Niranjan Chatterjee’s Weblog

August 2, 2014

Surrealist Humor

Filed under: American Literature — niranjanchatterjee @ 10:38 pm

Long before Andre Breton was anywhere around, and the term “Surrealism” was coined, Mr. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy, quiet lecturer of Logic and Mathematics at Oxford was one day rowing on a river from Oxford to Godstowe with a friend, Canon Robinson Duckworth, also an Oxford lecturer. They were taking three little girls of the Liddell family for a picnic. The weather was “dreamy”, and the three little girls, as usual, demanded a story. Dodgson, who was very fond of children, usually told and retold old favorites over and over again. But this time, he suddenly started on a new line of fairy lore, all new and completely his own. Alice, the middle sister, aged eleven, had asked of the story and suggested there should be some “nonsense” in it.

 

A stream of fascinating, absurd happenings belonging to the Kingdom of Nowhere, wild and wonderful, followed one another floating over Duckworth’s shoulder from Dodgson to the three eager children.

“Dodgson, are you extemporizing?” asked Duckworth.

“Yes, I am inventing as I go along,” was the famous reply.

This was “automatism” at its height!

 

In the green grassy meadows past which they were rowing, there must have been rabbits. Perhaps it suggested the thought of a rabbit. Anyway, to begin with, Dodgson sent his heroine Alice, named after Alice Liddell, down a rabbit-hole after a rabbit without thinking what was to happen next. Then one absurd, unexpected, wildly impossible happening was followed by another equally as absurd and impossible, but altogether different one. And all was told so smoothly, so vividly, that the children were fascinated into complete silence. When these uncensored outpourings finally came out in the form of a book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, under Dodgson’s pen-name, Lewis Carroll, it took the world by storm, and, till date it remains a classic example of Surrealist humor.

 

Another creation of Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass” and several nonsense poems and stories by Edward Lear, specially, “The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World” was decidedly surreal in nature.

 

However, the term “Surrealist Humor” began to be ascribed more specifically to the creations of the group led by Andre Breton and the first example of such humor can be traced to Marcel Duchamp who displayed a urinal, placed upside down and signed, as a work of art. It created a furore, and, that was the basic intention of the surrealists who wanted to poke fun at the self-satisfied solemnity of the artistic establishment of the day.

 

The “dark comedy” of Kafka or the writings of the stream-of-consciousness school of writers like Joyce, Jack Kerouac, or, William S. Burroughs or the whimsical poetry of e.e.cummings (written in small letters) are very good examples of surrealist humor. We find “dark humor” in Brecht’s  famous play “Waiting for the Godot” too. We laugh and we introspect, both at the same time!

 

More modern day artists like Yoko Ono (possibly more famous as the widow of John Lennon), Andy Warhol and Italo Calvino have liberally sprinkled their creations with surrealist humor. Film makers like Federico Fellini, David Lynch and Fernando Arrabal have used funny surrealist imagery in their films time and again to deliver the killer punch.

 

However, the most famous influence of surrealist humor on popular psyche is “Monty Python”. Originally devised as a sketch show consisting of 45 episodes, and first aired on BBC in 1969, it pushed the frontiers of what is acceptable and has led to a spin-off of numerous stage shows, albums, books and at least five films. Monty Python’s “Flying Circus” has been a defining moment in modern concept of humor and used all possible surrealist techniques like “collage”, “breaking the fourth wall” etc., and shocked and tickled the audiences in many ways one never thought would ever be possible!

 

Sometimes the Pythons would attempt to fool the viewers by rolling the closing credits halfway through the show, usually continuing the joke by fading to the familiar globe logo used for BBC continuity, over which Idle (one of the famous six who formed the fabulous team) would parody the clipped accents of a BBC announcer. On one occasion the credits ran directly after the opening titles! They also experimented with ending segments by cutting abruptly to another scene or animation, walking offstage, addressing the camera (breaking the fourth wall), or introducing a totally unrelated event or character. A classic example of this approach was the use of Chapman’s “Colonel” character, who walked into several sketches and ordered them to be stopped because things were becoming “far too silly.”

 

It would be unfair if a mention is not made of other hit televisioon shows which primarily depended on surrealist humor. The names that immediately come to mind are “Family Guy”, “Futurama” and “Bobobobo Bo-bobo” though many more are also equally good.

 

Surrealist humor has been the cornerstone of quite a few websites too. “Something Awful”, “Buttercup Festival”, “Homestar Runner” and “LickMyJesus.com” are some of the websites worth visiting if you want your daily dose of humor of the surrealist kind.

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August 1, 2014

Eija-Liisa Ahtila – Themes, techniques and execution of her short films and video-installations

Filed under: American Literature,Personal Thoughts — niranjanchatterjee @ 11:02 pm

Introduction

Eija-Liisa Ahtila stepped across the stately portals of Helsinki University in 1980 and spent five long years there before shifting base to London to spend another five years of studies in London College of Printing, Management College and Film and Video Department. After acquiring enough knowledge in the chosen medium of her future creative endeavours, she crossed the Atlantic to spend another year (1994-95) in Advanced Technology Program in American Film Institute at Los Angeles.

Eija-Liisa has right from the very beginning been deeply influenced and motivated by feminism and till date that has been her staple fare though the method of putting forth her ideas has changed quite a lot. Initially she was deeply influenced by art philosophy and took an active part in analysing and evaluating various themes and thoughts that flitted through these hallowed institutions and enlightened minds. She was always interested in the linkage and apparently indestructible bondage between narrative, language, image and space – the four pillars on which any form of pictorial story telling rested. She was always eager to try and experiment at breaking these seemingly inalienable bonds. She felt these limitations of space and image actually constricted the story to only one plane and one specific set of time coordinates while in reality, denouement of a story, any story for that matter, actually took place simultaneously in many different planes and many disparate sets time coordinates. Any form of storytelling that restricted itself to one time-space plane actually failed to perfectly portray the interplay and tensions between various forces that always keep interacting between one another in any real life situation. Being a feminist to the core, she is also a humanist who has tried and is also now trying to capture this wide canvas of emotions and actions that simultaneously get enacted at many different places and also different points in time. She had tried to break away from the conventionality of two-dimensional storytelling since mid-nineties as she delved deeper into the interrelation between an individual’s body and mind and how an individual perceived his or her identity with respect to his or her body.

