Non-Fiction Page 1
A revisal: based on my second paid story back in July 2001. Enjoy.
THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE
Lawrence R. Dagstine
For over the past hundred years or so, we have learned that literature is the record of human experience, and people have always been impelled to write down their impressions of life, whether positive or negative. There are, however, many characteristics of American writing that make it different from all others.
The middle of the 19th Century saw the beginning of a truly independent form of American literature. This period, especially the 1850s, has been called The American Renaissance.
More masterpieces were written at this time than in any other equal span of years in American history. In the East the period was a golden age: Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and southern writer, Edgar Allan Poe. All were great poets or writers of prose. Essays by Emerson and Thoreau vied with the somewhat dark tales of Poe. Short works of fiction were popular, and Longfellow's poems were bestsellers. New England seemed to be the center of intellectual activity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, clergyman-turned essayist, most famous for his parable phrases and quotes, was the most noticeable writer of his time. He preached that man has a spark of divinity in him which gives him power. "Trust thyself," he said in his 1841 essay, Self-Reliance. There, as oracle and prophet, he wrote the stirring prose that inspired an entire nation.
Emerson began his career as a clergyman, and a recognized lay preacher. He came to feel, however, that he could better do his work outside the church. Thus he became an independent essayist and lecturer, a writer to all Americans. And he believed it made no difference what one did for a living or who they were or where one lived. He was for the people.
One person who took Emerson's prose to heart and lived by it was his Concord neighbor, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau lived a life of pure independence. He was a lover of wildlife and a student of the great outdoors. He was also an aspiring student of literature, who himself wrote fresh, vigorous prose. In a quiet meadow near Walden Pond, he tried to analyze life's essentials, its bare necessities and such…The result of his thoughts: his 1854 masterpiece, Walden, or Life in the Woods, which happened to be an account of his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond.
Walden, or Life in the Woods: (Thoreau)
"I went to the woods," he wrote, "because I wished to live deliberately."
(That is, he decided what was important in life and then pursued it.)
The simplicity of Thoreau's life makes a strong appeal to modern readers. Even experimentalists and contemporary authors, or 20th century masters (e.g.; Forster or Fitzgerald) are impressed by his work. His essay, Civil Obedience, which converted Emersonian self-reliance into a workable formula for opposing the power of government, advocated resistance, and, when necessary, going to jail, as he had done so himself once.
More conventional and less challenging than the Concord writers were the democratic poets of New England. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who won early fame with Old Ironsides, a poem which saved the ship Constitution, from destruction, and years later with The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, was a lively conversationalist; and through his mouthpiece, the autocrat, he gave expression to a variety of topics.
The poems of James Russell Lowell were also admired in his day. This wellborn Bostonian was ver- satile. He was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, a professor at Harvard, a literary critic, and a poet.
But one of the most famous American poets of the 19th century was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was a storyteller in verse: The Courtship of Miles Standish, Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha--all use native incident and character. For example, in The Courtship of Miles Standish, the character John Alden intends to speak for Miles Standish but actually wins Priscilla for himself.
Longfellow was trying to give the United States legends like those of Europe. His lyrics too were admired. His 1839 Psalm of Life was memorized by generations of children. Lowell, on the other hand, captured the thought and speech of the American rustic, showing us that American literature can be truly national.
Nearly as popular as Longfellow was John Greenleaf Whittier. He was author of such well known ballads as Barbara Frietchie, and after the Civil War, Snow-Bound. This poem, based on the poet's childhood experiences, pictures farm life in an earlier day. Whittier was a Quaker and a foe of slavery, which he often attacked in both verse and prose; his prose must have reminded many readers of their own life experiences and rural childhoods.
During these same years, the major writer down south was Edgar Allan Poe. Instead of American characters, settings, and themes, Poe wrote of timeless places and people. He did brilliant work in three areas: poetry, short fiction, and criticism. Poems such as The Bells and The Raven are vague in thought but hauntingly beautiful in sound. And both these tales' popularity has been retained to this day, for they are still read in English courses at colleges throughout the world.
