her own soul. Herman Melville (1819-1891)  Herman Melville, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a descendant of an old, wealthy family that fellabruptly into poverty upon the death of the father. Despite his patrician upbringing, proud familytraditions, and hard work, Melville found himself in poverty with no college education. At 19 he wentto sea. His interest in sailors' lives grew naturally out of his own experiences, and most of his earlynovels grew out of his voyages. In these we see the young Melville's wide, democratic experience andhatred of tyranny and injustice. His first book, Typee , was based on his time spent among thesupposedly cannibalistic but hospitable tribe of the Taipis in the Marquesas Islands of the SouthPacific. The book praises the islanders and their natural, harmonious life, and criticizes the Christianmissionaries, who Melville found less genuinely civilized than the people they came to convert. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale , Melville's masterpiece, is the epic story of the whaling ship Pequod  and its ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab, whose obsessive quest for the white whale Moby-Dick leadsthe ship and its men to destruction. This work, a realistic adventure novel, contains a series of meditations on the human condition. Whaling, throughout the book, is a grand metaphor for thepursuit of knowledge. Realistic catalogues and descriptions of whales and the whaling industrypunctuate the book, but these carry symbolic connotations. In chapter 15, The Right Whale's Head, the narrator says that the Right Whale is a Stoic and the Sperm Whale is a Platonian, referring to twoclassical schools of philosophy.Although Melville's novel is philosophical, it is also tragic. Despite his heroism, Ahab is doomed andperhaps damned in the end. Nature, however beautiful, remains alien and potentially deadly. In Moby-Dick, Melville challenges Emerson's optimistic idea that humans can understand nature. Moby-Dick  ,  the great white whale, is an inscrutable, cosmic existence that dominates the novel, just as heobsesses Ahab. Facts about the whale and whaling cannot explain Moby-Dick; on the contrary, thefacts themselves tend to become symbols, and every fact is obscurely related in a cosmic web toevery other fact. This idea of correspondence (as Melville calls it in the Sphinx chapter) does not,however, mean that humans can read truth in nature, as it does in Emerson. Behind Melville'saccumulation of facts is a mystic vision – but whether this vision is evil or good, human or inhuman, isnever explained.The novel is modern in its tendency to be self-referential, or reflexive. In other words, the novel oftenis about itself. Melville frequently comments on mental processes such as writing, reading, andunderstanding. One chapter, for instance, is an exhaustive survey in which the narrator attempts aclassification but finally gives up, saying that nothing great can ever be finished ( God keep me fromever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. OTime, Strength, Cash and Patience ). Melville's notion of the literary text as an imperfect version or anabandoned draft is quite contemporary.Ahab insists on imaging a heroic, timeless world of absolutes in which he can stand above his men.Unwisely, he demands a finished text, an answer. But the novel shows that just as there are nofinished texts, there are no final answers except, perhaps, death.Certain literary references resonate throughout the novel. Ahab, named for an Old Testament king,desires a total, Faustian, god-like knowledge. Like Oedipus in Sophocles' play, who pays tragically forwrongful knowledge, Ahab is struck blind before he is wounded in the leg and finally killed. Moby-Dick  ends with the word orphan. Ishmael, the narrator, is an orphan-like wanderer. The nameIshmael emanates from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament – he was the son of Abraham andHagar (servant to Abraham's wife, Sarah). Ishmael and Hagar were cast into the wilderness byAbraham.Other examples exist. Rachel (one of the patriarch Jacob's wives) is the name of the boat that rescuesIshmael at book's end. Finally, the metaphysical whale reminds Jewish and Christian readers of thebiblical story of Jonah, who was tossed overboard by fellow sailors who considered him an object of illfortune. Swallowed by a big fish, according to the biblical text, he lived for a time in its belly beforebeing returned to dry land through God's intervention. Seeking to flee from punishment, he onlybrought more suffering upon himself.Historical references also enrich the novel. The ship Pequod  is named for an extinct New EnglandIndian tribe; thus the name suggests that the boat is doomed to destruction. Whaling was in fact amajor industry, especially in New England: It supplied oil as an energy source, especially for lamps.Thus the whale does literally shed light on the universe. Whaling was also inherently expansionistand linked with the idea of manifest destiny, since it required Americans to sail round the world insearch of whales (in fact, the present state of Hawaii came under American domination because it wasused as the major refueling base for American whaling ships). The Pequod's crew members representall races and various religions, suggesting the idea of America as a universal state of mind as well as amelting pot. Finally, Ahab embodies the tragic version of democratic American individualism. Heasserts his dignity as an individual and dares to oppose the inexorable external forces of the universe.The novel's epilogue tempers the tragic destruction of the ship. Throughout, Melville stresses theimportance of friendship and the multicultural human community. After the ship sinks, Ishmael issaved by the engraved coffin made by his close friend, the heroic tattooed harpooner and Polynesianprince Queequeg. The coffin's primitive, mythological designs incorporate the history of the cosmos.Ishmael is rescued from death by an object of death. From death life emerges, in the end.
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