But Eija-Liisa knew that primarily one needed a strong story that has to be told, and unless the story was really strong and involved multi-hued human emotions working at various levels, the human element in the entire canvas would become too insignificant to merit any sustained attention. Any story that had scant level of human element and emotional interplay was obviously not worth to be worked upon and told to others.

Hallmark of Ahtila’s creations

Her stories almost always have a strong female protagonist who happens to be the central cog around which the entire drama revolves. The role of an individual and formation of an individual identity and its reactions and tensions with external forces of social and communal identity, and, how an individual is able to strike a balance between the two and survive and how another person fails to do so and disintegrate has often become the staple storyline of her creations. Other forms of human relationships, interpersonal tensions arising out of sexuality, inability to communicate effectively and even desperate attempts at striking some semblance of balance and equilibrium amidst complete disintegration and chaos have sometimes become the mainstay of some of her creations.(Eija-Liisa Ahtila Past Exhibitions)

The other hallmark of her creations is that the stories told by Eija-Liisa are essentially based on her personal experiences or real experiences of others who are either known to her or are complete strangers. These experiences are real at some stage and as the protagonists start telling their stories, they liberally paint them with the rainbow of imagination, but the underlying reality oftentimes lend a chilling sensation to the entire episode. The beauty and innovativeness of this film director lies in simultaneously unfolding the story at different planes of reality where individual experiences merge with something larger and more sweeping than petty personal feelings. Nobody before her possibly thought of juxtaposing the micro and the macro at the same place and observing the situation through two completely different eye-pieces. This ability to break the stricture of mono-vision obviously lends a completely new dimension and paradigm to what might be an ordinary episode in the life of an ordinary individual.

Eija-Liisa has consciously attempted to break away from the accepted forms of storytelling and has also tried to shatter all illusions attached to the medium of celluloid by making the narrator and even the movie camera visible in one of her videos. This creates a stunning impact on the minds of the viewers and conveys the sense of urgency in one fell swoop. Eija-Liisa has been able to effectively combine separate mediums and created a completely different medium that she can rightly claim to be entirely her own. She uses video, still photography, film, installations, text and performance to create a unique experience that is very difficult to express in words as the related emotions work simultaneously at so many different planes that it often becomes impossible for the viewer to be able to rationally judge as to where one ends and where the next begins, or what happened to be primary emotion and what grew out of it. A rapidly changing kaleidoscope of strong emotions keep tugging at the base of the hearts of those who see her creations and one becomes wonderstruck at the enormity of the all encompassing canvas.

All this is accentuated by the delicately nuanced breaking down of the barriers of time and place that is so very typical of all creations of this amazing artist. She has also tried to breakdown the apparently unbreakable bond between language and visual fiction. She has introduced those high pitched intonations that are so very common in TV commercials in her 90 second films where the characters do not speak to each other through conventional dialogues but use the shrill monologues accompanied by equally high pitched music with heavy beats to speak out their mind. This, some critics was a very intelligent and subtle way to highlight the alienation and inherent solitude of the characters of the story, but whatever might have been the intention of the film director, the impact has been stupendous.(More on Ahtila’s Works)

An Overview of Ahtila’s Works

Eija-Liisa Ahtila has consciously tried to merge time, space and create a blur the distinctions between past, present and future and also between illusion and reality by merging documentary and narrative styles of storytelling. She has also tried to weave seamlessly acting, performance and straightforward narrations of real experiences of genuine persons and endeavoured to create a continuous flow of uninterrupted emotions that join together and form a unique experience which hovers between real and surreal and creates a profoundly disturbing experience that forces the viewers to think and most obviously re-evaluate the paradigms of existence and reality. Her creations almost always carry a subtly nuanced, almost inaudible message that somehow become excruciatingly loud and force us to reconsider so many things we thought as inviolable laws of nature. Her choice of subjects almost invariable relate to broken or strained relationships, failing families and gradual drifting away of individuals into their own private islands of almost dysfunctional existence.

In Consolation Service, for example, Ahtila has not only tried to blur the distinction between fiction and narrative by making both the narrator and the camera visible, but also creates a very eerie situation where a shiver almost imperceptibly flows down our spine as we see a young husband along with a few of his friends slip through a crack and drown in a frozen lake as they were walking across its frozen surface after finalising an acrimonious divorce settlement with his wife. The frozen expanse and the sudden disappearance through ice somehow act as a sledgehammer to convey the death of a relationship and the futility of their years of togetherness that has resulted in the birth of the child. This particular creation by Ahtila is available in two forms – a 35 mm film or a two screen DVD installation. According to Ahtila, while the right hand screen drives the narrative, the left hand screen provides the landscape and other emotional subtexts which build up to crescendo of emotions which is peaked by an imaginary visitation of the disembodied husband to bid a final farewell.(Searle)

The other equally phenomenal work of this master creator is The Wind where she displayed the troubled mental condition of the protagonist without ever degenerating into mindless and unbridled hysteria. The film spans 14 minutes and is an excerpted version of a 55 minute long single screen film called Love Is a Treasure where the wind serves as a chilling metaphor for mental illness that is not visible like say a cut or a burn or a swelling or any other physical ailment but whose impact can be felt by both the afflicted and those around that person. Indeed it is highlighted when the protagonist queries where is the coming from only to get a reply from a disembodied voice that it is coming from her imagination. It is a three screen presentation where the mental trauma and turmoil of the young protagonist is portrayed simultaneously on three screens by filming the same scene from three different angles. The viewer gets a chance to view each scene from the perspective of his or her choice and the underlying fluidity of perspectives that is so very common in all forms of art and communication is subtly communicated. Mental illness too, after all, is nothing but a situation of twisted perspectives and this message has been very effectively conveyed through this short film. The situation is further crystallised through the superbly nuanced collage of presumably true incidents and fantasy where a young and handsome man arrives to iron the newspapers of Susanna, the mentally troubled protagonist, but refuses any advances made by her. One also recalls how a dozen or so skinny girls invade her apartment to show off their bodies almost instantly after she complains about her generous proportions. The humorous side of Ahtila cannot be overlooked as repeated cuts of a photograph of puffer fish (it inflates its body to scare away predators) flash on the screens as Susanna whines about her rotund shape.

