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The Limitations of the Existing Approach to American Romanticism

E. I. Blagodyorova PhD,

Belarussian Technological State University,

Minsk, Belarus


American Romanticism period played a crucial role in the development of the US national literature. The main task that the American Romanticism writers set for themselves was the acquisition of cultural independence from the former metropolis in addition to the political one. National identity, originality, lack of imitation became the main principles of the American writers during that period. H. Melville, in a positive review to N. Hawthorne’s collection of tales and sketches «Mosses From an Old Manse», wrote that his country did not need «American Goldsmiths» and «American Miltons» and that «It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation» [1, p. 120]. R.W. Emerson urged his countrymen to create their own literature, not imitating even the most worthy examples of the world literary heritage (in particular, British literature). For this reason, «история американского романтизма содержит примеры неподражаемой новизны, когда затруднительным является поиск хотя бы приблизительных параллелей в литературе <…> по другую сторону Атлантики» («the history of American romanticism contains examples of inimitable novelty, when it is difficult to find at least the approximate parallels in literature <...> on the other side of the Atlantic») [2, p. 15]. It was the specificity of the historical development and cultural traditions that led to the national identity of American Romanticism. However, for the same reason, it’s quite problematic to define the chronological framework of this direction and to divide it into periods depending on the similarity of the ideas put forward and their expression by the representatives of that period.

Romanticism in the American culture had a broader and more important meaning than in European countries, since it marked «начало истории американской культуры как явления <…> самостоятельного и осознающего свою специфичность» («the beginning of the history of American culture as a phenomenon <...> which is  independent and aware of its specificity») [2, p. 41]. Romanticism did not play such a role in any of Western European literatures, so it is not surprising that Romanticism remained the leading direction in American literature for half a century. Among the factors explaining such a long period of its existence the ambivalent attitude of American Romanticism writers to the Enlightenment period can be considered. It was negatively successive as in Europe: Romanticism developed some of the themes characteristic of the Enlightenment, and at the same time denied it. However, while European Romanticism was characterized by disappointment with the Enlightenment ideals, the disappearance of faith in the infinite possibilities of human mind as well as scientific and technical progress, the negative attitude prevailed over the positive one, American Romanticism had a closer link with the Enlightenment ideology and aesthetics. The possible explanation of this fact is that the Enlightenment period coincided with the emerging of the state, the ideals of the enlighteners concerning nature and society improvement, managing the course of history and upbringing of the “new Adam” [3, p. 12] could not be more relevant. The influence of the Enlightenment is especially noticeable in the works of early Romanticism writers who involved national historical events (W. Irving, F. Cooper), in the development of the idea of a “natural man” or a “noble savage” when describing Indians and pioneers (F. Cooper, H. Longfellow), in referring to the “natural life” in the heart of nature far from civilization (R. Emerson, H. Thoreau). In the period of late American Romanticism, it was already possible to see the results of attempts to implement the Enlightenment ideas, so writers increasingly questioned the faith of the enlighteners in the power of human mind and were critical of their ideas about the perfection of human nature.

Among the other characteristic differences between American and European Romanticism the Russian literary critic Y. N. Zasursky points out the absence of a pre-Romanticism period, the tendencies of which can be seen only to a small extent in the poetry of Ph. Freneau and the novels of the late XVIIIth – early XIXth centuries, especially in Ch. Brockden Brown’s works, who wrote in the Gothic tradition manner; as well as the unity of American Romanticism as an aesthetic concept, the absence of serious ideological or political differences [2, p. 52–54].