Poe's short stories are of two kinds: (1) psychological tales of terror, such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death, and (2) tales of detection, such as his 1845 forerunner to Sherlock Holmes (e.g.; Dupin), in The Purloined Letter; considered by some to be early mystery. Both types of stories observe the principles outlined in his critical writing; The Purloined Letter turned on the fact that a completely obvious hiding place is overlooked. His writing also turned on the fact that a story should be short, that it should aim at a somewhat conclusive effect, and that all its parts should contribute to this effect, thus making for unity.
Modern short-story writers owe much to Poe's critical ideas. He passed a literary leadership to a new generation of prose writers following the Civil War--a period now known as the Transition to the Modern Age.
As with modern poets and dramatists, this gives new emphasis and meaning on realism among short-story writers of the 20th century, and those yet to make a name for themselves in the 21st century. Unlike the literary masters of the 19th century (many of whose forefathers founded this country), many of these new writers can be grouped according to a genre or style of writing.
Although Poe disliked most New England writings because it was too moral in purpose, he greatly admired the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The son of a sea captain from Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne grew up in that old port city rich in legends of the past. He soaked himself in the history of Puritan times and laid many of his stories in that period. Protestant religion and earlier settings made his tales shadowy and, because the Puritans were cautious of sin, gave the author a chance to explore the sinful human heart in his prose. He did so in his story, The Minister's Black Veil, as well as his full-length masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. His fiction, though seemingly simple, is often rich and subtle, and profound in its treatment of life's darker side, the side which the Puritans had freely acknowledged.
Most modern readers are warm in their praise of Hawthorne. They have also come to admire the work of his neighbor and spiritual ally, Herman Melville. All but forgotten by the public in his later years, Melville, today, is regarded as of the greatest writers of American literature. He was the first to treat the South Seas in fiction: Omoo' gives fascinating descriptions and pictures of this exotic region.
This book and the three others that soon followed them prepared Melville to write Moby Dick, considered by some as the greatest contribution (and a renowned classic) to world literature. This work is actually many books in one: an epic, a tragedy, a novel, a treatise on the whaling industry, and an autobiog- raphy. At the story's center is Captain Ahab, who searches the seven seas to kill the whale which bit off his leg. Even Melville's shorter pieces, such as Billy Budd, written shortly before his death, are artfully done and full of meaning. Few writers wrestled more heroically with the basic problems of existence than he did.
Another major writer at mid-century was Walt Whitman, who was deemed the "Poet of the People". He sprawled on a high point above the shore of Long Island Sound and contemplated the grass, which later gave him the title for his most famous work, Leaves of Grass. The strange book of verse was new in form and in content. Whitman had written about his country in a way never done before. At first, Leaves of Grass seemed a failure. Emerson, however, recognized its splendor; and now most poets agree that it was the first book of truly American poetry.
Here, at last, was the fresh, distinguished bard destined to create an art entirely American. Through Whitman's poetry the new nation was caught in its superiority, its diversity, and its great energy. All are brilliant and complex utterances of the human spirit and will freed in the New World.
Whitman's poems are a love letter to his country. To accomplish his purpose of singing the praise of the untrammeled American spirit, Whitman deserted the confining poetic forms of his day. His poems are melodic chants, beautifully suited to the ear.
Readers of American literature around the world have turned to Whitman as the speaker for the new democratic society. No poet has celebrated that society with more enthusiasm or more poetic genius than Walt Whitman has. His verses are charged with the energetic American spirit. They are a striking contrast to the rhymes of conventional poetry previously written.
Despite these many innovations some poets, essayists, and prose writers, continued to write in more traditional forms...right into the 20th century. The American Renaissance would eventually become the prelude to this formula, thus becoming the first chapter in real American literature and the ongoing American spirit.