The other creation that must be mentioned while having an overview of Ahtila’s creations is If 6 was 9. The title incidentally is taken from a Jimmy Hendrix song and the creation happens to be collated from real life interviews of five teenage girls of Helsinki. They have precious little to do at home and generally while away their time by discovering their sexuality and exchanging personal experiences (mostly sexual where some are real and rest imaginary) and generally creating a personal fantasy world sheltered from harsh reality. The desire to be sheltered from reality is highlighted by one of the characters claiming that she is 38 years old while looking not even a day older than her friends.(Featurette: EIJA-LIISA AHTILA)

Projected simultaneously on three screens, it catches multiple perspectives of a single scene and by occasionally blacking out of one or two screens to increase focus or projecting a panoramic scene spanning three screens Ahtila could create an environment where the multidimensional aspect of reality is well and truly conveyed to the audience. This has been brought into even sharper perspective in Today where three screens are positioned in an open ended enclosure and activated one after the other showing three different truths spaced by intervals of time. The discontinuity of sequence by bringing past present and future in one extended collage Ahtila weaves a web of illusion that is totally surreal but fully entrenched in reality since narratives purely depend on the perspective of the narrator.

But Ahtila is not only a videographer; she has creations of still photos too that have created similar waves in the world of both connoisseurs and lay viewers. The first series to create waves was Dog Bites that spanned over a five year period (1992-97) and consisted of a suit of eight colour photographs of a nude female in canine postures. The stylish copper coloured hair and the canine pose somehow brought to sharp focus how helpless an individual is when faced with a continuous barrage of advertisement and publicity about what we should wear eat and even what we should think and how we should think. In spite of all tall claims of individuality and individual freedom to make choices, a modern day citizen is in effect nothing but a chained dog in the hands of state and multinational corporate houses.

She also tried her hand at advertisements and cartoons in print media that ran for a week. The advertisements dealt with pressing environmental issues and attempted to make the readers more aware of the impending environmental catastrophe that simply cannot be avoided by ignoring the reality or sweeping away the stark facts from eyesight. The cartoons were aimed at children and dealt with skin care items for them. Her seemingly limitless ability to convey a serious and contemporary message in the garb of light hearted and almost inconsequential banter spilled over into three ultra short (90 seconds each) black and white vignettes – Me/We, Okay and Gray where the artist, it seemed, has finally been able to master the art of juxtaposing the micro and the macro in the same canvas. In Gray, she showed how three women kept discussing the personal trivial woes even while discussing a mammoth nuclear accident that has occurred just across the border.(Vetrocq)

Technique of Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Early video artists as Nam June Paik and Dan Graham preferred video for its immediacy and their work was more renowned for their news value rather than artistic elegance which, nonetheless, was present in ample doses but the finished product surely lacked the plush feeling of a film. During 90s of the last century, artists as Matthew Barney and Shirin Neshat tried to work in a medium that is a hybrid of both and started calling it video installation. Eija-Liisa Ahtila is the best known proponent of this medium and she actually shoots on film and then converts the footage to video for DVD projection and the final product is neither film nor video, it could at best be called filmic digital art.

In Consolation Service, Ahtila projects two images one beside the other on a white wall and what in cinematic language is termed as reaction shots is projected on a separate screen while action continues in the other. So, while main action continues in ne screen, another perspective of the reality is provided in another screen in the form of close ups of faces, furniture or anything that the directors finds suitable or interesting.

However, one must also mention other artists that have used multi-screen projection as a distinct form of art and a separate genre of expression. Notable among these artists are Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider who presented way back in 1969 their nine-screen video projection Wipe Cycle. More recently, Mike Figgis has made a full-fledged film Time Code that requires a four screen projection system. Ahtila has moved closer to the basic intent of video art in Me/We, Okay and Gray where black and white presentations more in line with television commercials tend to give an urgency and immediacy to the tales of three disparate groups separated by a few decades. (Rush)

Ahtila (as well as another Finnish artist Salla Tykka) has used multiple screens to usher in a multiplicity of dimensions as action takes place all around the viewer and sometimes a viewer has to move around a bit to catch a glimpse of the latest bit on a monitor placed a little on the other side. Sometimes the viewer is provided a sofa to lounge on and catch all the action just by glancing from one direction to the other with a slight shift of the head.

Ahtila takes full advantage of multi screen projection by involving the viewers physically in viewing the film and almost always the viewers get caught somewhere in the middle while traversing from one screen to the other and always suffer from the anxiety of lagging behind. The viewers always remain confused about what, where and when and in a way experience the alienation and confusion faced by most of Ahtila’s protagonists.

The other specialty of Ahtila’s creations are that with the exception of Consolation Service, admission in any other screening is not timed meaning anybody can enter anytime and the experience can never be compared to watching TV or going to a cinema. One enters the gallery not knowing at what point in the narrative one is and is also not aware whether what is unfolding right now is a part of a solution or a part of a problem. The experience is very much akin to real life where we are almost perpetually caught in the eddy of time that swirls viciously to make our life take on multiple hues. (Archer)

Conclusion

But it must be said that very few artists have been able to exploit this aspect video installations and among those that have, the very best is undoubtedly Eija-Liisa Ahtila.


 

References

Archer, Michael. “ArtForum.” 2002. Eija-Liisa Ahtila – Reviews. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_3_41/ai_94122705&gt;.

“Eija-Liisa Ahtila Past Exhibitions.” 2001. Arte Contemporanea. <http://www.paolocurti.com/ahtila/ahtila.htm&gt;.

“Featurette: EIJA-LIISA AHTILA.” 2008. SiouxWIRE. <http://www.siouxwire.com/2008/04/featurette-eija-liisa-ahtila.html&gt;.

“More on Ahtila’s Works.” 2001. Arte Contemporanea. <http://www.paolocurti.com/ahtila/ahtila2.htm&gt;.

Rush, Michael. “Art in America.” 2000. findarticles.com. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_9_88/ai_65069543?tag=rbxcra.2.a.44&gt;.

Searle, Adrian. “The never-ending story.” 2002. guardian.co.uk. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2002/apr/30/artsfeatures1&gt;.

Vetrocq, Marcia E. “Art in America.” 2002. http://www.findarticles.com. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_10_90/ai_92352649?tag=rbxcra.2.a.22&gt;.

May 6, 2009

American Renaissance – an analysis from a historical perspective

Filed under: American Literature — niranjanchatterjee @ 8:11 am
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The times that were

George Washington had brought political freedom, but cultural influence of Europe was still very strongly evident in American literary space. The newly born nation was desperate to get a new identity for itself which would be totally free from European influence. This desire became stronger with illusions of a grand victory in the War of 1812. The Americans felt the time has come when they need to speak in a voice which indeed was their own, use an idiom and forge an expression that truly reflected the uniqueness of American nation. The ignominy of being an appendage to Europe was too much to bear and Emerson in a belligerent Phi Beta Kappa Address at Harvard in 1837 boldly declared “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…” (Emerson) This clarion call for breaking the shackles opened the floodgates of American writing which for the first time transcended the boundaries of utilitarian, political, and spiritual writing (which had till then been the dominant nature of American output) and metamorphosed into true literature.

