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Overview

Notes

  • The 1941 publication of F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman helped to establish the writers in this volume as pioneers of American literary nationalism who helped shape American literature for the next two centuries. »full text
  • After Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans to end the War of 1812, a heroic national myth grew up around him that asserted the strength and optimism of the American character and suggested a hopeful trajectory for national literature that concentrated on ordinary people. »full text
  • The professional writer’s ability to devote his or her time to creative writing during the antebellum years was often challenged by differences in international and American copyright laws and by negative attitudes about the writer’s occupation. »full text
  • Despite these economic difficulties, antebellum writers had the ability to reach a larger and more educated audience than ever before. Many used this opportunity to argue for reform and to represent the necessity of resolving looming cultural conflicts. »full text
  • Although the American renaissance should by no means be considered a coherent school or movement, the writers included in this anthology responded to the same pressing issues of their times and stayed in conversation with each other through their writings. »full text

 

Full Text

The 1941 publication of F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman helped to establish the writers in this volume as pioneers of American literary nationalism who helped shape American literature for the next two centuries. Matthiessen argued that the years between 1820 and the Civil War represented a first flowering of American literary talent. Calling the period a “renaissance,” he selected a small group of neglected authors (Melville, Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau) whose works he felt had been undervalued by readers and critics. Matthiessen argued that the writers of this period helped to forge a stable national literary perspective and greatly influenced the nineteenth- and twentieth- century writers who came after them. Matthiessen’s list of “renaissance” writers has been challenged and adapted since its first publication. Among other things, his list focused primarily on male writers from the same class and ethnic background, and excluded many of the more popular novelists and poets whom most readers living during these years might have read and recognized. Critics have also noted that Matthiessen exaggerates the separateness of the English and American literary traditions. Still, the idea of an American “renaissance” has proven useful to students and critics wishing to study how these antebellum writers both built upon the work of those who preceded them and shaped the work of future writers.

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During the 1820s, writers and critics called for nationalistic literature to reflect the new sense of cultural independence from Britain. After Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans to end the War of 1812, a heroic national myth grew up around him that asserted the strength and optimism of the American character and suggested a hopeful trajectory for national literature that concentrated on ordinary people. British literary nationalists looked down on the efforts of American authors to establish a distinct or “emancipated” literary tradition, and many of the most successful U.S. writers of the 1820s saw themselves in conversation with European culture rather than separated from it. Instabilities in the territorial boundaries of the growing country and unresolved sectional contradictions regarding approaches to slavery, tariffs, and federal works projects made any consensus on how American literature should represent its culture extremely difficult to achieve. By and large, though, authors in the 1820s shared a sense of the distinctiveness of the American landscape, its colonial history, and the legitimacy of its traditions, and worked to represent the ways that ordinary Americans were coming to grips with their country’s contradictions.

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The geographical expansion and population growth of the United States in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century was matched by a marked increase in publication of books and periodicals. As cities grew in size and transportation to the interior of the country became faster and easier thanks to the construction of canals and railroads, the market for printed materials expanded. The professional writer’s ability to devote his or her time to creative writing during the antebellum years was often challenged by differences in international and American copyright laws and by negative attitudes about the writer’s occupation. American readers might have benefited from cheap pirated editions of novels and poems, but the unpredictability of copyright royalties meant that many authors had to support themselves through another occupation, such as editing or writing short journalistic criticism for a newspaper or magazine. Social stigmas made it difficult on the one hand for male writers to justify sole occupation as poet or novelist, and on the other hand for women to enter the public sphere as authoritative social commentators.

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Despite these economic difficulties, antebellum writers had the ability to reach a larger and more educated audience than ever before. Many used this opportunity to argue for reform and to represent the necessity of resolving looming cultural conflicts. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings, in particular, argued for the creative power of the imagination and implied an agency for the individual in rethinking his or her role in society. Emerson’s influence on authors such as Whitman, Hawthorne, Fuller, and Melville can be found in their willingness to question current institutions and reinterpret the status quo of American society within their works. Much of the energy for reform during these years derived from literature’s ability to cause readers to sympathize with other people’s plights by representing characters from unequal positions of privilege or freedom—slaves, Native Americans, and poor immigrants in urban settings. Many women writers, rising to prominence through abolitionist or urban reform efforts, also wrote about the right to vote for women and the need for greater legal equality between men and women. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first national suffrage meeting of its kind, is one example of the expanded role of women in national politics, but the massive popularity of women’s temperance and anti-slavery literature (especially Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) speaks to the power of women’s involvement in these social issues. One typical rhetorical tactic used by both suffragist and abolitionist reformers was to remind their readers of the unrealized potential of the Declaration of Independence. Margaret Fuller, for example, argued in “The Great Lawsuit” (1843) that Jefferson’s “Declaration” implied that the right to vote ought to extend to women as well as to men. Henry David Thoreau’s speech “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), meanwhile, objected strenuously to the hypocrisy of a northern state that had voted to outlaw slavery yet abetted the recapture by southerners of fugitive slaves. As reform movements increasingly were replaced by violent harbingers of the Civil War to come, writers of the renaissance turned increasingly to expressions of disillusionment with the failed promise of the American Revolution.

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Although the American renaissance should by no means be considered a coherent school or movement, the writers included in this anthology responded to the same pressing issues of their times and stayed in conversation with each other through their writings. Much of the literature of the antebellum years reflects the direct and indirect influences these writers had on one another. Common interests in travel and international friendship, as well as a shared sense of the need to shore up their current literature in references to the languages and cultures of the classical and imperial past, also linked these authors. But their desire to root the writings of the renaissance in a nationalist historical tradition was always in service to the development of an American perspective that could take its place in the context of the other cultures of the world.

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