The New England Renaissance
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The New England Renaissance
(1800 – 1860)
American literature, in its most basic structure, has it roots in British literature. The earlier writers knew Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Spenser, Donne, and Bacon. Most families had copies of the Authorized Version of the Bible of 1611, commonly known as the King James Version. As time went on, American writers continued to be influenced by Dickens, the Bronte sisters , Austen and Shelley. The separation of British and American literature began from the first step onto what is now American soil, but rejoins more so
in this present era, as the ability to communicate and purchase books internationally increases. The American literary scene today was built on many years of metamorphosis, as much of a melting pot as the rest of American culture.
The literary achievements of the Knickerbocker group of writers were practically accomplished by 1850. During the larger part of that first half century, there had been no question of the literary predominance of New York; New England had played, comparatively, an inconspicuous part in the field of national literature. A few of Longfellows earliest poems were published previous to 1830, and some of Whittiers also; but it was really nearer 1840 than 1830 that either obtained general recognition as a poet. Emersons first series of Essays was published in 1841, and Hawthornes Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. The Scarlet Letter did not appear until 1850. It was, nevertheless, a period of intellectual activity. In Boston and Cambridge, new ideas were stirring the minds of the thinkers, and throughout the New England States, which were advancing rapidly in material prosperity by the establishment of manufacturing interests and the building up of a rich trade with the East Indies, the intellectual life of the people was feeling the stimulus of its own energy in rather remarkable degree.
The first phase of this new awakening is recognized in the Unitarian movement which spread over New England during the early years of the century. Opposition to the Calvinistic doctrines of the Presbyterian and other orthodox denominations had existed in the colonies even in Revolutionary times, but it was not till near the end of the eighteenth century that this opposition assumed the aspect of an important religious controversy. The arena in which John Cotton and his grandson, Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, and the many lesser controversialists of the colonial period had waged their theological battles was again the scene of an intellectual and religious agitation which in its immediate effects and subsequent influence was more far reaching even than that celebrated movement of the preceding century, — the Great Awakening of 1734-44. In 1805, Harvard College — the fountain-head of New England literature — elected a Unitarian as professor of Divinity. By the end of the first decade, nearly every prominent Congregational pulpit in eastern Massachusetts was held by a preacher of Unitarian doctrine. The theological seminary at Andover was founded in 1807 to combat the new teaching. Moses Stuart (1780- 1852) and Leonard Woods (1774-1854) became famous as teachers in this institution and as defenders of the orthodox creed. Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), the father ofHenry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the ablest and best-known champion of orthodoxy in New England. In 1826, he was called from his church in Litchfield, Connecticut, to a prominent Boston pulpit, that he might have a position on the firing-line.
The recognized leader of the Unitarians was William Ellery Channing, who was born at Newport, Rhode Island, and received his education at Harvard. He became the minister of a Boston parish in 1803. Cultured, eloquent, and a persuasive writer, he became famed throughout New England for his oratorical gifts and as a theologian. In seriousness of purpose and in purity of character, Channing represented the strength and virtue of the old Puritan stock. His portrait, presenting him in the conventional black gown of the clergyman with the white bands at the neck, shows a face highly intellectual and refined, with features delicate, spiritual, almost ascetic in their type. The influence of Dr. Channing was strongly felt; a sermon preached by him at an ordination in Baltimore, in 1819, is especially famous as a rallying-cry of Unitarianism. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good,” was his text; the sacredness of the individual conscience and the freedom of individual thought was his theme. While his writings are largely controversial, he was also a graceful essayist, and his literary influence was felt by contemporary writers who were stirred by his thought and passion.
The Romantic movement, which originated in Germany but quickly spread to England, France, and beyond, reached America around the year 1820, some 20 years after William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had revolutionized English poetry by publishing Lyrical Ballads. In America as in Europe, fresh new vision electrified artistic and intellectual circles. Yet there was an important difference: Romanticism in America coincided with the period of national expansion and the discovery of a distinctive American voice. The solidification of a national identity and the surging idealism and passion of Romanticism nurtured the masterpieces of “the American Renaissance.” Romantic ideas centered around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature, and metaphors of organic growth. Art, rather than science, Romantics argued, could best express universal truth. The Romantics underscored the importance of expressive art for the individual and society. In his essay “The Poet” (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most influential writer of the Romantic era, asserts: “For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”
As the unique, subjective self became important, so did the realm of psychology. Exceptional artistic effects and techniques were developed to evoke heightened psychological states. The “sublime” — an effect of beauty in grandeur produced feelings of awe, reverence, vastness, and a power beyond human comprehension. Romanticism was affirmative and appropriate for most American poets and creative essayists. Americas vast mountains, deserts, and tropics embodied the sublime. The Romantic spirit seemed particularly suited to American democracy: It stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the inspired