The literary landscape

All American writing however was not utilitarian, political or spiritual before the advent of Emerson and his group of Transcendentalists located at Concord, Massachusetts. American literary scene had eminently powerful exponents in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Lowell who in their own way were depicting the nuances of American psyche. But these gentlemen, and a few more similar to them, were steeped in European culture and what they were attempting was in effect to pour the American experience in a European mold to obtain something which had American flavor but European form. Lowell, in particular, in Harvard Commemoration Ode (1865) was at his creative best. The problem which these intellectuals faced was the absence of a European backdrop in American countryside. There were no Rolling Meadows or Lake Districts to foster creative juices of these authors, and above all, there were no legends or tales of grandeur, glory or tragedy that had formed the canvas of many a European masterpiece. This absence of a familiar environment perhaps forced Edgar Allen Poe to import an Italian backdrop to add necessary weight and flavor to one of his creations.

Renaissance – a historical necessity

A reaction to this overdependence on Europe divorced from the realities of America was waiting to happen and took shape in the form of American Renaissance. The credit of coining the term “American Renaissance” goes to F. O. Matthiessen who used this new found expression in his seminal work ‘American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman’ published in 1941. Renaissance as such means a period in the history and culture of a country when creativity, ingenuity and self assertion reach new heights. Matthiessen mainly concentrated on Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman and very fleetingly discussed works of Emily Dickinson. In his opinion these writers were the harbingers of new philosophy and a new way of looking at things which finally severed the umbilical cord of European dependence and gave rise to literature which truly had American roots. (Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright)

A review of Renaissance literature

Herman Melville

Emerson and his group of fellow thinkers started to think differently and American prose also began evolving from the shadows of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. It finally started to echo the earthy tenor of the land which reared the authors. Herman Melville, who had little formal education before joining a whaling ship which in his own words was his “Yale College and his Harvard”, brought this all American approach to life in his superbly layered, intricately symbolic immortal masterpiece ‘Moby Dick’. This is perhaps the first time an American whaler found his voice in literature. American Renaissance had well and truly arrived.

Nathaniel Hawthorn

But American literature was not all waves and whales; it also experienced tides of romance set in the backdrop of colonial America in ‘The Scarlet Letter’, the watershed creation of Nathaniel Hawthorn. Though personally going through a period of dismay on being dismissed from his job as surveyor of Custom House (which showed through in the essay “The Custom House” attached with the novel) he did not let his momentary setback cloud the optimism and the spirit of freedom which was so very common with all the authors that were influenced by Emerson. Two lovers in this novel, who could not remain together in life due to twists and turns of destiny and the oppressive sense of morality of dominant Puritanical society finally found togetherness beneath the same headstone. The novel at one plane a simple tale of yearning and pining of two lovers was also a moving indictment of prevalent social mores. Initially this completely American story did not find much favor with readers but later it came to be recognized as one of the best novels ever written in American literature. The later years of this important catalyst of American Renaissance were however blatantly unproductive, but this is no way can lower Hawthorn’s contribution to American romanticism and optimism of this era. (Gable)

Walt Whitman

American literature was already in the throes of an unprecedented creativity which touched all aspects of life and times of that period. Walt Whitman, who was a through and through city bred soul never ever experiencing the rough and roll of high seas as Melville had, started singing in praise of city life in New York – a completely new phenomenon in American literature where a city acquired a separate persona instead of remaining merely as a backdrop. The city of New York became the chief and most enduring protagonist in the first edition of his collection of poems ‘Leaves of Grass’. Nine revised editions of this brilliant creation kept showcasing beliefs, crises, dreams, aspirations and despairs of the common man in this great era when the American moth was breaking open the chrysalis to emerge as a multihued butterfly. Whitman was unconventional both in thought and form and use of free verse in place of rhyming meter did not make him a darling of the reading public overnight. However, with passage of time, Whitman came to the acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of America. (Gura, Philip F., and Joyel Myerson, eds.)

 

Henry David Thoreau

The other prominent personality in this unfolding saga of American Renaissance was Henry David Thoreau who had a genuinely colorful life which he experienced at times as a surveyor, a naturalist and for some time even as a laborer. A completely self taught erudite person armed with a dry Yankee sense of humor, he brought earthy America right to the high table of timeless literature through ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers’ (1849) and ‘Walden’ (1854). He was forthright in his views and created ripples by his declaration that man should consciously reduce his materialistic yearnings while exhorting people to stand up to (violently if need be) the unfair demands and deeds of ruling dispensation. This unique combination of deeply personal philosophy with mundane requirements of work-a-day world made him a unique character in this watershed of American literature. (Newman)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The person who was at the center of American Renaissance and the leading light in the new bold concept of Transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson. With Ripley he founded Transcendental Club in 1836 but the concept and philosophy of Transcendentalism was, as the name suggested, wider and permeated beyond club membership, or, for that matter, boundaries of nation, culture or medium of expression. These new age thinkers were influenced by Kant and believed knowledge was not associated with objects per se but with how we tend to know more about these objects. Emerson led the brigade of Transcendentalists who felt the world to be a microcosm in the infinite stream of existence and strongly perceived a linkage between individual soul and universal soul (Emerson preferred to call it Oversoul). This group of intrepid thinkers believed spark of divinity existed in every man and communication with Nature through meditation would help everyone to transcend the limits of materialistic existence and experience real beauty, truth and goodness. One needed to look inwards to discover eternal truth and there was no need for any scholarship which was unrelated to real life. Thus we found on the hand the intensely personal outpourings of Whitman giving words to individual angst in an uncertain and rapidly evolving urban world, while a defiant Thoreau urging people to resort to anarchy if need be to resist arbitrary actions of the government. In both these instances an urge to transcend physical limits and associate oneself with a larger being or cause was very much evident.