It makes sense to say that in the scientific tradition, there is no unity in identifying the development stages of American Romanticism. As a rule, it is divided into several periods, usually, two: early (1820–1830) and late (1840–1860) [2; 4; 5]. The exceptions are Y. V. Kovalev and T. L. Morozova, who distinguished three stages: 1. Early (1820 – 1830s); 2. Mature (late 1830s – mid 1850s); 3. The finale (the end of the 1850s – the 1860s) [6, p. 27]. However, it is impossible to distinguish a clear time frame for one period or another and the assignment of American Romanticism writers to any of the stages depends on the type of romantic worldview and the issues they touched upon in their works. In the present work, the option of two-stage division is used as the most correct, though it has its own shortcomings. Thus, one could suggest that a particular writer belongs only to a certain period, and attempts are made to place their work in a limited framework corresponding to one of the stages, leaving without due attention the fact that they (writers) created their works not only during one of those stages designated by the researchers (early or late Romanticism), but often during the two given stages, and their works reflected the ideas of that time. For example, F. Cooper, in his early Leatherstocking Tales (1820s), reflected on the negative aspects of civilization, dehumanization, and the extermination of Indians. In two novels of the pentology, written in the 1840s, the writer strongly criticized the decline of moral values, greed, selfishness among contemporary Americans, the author demonstrated the contrast between the moral principles of the Leather Stocking and a mid-XIXth century American.

Of particular note is the similarity of some passages from W. Irving’s and  N. Hawthorne’s works touching upon Indian themes. The chanting of old times by N. Hawthorne in the essay «Old Manse» resembles colourful descriptions of the majestic beauty of the Hudson River and its environs, their primitive splendor, when «рука цивилизации еще не уничтожила темные леса» («the hand of civilization had not yet destroyed the dark forests») and one could notice «первобытный вигвам, прилепившийся к скале в горах» («a primitive wigwam clinging to a rock in the mountains») [7, с. 196], from W. Irving’s «A History of New York» (1809). Special attention should be paid to W. Irving’s historical essay «Philip of Pokanoket» (1819–1820). This essay lacks humour, lightness, teasing of a reader – features which were characteristic of the writer's works, but, on the contrary, it is written in a somber tone and filled with painful, gloomy reflections about the fate of Indian tribes, their individual representatives, as well as the role that white colonists played in this circumstances. W. Irving in this work seeks to show the inglorious pages of American history dealing with the attitude to the indigenous population. He exposes the falsehood, hypocrisy, cruelty and cowardice of whites and contrasts them with the opposite qualities of the Indians: «It is with shame, I acknowledge, that I have to notice so much corruption of a people calling themselves Christians. If they were <...> professing no purity at all, then their crimes would not appear to have such magnitude» [8]. The exposure of the shameful pages of American history as well as the similar style and tone of the narration will later be characteristic features of N. Hawthorne’s works.

The Russian literary critic Y. V. Kovalev draws attention to the dualism of the romantic ideology in the United States, which manifested itself not only in the differences between the early and late Romanticism writers, but also in  contradictory nature of their own works.

It should be stated that while considering the works of American Romanticism writers, it seems more correct to take into account not only the chronological division into stages, but also the geographical one. Regionalism was considered when compiling the three-volume Literary History of the United States edited by R. Spiller [9], partially when compiling a multi-volume History of US Literature edited by Y. N. Zasursky [2] and only indirectly in the second volume of the Cambridge History of American Literature edited by S. Berkovich [10]. The 19th-century American poet and essayist, James Russell Lowell, stated that «The situation of American literature is anomalous. It has no center.  <...> It is divided into many systems, each revolving round its several suns <...> Boston, New York, Philadelphia, each has its literature almost more distinct than those of the different dialects of Germany» [10, p. 651–652]. With the help of such a colourful metaphor, the American poet demonstrated the unique character of  literature in different American regions, as well as the uniqueness of each writer of American Romanticism period. However, that is precisely the reason of  difficulties in their classification.