Emerson preached a doctrine of self reliance and self sufficiency which strangely though fitted magnificently with the historical backdrop of the new American nation trying to carve out an identity of its own. He challenged pedantry and ostentation and mocked rituals which had no real significance of their own. A natural corollary was a negation of organized religion and in his ‘Address at Divinity College’ at Harvard University in 1838 he challenged the traditional trappings of Christianity and even went to the extent of dismissing the divinity of Jesus Christ. This obviously created a furor with Harvard ostracizing him for a pretty long time. But the spark which Emerson lit continued to attract kindred souls in search of truth and beauty. (Rowe)

Conclusion

This period in American literature was unique as many authors started experimenting with newer forms and expressions. Literature also got a boost from rising levels of literacy which made the written word more potent in forming public opinion, taste and culture. Publishing industry started maturing as an obvious trickledown effect while the American nation thundered on a glorious trip to prosperity and westward expansion with numerous new cities and settlements coming into existence as frontiers of the new nation eagerly moved towards the Pacific coast. This prosperity and freedom of expression ironically laid the foundations of the Civil war to be fought a few decades later.

 

 

 

 

References

Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright. Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts . Boston: Mass. Historical Society/Northeastern UP, 1999.

Emerson, W. Ralph. “The American Scholar.” Aug 31, 1837.

Gable, Harvey L., Jr. Liquid Fire: Transcendental Mysticism in the Romances of Nathaniel Hawthorn. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Gura, Philip F., and Joyel Myerson, eds. Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Newman, Lance. Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Rowe, John C. At Emerson’s Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Emerson, W. Ralph (Aug 31, 1837). The American Scholar. Phi Beta Kappa Lecture: Harvard University

May 1, 2009

Liberty and Freedom – two most enduring themes in American Literature

Filed under: American Literature — niranjanchatterjee @ 9:59 pm

New England beyond the Brahmins

As the first half of eighteenth century came to a close, there was an intense surge of intellectual activity in New England and this activity was not limited to the genteel, European influenced, but perhaps a touch bland, output of Brahmins. The contemporary happenings in the society and the birth pangs of a new country were far too loud for the sensitive minds to ignore, and a bold new crop of writers came to the fore to give shape and words to this noble sentiment of an infant nation. While they were not much known for their literary achievements during their life time, later generations have gradually come to realize the importance and individuality of these writers. These writers, while not as formally educated as the Brahmins, were taught by the twists and turns of real life experiences and drew their sustenance from the soil and the air of the country. The desire for freedom, both social and intellectual, seemed to be the most abiding passion for this intrepid tribe of realists.

Philip Freneau (1752-1832)

Though Philip Freneau had a fine education and was well versed in European romanticism, he willingly embraced democratic ideals and espoused liberal thoughts. He was against the imperialist designs of the British and fought against them in the Revolutionary War. He was captured in 1780 and almost died before being rescued by his family. As it is he was a bitter critic of the British and on top of it the torture he faced during imprisonment made him one of the most vociferous antagonists of the British Empire. His pen started spewing fire and brimstone and the fiery poem “The British Prison Ship” became his first condemnation of the British who were, he thought, out “to stain the world with gore.” But this was just the beginning as “American Liberty”, “A Political Litany” and “George the Third’s Soliloquy”, among several other such feisty outpourings, quickly cemented his place as the foremost poet of American Revolution and a diehard bearer of the flag of liberty and independence.(Elliot 1982)

With the help of Thomas Jefferson he established “National Gazette” in 1791 and became America’s one of the first crusading newspaper editors – an ideal that later day stalwarts like William Cullen Bryant, William Lloyd Garrison and H.L. Mencken would emulate.

Freneau was equally fluent in colloquial as well as pedantic styles and could evoke refined neoclassical lyricism with consummate ease. His collection of poems “The Wild Honeysuckle” is still considered one of the finest examples of neoclassical subtleties which could only be equaled during the height of American Renaissance. Most students of Freneau admit that he would have been much more prolific as a poet and a man of letters had he not spent so much of his energy and time in the pursuit of political goals.(Vitzthum 1978)

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

He was born in Massachusetts, had a modest Quaker upbringing and opted for a career in journalism though he did not have much of a formal education. He started writing poetry after listening to a poem by Robert Frost and went on to become one of the most influential spokespersons of the fight against slavery. His poems and pamphlets exhorting freedom for the slaves and abolishing the system of slavery resonated with terse logic and persuasive language and converted many a fence sitter to become committed to the cause abolition.

He faced public ire in 1836 when he was mobbed by supporters of slavery but this did not deter him from publishing his first collection of poems in 1837. One poem named “Clerical Oppressors” from that early collection stood out from the rest in its clarity and forthrightness in the attack against all those who supported this obnoxious custom. This poem did not spare the respected clergy of the Southern states and unflinchingly brought out their hypocrisy in supporting slavery which violated the basic tenets on which Christianity was based.(Pickard 1961) “Ichabod’ was another of his anti-slavery poems which has stood the test of time and still rings in the sights and sounds of those days of intense turmoil interspersed with equal portions of hope and despair where people from diverse continents played out the sordid saga of slavery and freedom.(Pollard 1969)

Other books, pamphlets and poems came in close succession and the most remarkable among those were “Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal” published in 1849 and “Songs of Labor and Other Poems” which saw light in 1850. These writings retained the American free spirit and the simple earthy texture so common with Roberts Frost – the poet Whittier seemed to adore. The desire of freedom coupled with love to be rooted to the soil made Whittier an incomparable ambassador of his times.

While still indomitable in his fight for the emancipation of the slaves, Whittier’s body gradually started tiring and he retired from active life to rest at Amesbury. But the best was yet to come and it came with the publication of his masterpiece “Snow-Bound” a brilliant yet ever so soft healing touch to a nation savaged by the Civil War. This long poem brought the vigorous activist and the delicate nature lover – two most opposite yet most abiding traits of Whittier, together. In this long poem, the poet recreates his childhood and brings back snug memories of being huddled with family members around a crackling hearth completely insulated from the virulent snowstorm which raged outside. The poem is intensely personal and with religion being interwoven in every stanza it serves as an epic to the indomitable courage and undying hope which lit every American heart as the blazing embers of Civil War gradually began to die.(Hudson 1917)

Anti- Slavery literature and Slave Narratives

George Washington overthrew the British, but slavery was the next big hurdle which America had to overcome before it could really call itself a democratic nation. The irony of exclusion of slaves in American democracy became really stark while Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) was President of USA. He loved to project himself as a common man who represented the common people and being a wealthy slave owner himself ensured that the interests of the powerful slave owners remained intact.