Thus, taking into account only the chronological classification, it is easy to lose sight of the similar features that can be traced in the works of N. Hawthorne and H. Thoreau. In some of the tales and sketches of N. Hawthorne and in H. Thoreau’s essay «Walden; or, Life in the Woods» (1854), there are  similar ideas, images, symbols that can hardly be called a coincidence. H. Thoreau in one of the chapters of his most famous work writes the following lines: «We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled» [11]. The serpent in one’s chest as a symbol of excessive selfishness is found in N. Hawthorne’s tale «Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent» (1843). The sketches by N. Hawthorne «Fire Worship» (1843) and «Buds and Bird Voices» (1843) can also be viewed as the result of conversations between those two American Romanticism writers. While reading the sketch «Fire Worship» and the chapter «Economy» from «Walden; or, Life in the Woods», one cannot but notice the similarity of both writers’ points of view and the general tone of the narratives. The authors regret about the replacement of the blazing hearth with a «cheerless and ungenial stove» [12, p. 841], reflect on the destructive power of fire, put forward the assumption that the souls of people of past generations return back home to talk with their descendants. Both writers recall the pleasure of frying potatoes over a fire; they associate the smoke from the fire with incense and the performance of the worship cult. In addition, N. Hawthorne and H. Thoreau mention the negative consequences of science and technology development.

N. Hawthorne's sketch «Buds and Bird Voices» reminds of H. Thoreau’s essay «The Natural History of Massachusetts» (1842). It also contains detailed descriptions of nature and its inhabitants, however, only in the spring time of the year and the writer describes only the neighborhoods nearby his house. N. Hawthorne, as well as H. Thoreau, thinks of the nature ability to revival and of spring as its manifestation. Referring to the rebirth in nature, both writers suggest that human nature also can experience its renewal and rebirth.

In conclusion it should be stated that the writers had similar views on certain ethical issues. Both of them were quite religious, but they did not believe in intermediaries between a man and the God, both believed in the power of love, which could lead mankind to perfection, they were both interested in the issue of moral perfection of the individual.

The similarity of certain views of N. Hawthorne with the ethical system of transcendentalists in general, and H. Thoreau, in particular, as well as similar literary devices, can be explained by the puritanical heritage of writers. Most of all, this heritage was manifested in the peculiarities of their creative method, which, first of all, includes the use of allegories; frequent use of such tropes as metaphor, personification, metonymy, irony; the inclusion of rhetorical questions; the tendency to write essays and sketches, as well as short notes similar to diary entries; deep interest in the inner world of a person; inclusion of quotations from the Holy Scriptures, allusions and reminiscences to biblical texts; the similarity of some works with the Puritan jeremiad. The Puritan jeremiad is a type of a sermon, created due to a particular model with the use of certain rhetorical devices. The term itself (Fr. jeremiade) was derived from the name of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who first predicted and then mourned the fall of the Kingdom of Judah. In this type of sermon Puritans recalled the courage and piety of the founding fathers, complained about the current state of society, clearly hinting that only human vices and depravity should be blamed for their troubles and misfortunes, and called for a return to the original pious behavior and diligence [13, p. 257]. In modern literary studies, this term is used to designate not only sermons, but also other literature genres with similar ideological and artistic features. It should be noted that such works as «Moby-Dick; or, The Whale» by H. Melville, «Walden; or, Life in the Woods» by H. Thoreau, «The Great Gatsby» by F. S. Fitzgerald, «The Grapes of Wrath» by J. Steinbeck and others were referred to as jeremiad because they call for a return to the original lack of human nature corruption, morality that was lost [13, p. 263]. The echoes of the jeremiad can be seen in the N. Hawthorne’s works of the second half of the 1830s – 1840s, in particular, those where he reflects on the fate of the American indigenous people and the state of contemporary society.

American Romanticism is a very important phenomenon in the XIXth century American society. It reflected the trends of social, political, economic and cultural development of American society and the state, as well as universal social and ethical problems and philosophical issues. Though there is a diversity of writers in the American Romanticism period, and each of them has the peculiarities of their creative method, taking into account the regional component allows us to reveal much more similarities between them than it seems at first glance. In addition, one should not adhere to strict chronological distinctions and refer one or another representative of American Romanticism exclusively to the early or late Romanticism stage, since they often possess the features of both the above mentioned stages.


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