Just to keep the perspectives clear it must be mentioned that there were quite a few pro-slavery writings also which were pretty popular during that time. A very well known example is “Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments” which was written by E. N. Elliott and published in 1860. This infamous piece of writing and many similar ones portrayed slaves as innocent, docile creatures who were content with their fate and looked upon their masters as paternal figures who provided them with all their material needs.

The system of slavery was considered by many writers to be a harmless requirement for the wheels of commerce and trade to turn without any hindrance. Some writers thought slavery was an area of uncertainty and found slave owners a difficult breed to tackle in literature which they had conveniently divided into two distinct categories – good and evil. People who were otherwise very progressive and liberal suddenly turned rather animal like, devoid of any human emotions, when they became slave owners. So, it was best to leave the topic of slavery and slave owners out of the domain of pristine literature – that was what a lot many American writers of the time thought.

And this lack of sympathy with slaves and remaining non-committal about slavery was not prevalent only in South; it had echoes in the North too. Some modern day academics however blame this apathy not on the sensitivities of the writers of North but on their lack of direct experience of the evils of slavery which never found any strong roots in the North.(Kolchin 1993)

But all Americans were not silent and Lydia Maria Child published in 1833 “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans” to rattle not only the devilish Southerners who refused to abolish the system of slavery but also those smug Northerners who in spite of abolishing slavery refused to grant full civil rights to their black brethren. This Appeal was a very strong indictment of not only the inhumanity of those who were in the South but also the hypocrisy of those who stayed in the North and tried to adopt a high moral ground.(Franklin and Moss Jr 1988)

Slave narratives were not the sole hunting ground of male authors; female writers also played a prominent role in nourishing and enriching this genre and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” an autobiographical account written by Harriet Jacobs and published in 1861 still remains one of the brightest jewels of so called slave narratives. A desperate yearning for the blacks to attain equality with whites was depicted in a convoluted way in this narrative. After a lot of twists and turns at the end of the tale we find Jacobs as an unmarried mother of two children who were however fathered by her white lover of impeccable ancestry. So, a connection with whites was all that was desired, it really did not matter whether it was through wedlock or through wild abandon of lust. Some modern day critics feel this story is the best possible depiction of how great was the desire of the blacks to join the mainstream and be treated as equals with the whites.(Braxton 1989)

Conclusion

This sense of liberty and freedom which pervaded the African-American literature also served as a conduit through which dialogue between the whites and the blacks continued in America. In the larger context, even after slavery was abolished, the freedom and liberty which the blacks longed for took a considerable time to actually seep through the impenetrable layers of dogma and condescension. Thus, any thought that slave narratives ended with abolition of slavery is absolutely misplaced, on the contrary, they really began to serve their purpose once the abominable practice was legally done away with. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” continued to be read and re-read with cathartic effect while a nation tried its best to wash away the sins it had committed  against some of its fellow citizens.(Gomez 1998) The effect of slavery and how a nation came to terms with itself while trying to accommodate a huge mass of humanity that did not have a name of its own till the other day, has become the main inspiration of many creations, not only during those uncertain years but in twentieth century too as in William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967) or Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” (1987).

References:

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Elliot, Emory. Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic. Oxford University Press, 1982.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Hudson, William H. Whittier & his poetry. London: G. G. Harrap, 1917.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery 1619-1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier, an introduction and interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961.

Pollard, John A. John Greenleaf Whittier, friend of man. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1969.

Vitzthum, Richard C. The Lyric Poetry of Philip Freneau. University of Minnesota Press, 1978.

Nathaniel Hawthorn and his Solitary World of Protest

Filed under: American Literature — niranjanchatterjee @ 9:56 pm

Solitude – a recess which steeled his resolves right from childhood

Nathaniel Hawthorn lost his father when he was merely four years old which prompted his bereaved mother to withdraw from the world and the two of them – mother and son, created a private world of their own, drawing succor from each other while keeping outside interactions to a minimum. This self imposed quarantine of sorts only bolstered his resolve to protest against whatever he thought was unjust and he could never take kindly rejections and failures. Legend has it that he burned his first collection of short stories “Seven Tales of My Native Land” when it was rejected by publishers. (Davis, 2005)

When he returned to Salem after graduation, his habit of remaining closeted within his shell did not leave him. He spent his mornings in studies and his afternoons in writing while he took long solitary walks in the evenings. He started living in his world of dreams and often saw reality through tinted glasses of a dreamer who dreams of utopia. He hardly had any friends in the town and held minimal conversation with his family members, and his meals were more often than not left at the door of his room which was almost always tightly shut. (Miller, 1991)

When he became aware of his great-great-grandmother’s prominent role in the infamous Salem Witch Trials (Laurel, 1992), he added an extra ‘w’ to his original surname ‘Hathorne’ simply to break away (symbolically, at least) from the burdens of unpleasant legacy. This gesture loudly proclaimed Hawthorne’s inherent tendency to protest against what he felt was unjust and biased.

Scarlet Letter – A Loud Protest against Social Mores of Puritan New England

New England of late seventeenth century happened to be the backdrop of this novel and a suffocating Puritan concept of eternal sin and divine retribution for those who dare God and refuse to repent, drips from every page. Hawthorne seethes with rage at the dehumanization of women that was prevalent in that era but a sense of resignation to destiny and hopelessness in the inability to change the existing structure also co-exist in this novel.

The illegitimate love affair between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale – an unpardonable act which adultery was in those days, is what the novel is all about. Hawthorne celebrates this rebellion of a woman against the oppressive mores of the society by imparting in Hester an almost superhuman courage and power to face social stigma of illegitimate love and unpardonable adultery for seven long years rather than exposing her beloved and spoiling his career and social standing forever. (Bell, 1980)

Puritan Boston in the days of early settlement had social mores which were pretty strict and harsh where adultery had only one punishment – death. Evidence of such strict moral policing can be found in the diary of Governor John Winthrop which has an entry of hanging a couple guilty of adultery. Hester was however spared the capital punishment since it could not be conclusively proved whether her husband was still alive when the so called crime was committed. All that was known about her husband was that he disappeared while coming to New England from Amsterdam. This is another example of Puritan prudery which was mocked at (though ever so subtly) by Hawthorne.

The novel was published in 1850, and the Puritanical mores of early settlers had by then got a lot diluted in the gusto of westward expansion and impending shadow of a Civil War. But readers did not fail to note the rebellious spirit of the protagonists of this novel. It was an era of great churning and the spirit of the times was in a way reflected in Hester’s defiance and she became a cultural mascot almost overnight.

Hawthorne intrigues the reader when he initially seems to side with the harsh Puritans. In the second chapter of Scarlet Letter he states any pious Christian on seeing Hester exposed to public scorn would have felt “the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant she had borne.” He further goes on to paint Hester in darker tones when he says she has “a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic — a taste for the gorgeously beautiful” and almost condemns her even without a trial. (Baym, 1986)

In the third chapter, however, he comes to his own and tries to paint a similarity in tribulations and sufferings of Hester and Jesus Himself. She pursues salvation through self-sacrifice much as Christ did when she declares “would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!” Just to ensure that his readers do not miss the point, Hawthorn goes on to ask the burning question “Adultery or no adultery – is this not the Christian message that the pettiness and persecutions of Puritanism evidently missed?” What could be a louder and bolder protest than that?

Hawthorn does not rest by elevating Hester to a higher plane. He describes in sixth and seventh chapters the torture inflicted on tiny Pearl (she was only three years old then) and how she becomes fury personified in her attempt to save herself from mindless persecution. The author is forthright in his condemnation of Puritanism when he writes “The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of something outlandish, unearthly, or at variance with ordinary fashions, in the mother and child; and therefore scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled them with their tongues.”

When Pearl hits back at her tormentors, Hawthorne bestows in her qualities of Divine retribution when he says “She resembled, in her fierce pursuit of them, an infant pestilence – the scarlet fever, or some such half-fledged angel of judgment, – whose mission was to punish the sins of the rising generation.” Here the reader finds the true Hawthorne – bold and uncompromising in his condemnation of mindless persecution.

This reaches a crescendo in seventeenth chapter when Hester meets Arthur after seven years of living hell and declares in an unflinching voice “What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?” What was adultery in the eyes of constricted Puritanism was almost raised to the level divine sanctity by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Morris, 1927)

Religion and Faith shall abide and everything else shall pass

Hawthorne, though bitterly critical of early Puritans, was steeped in Puritan principles without of course their messianic zeal and near fanatical adherence to draconian mores of life. He work abounds in tensions between evil and faith and seem to be heavily influenced by the concept of “Original Sin”. This preoccupation with evil in human hearts earned him the accolade of being the first psychological writer of America. He had firm faith in religion as being the only path to salvation and redemption from the sin which is being passed on to every human being since the days of Adam.

This fascination with religious overtones is reflected in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”. In this short story Dr. Heidegger tries to play God and attempts to reverse the process of aging by asking his four accomplices to drink the elixir of youth which they do, but in the order of Nature, no such travesty is ever tolerated. The effects of the novel experiment mercifully wear off but Dr. Heidegger had corrupted his accomplices beyond redemption and they rush to their damnation as “They resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage to Florida, and quaff at morning, noon, and night, from The Fountain of Youth.” (Wright, 2007)

Perhaps the same streak of condescension for all those who dare to replicate the perfection that can only be found in the Supreme Being is reflected in “The Birthmark”. Aylmer, a scientist of great erudition and standing simply cannot accept the slight imperfection in his wife Georgiana. She was a lady of immense grace and beauty with just one imperfection – it was a hand shaped birthmark on her face. The author injects a certain sense of ambiguity and confusion in the mind of the protagonist as to whether it was really an imperfection or just another manifestation of beauty when we find him exclaiming “Dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” But Aylmer wants to play God and convinces Georgiana to allow him to remove the birthmark. Hawthorn views this as a sin where one is trying to impinge upon another’s soul. Aylmer becomes successful in his endeavor, but Georgiana dies, leaving Aylmer all alone in this cavernous universe. (Martin, 1983)

Conclusion

Hawthorne was steeped in religion and legend has it that if queried on any paragraph or passage in his manuscript, he could always draw some parallel with what he had written and the Bible. He was one of the first writers who brought true America to the high table of pure literature. Not only did the landscape and history of the land find gorgeous mention in his creation but also exploration and attempts at unraveling the dark mysterious recesses of human mind has caused his writings to be equally relevant in today’s world.

References

Baym, N. (1986). The Scarlet Letter: A Reading. Boston: Twayne.

Bell, M. D. (1980). Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Davis, C. (2005). Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Laurel, V. d. (1992). The Devil in Salem Village:The Story of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Millbrook Press.

Martin, T. (1983). Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Miller, E. H. (1991). Salem is my dwelling place: a life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa.

Morris, L. (1927). The Rebellious Puritan: Portrait of Mr. Hawthorne. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Wright, S. B. (2007). Critical Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File.

American Renaissance – an analysis from a historical perspective

Filed under: American Literature — niranjanchatterjee @ 9:53 pm
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The times that were

George Washington had brought political freedom, but cultural influence of Europe was still very strongly evident in American literary space. The newly born nation was desperate to get a new identity for itself which would be totally free from European influence. This desire became stronger with illusions of a grand victory in the War of 1812. The Americans felt the time has come when they need to speak in a voice which indeed was their own, use an idiom and forge an expression that truly reflected the uniqueness of American nation. The ignominy of being an appendage to Europe was too much to bear and Emerson in a belligerent Phi Beta Kappa Address at Harvard in 1837 boldly declared “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…” (Emerson, Aug 31, 1837) This clarion call for breaking the shackles opened the floodgates of American writing which for the first time transcended the boundaries of utilitarian, political, and spiritual writing (which had till then been the dominant nature of American output) and metamorphosed into true literature.

The literary landscape

All American writing however was not utilitarian, political or spiritual before the advent of Emerson and his group of Transcendentalists located at Concord, Massachusetts. American literary scene had eminently powerful exponents in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Lowell who in their own way were depicting the nuances of American psyche. But these gentlemen, and a few more similar to them, were steeped in European culture and what they were attempting was in effect to pour the American experience in a European mold to obtain something which had American flavor but European form. Lowell, in particular, in Harvard Commemoration Ode (1865) was at his creative best. The problem which these intellectuals faced was the absence of a European backdrop in American countryside. There were no rolling meadows or Lake Districts to foster creative juices of these authors, and above all, there were no legends or tales of grandeur, glory or tragedy that had formed the canvas of many a European masterpiece. This absence of a familiar environment perhaps forced Edgar Allen Poe to import an Italian backdrop to add necessary weight and flavor to one of his creations.

Renaissance – a historical necessity

A reaction to this overdependence on Europe divorced from the realities of America was waiting to happen and took shape in the form of American Renaissance. The credit of coining the term “American Renaissance” goes to F. O. Matthiessen who used this new found expression in his seminal work ‘American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman’ published in 1941. Renaissance as such means a period in the history and culture of a country when creativity, ingenuity and self assertion reach new heights. Matthiessen mainly concentrated on Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman and very fleetingly discussed works of Emily Dickinson. In his opinion these writers were the harbingers of new philosophy and a new way of looking at things which finally severed the umbilical cord of European dependence and gave rise to literature which truly had American roots. (Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright, 1999)

A review of Renaissance literature

Herman Melville

Emerson and his group of fellow thinkers started to think differently and American prose also began evolving from the shadows of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. It finally started to echo the earthy tenor of the land which reared the authors. Herman Melville, who had little formal education before joining a whaling ship which in his own words was his “Yale College and his Harvard”, brought this all American approach to life in his superbly layered, intricately symbolic immortal masterpiece ‘Moby Dick’. This is perhaps the first time an American whaler found his voice in literature. American Renaissance had well and truly arrived.

Nathaniel Hawthorn

But American literature was not all waves and whales; it also experienced tides of romance set in the backdrop of colonial America in ‘The Scarlet Letter’, the watershed creation of Nathaniel Hawthorn. Though personally going through a period of dismay on being dismissed from his job as surveyor of Custom House (which showed through in the essay “The Custom House” attached with the novel) he did not let his momentary setback cloud the optimism and the spirit of freedom which was so very common with all the authors that were influenced by Emerson. Two lovers in this novel, who could not remain together in life due to twists and turns of destiny and the oppressive sense of morality of dominant Puritanical society finally found togetherness beneath the same headstone. The novel at one plane a simple tale of yearning and pining of two lovers was also a moving indictment of prevalent social mores. Initially this completely American story did not find much favor with readers but later it came to be recognized as one of the best novels ever written in American literature. The later years of this important catalyst of American Renaissance were however blatantly unproductive, but this is no way can lower Hawthorn’s contribution to American romanticism and optimism of this era. (Gable, 1998)

Walt Whitman

American literature was already in the throes of an unprecedented creativity which touched all aspects of life and times of that period. Walt Whitman, who was a through and through city bred soul never ever experiencing the rough and roll of high seas as Melville had, started singing in praise of city life in New York – a completely new phenomenon in American literature where a city acquired a separate persona instead of remaining merely as a backdrop. The city of New York became the chief and most enduring protagonist in the first edition of his collection of poems ‘Leaves of Grass’. Nine revised editions of this brilliant creation kept showcasing beliefs, crises, dreams, aspirations and despairs of the common man in this great era when the American moth was breaking open the chrysalis to emerge as a multihued butterfly. Whitman was unconventional both in thought and form and use of free verse in place of rhyming meter did not make him a darling of the reading public overnight. However, with passage of time, Whitman came to the acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of America. (Gura, Philip F., and Joyel Myerson, eds., 1982)

 

Henry David Thoreau

The other prominent personality in this unfolding saga of American Renaissance was Henry David Thoreau who had a genuinely colorful life which he experienced at times as a surveyor, a naturalist and for some time even as a laborer. A completely self taught erudite person armed with a dry Yankee sense of humor, he brought earthy America right to the high table of timeless literature through ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers’ (1849) and ‘Walden’ (1854). He was forthright in his views and created ripples by his declaration that man should consciously reduce his materialistic yearnings while exhorting people to stand up to (violently if need be) the unfair demands and deeds of ruling dispensation. This unique combination of deeply personal philosophy with mundane requirements of work-a-day world made him a unique character in this watershed of American literature. (Newman, 2005)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The person who was at the center of American Renaissance and the leading light in the new bold concept of Transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson. With Ripley he founded Transcendental Club in 1836 but the concept and philosophy of Transcendentalism was, as the name suggested, wider and permeated beyond club membership, or, for that matter, boundaries of nation, culture or medium of expression. These new age thinkers were influenced by Kant and believed knowledge was not associated with objects per se but with how we tend to know more about these objects. Emerson led the brigade of Transcendentalists who felt the world to be a microcosm in the infinite stream of existence and strongly perceived a linkage between individual soul and universal soul (Emerson preferred to call it Oversoul). This group of intrepid thinkers believed spark of divinity existed in every man and communication with Nature through meditation would help everyone to transcend the limits of materialistic existence and experience real beauty, truth and goodness. One needed to look inwards to discover eternal truth and there was no need for any scholarship which was unrelated to real life. Thus we found on the hand the intensely personal outpourings of Whitman giving words to individual angst in an uncertain and rapidly evolving urban world, while a defiant Thoreau urging people to resort to anarchy if need be to resist arbitrary actions of the government. In both these instances an urge to transcend physical limits and associate oneself with a larger being or cause was very much evident.

Emerson preached a doctrine of self reliance and self sufficiency which strangely though fitted magnificently with the historical backdrop of the new American nation trying to carve out an identity of its own. He challenged pedantry and ostentation and mocked rituals which had no real significance of their own. A natural corollary was a negation of organized religion and in his ‘Address at Divinity College’ at Harvard University in 1838 he challenged the traditional trappings of Christianity and even went to the extent of dismissing the divinity of Jesus Christ. This obviously created a furor with Harvard ostracizing him for a pretty long time. But the spark which Emerson lit continued to attract kindred souls in search of truth and beauty. (Rowe, 1997)

Conclusion

This period in American literature was unique as many authors started experimenting with newer forms and expressions. Literature also got a boost from rising levels of literacy which made the written word more potent in forming public opinion, taste and culture. Publishing industry started maturing as an obvious trickledown effect while the American nation thundered on a glorious trip to prosperity and westward expansion with numerous new cities and settlements coming into existence as frontiers of the new nation eagerly moved towards the Pacific coast. This prosperity and freedom of expression ironically laid the foundations of the Civil war to be fought a few decades later.

 

 

 

 

References

Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright. (1999). Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts . Boston: Mass. Historical Society/Northeastern UP.

Gable, H. L. (1998). Liquid Fire: Transcendental Mysticism in the Romances of Nathaniel Hawthorn. New York: Peter Lang.

Gura, Philip F., and Joyel Myerson, eds. (1982). Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Boston: G. K. Hall.

Newman, L. (2005). Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rowe, J. C. (1997). At Emerson’s Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Emerson, W. Ralph (Aug 31, 1837). The American Scholar. Phi Beta Kappa Lecture: Harvard University

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