Ralph Waldo EMERSON

Emerson’s literary and philosophical importance in the American renaissance and after it has always been associated with his lasting influence in two domains of American intellectual and social life:

  • The emergence of an America romantic sensibility.
  • The emergence of a characteristically American conception of individual consciousness and actions.

For the first time in America, Emerson gave full expression to a philosophy of romantic idealism. He thought that the spiritual and intellectual ideals of the 18th century, the principles of the Age of Reason, had ended in sterility. Emerson’s ethic of self-reliance represents the necessity for the individual to question most of all forms of social conventions and to refuse his ideas by the accepted standards and values of society. Also, it represents the necessity for the individual to think and act according to his standards.

But this self-reliance can also be interpreted as moral relativism and as a certain cult of individualistic power. Indeed, Emerson’s philosophy does reflect a certain fascination with power. Very often, he seems to be too enthusiastic about all manifestations of energy, personal force and superior vitality: "power first. In politics and in trade, pirates are of better promise than talkers and clerks": it’s a philosophy of action. Such ambivalent affirmations show a great deal of the liberating potential of Emerson’s philosophy but evidently, they also hide a dangerously anarchistic potential that can not be denied.

Henry David THOREAU

Is the spiritual son of Emerson: he did what Emerson said and tried to act according to the philosophy of self-reliance. One of the most important observations that can be made about Thoreau’s life as a man and as an artist is that he considered freedom as the highest ideal of society. His life as a writer and as a thinker was dedicated to the freedom of trying new ideals and new experiences. Also, freedom for Thoreau meant the possibility for the individual to discover himself and to live his life against social conventions. In order to accomplish his ideal of freedom, Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond in 1845. This decision was essentially determined by three tendencies in Thoreau’s personality:

  • As a man, he wanted to explore and discover new aspects of his own personality.
  • As an intellectual, he wanted to experiment with a new form of life different from life in an organized complex capitalistic society.
  • As a writer, he wanted to explore and experiment with his own writing. In this respect, Thoreau’s experience marks the beginning of the essay as lived experience.

Concerning Thoreau’s experience as a writer, his poetry and prose reflect the work of a very careful artist: great deal of attention to the nuances of the language. It may appear spontaneous, even like conversation but it is not. His prose is carefully studied. He’s always addressing the reader.

Walden is representative of Thoreau’s style. It is quite artful and elaborate. Yet, it appears to be artistically modest. The ideals are complex and sophisticated. Yet, it appears to be simple. Simplicity in Thoreau’s is not just a literary characteristic of Walden, which also incarnates the ideal of an intellectual who wants to limit life to the simplest activities. Thoreau came to Walden Pond in order to make a fresh start, to see intellectual and natural experience directly. He did not look for inspiration in books but in Nature. He established a real tradition of individualism: life in Nature is by necessity a separation from society and its conventions. Consequently, the writer’s position outside society becomes the best place to observe society and its institutions with critical eyes.

Through this return to Nature, Thoreau wants to move away from the regulations of a materialistic and instrumental society. He wants to reorganize his life according to his own philosophy. At the beginning of the essay, Thoreau uses ironic expressions for his new experience: "a private business". To call this escape from the materialism of society a "business" is irony and Walden becomes the story of this escape. It reminds us of Zen Buddhism or Hindu mysticism: his life in nature seems to be a form of sacrifice in order to reach a higher transcendent state of being. Even when Thoreau describes himself building his cabin, we have the impression that the business of building is also a religious ceremony of purification and renewal. Therefore, Thoreau belongs to the American tradition of renewal, a sort of symbolic baptism of the individual through an escape to nature.


Is much more pessimistic about human nature: he didn’t believe in a new beginning: to him, the past comes back to haunt the present. He wrote short stories and novels with a complex and disturbing aspect of American life. His literary imagination was strongly influenced by his early life in Salem (Massachusetts) where he was born. The history of Salem and American Puritanism presented the context in which he developed his ideas about human nature and the ambivalent nature of human psychology, and about sin and guilt, the dangers of the intellect and the risks of passion.

Later, when he lived in Concord (Massachusetts), Hawthorne dedicated his efforts to sketches and short stories, called "allegories of the heart". His novels are "romances". In both short stories and novels, Hawthorne was excellent at describing the complexities and ambiguities of human psychology. According to Hawthorne, human mind is determined by a division between sensuality & repression of the sensuality, between conformity & individualism. It is also the scene of a dialectical conflict between good and evil. His fictions represent the co-existence of contradictory forces on the individual. Hawthorne is a romantic author whose short stories and novels are marked by a concern with the American past with the role of the creative artist in a materialistic society. He insisted on the importance of human emotions and imagination, and on the dangers of cold intellect.

Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe criticized Hawthorne for being too allegorical in his style. Hawthorne himself admitted that his allegorical style is vague and not easy to understand: "I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in these blasted allegories". In his "allegories of the heart", Hawthorne uses symbols in order to represent the narrow separation between good and evil in the human mind. Through his allegorical technique, he shows that humankind can never solve the mysteries and the ambiguities of a divided human psychology. Hawthorne’s moral and religious concerns are central to his literary symbolism. His most representative symbols were derived from puritan history of New England. He developed his themes about good and evil around the historical events and the personalities that influenced New England culture and society.


Along with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman stands in the literary history of America as the poet who has generated the most dramatic and lasting transformations in American poetry and in the function of the American poet. Indeed, Whitman redefined poetry and the role of the poet in, at least, two important ways:

  • In terms of aesthetic practice
  • In terms of the social position of the poet as an active participant in a democratic society

As far as his aesthetic practice is concerned, Whitman considered the poet essentially as an experimental artist first and foremost: the poet’s function is to create both new forms and new themes for poetry. The poet must re-create a literary tradition: conventions were out. In Whitman’s dynamic and revolutionary conception of poetry, there are 2 important consequences:

  1. Rhyme would not matter: would have no importance at all.
  2. Uniformity in the structure of stanzas should be abandoned.

Concerning the thematic content of a new poetry, Whitman also expressed his opinion quite clearly. The new American poet would avoid sentimental poetry and simplistic moralization: he is no longer a moral teacher. Also, exaggeration in style and in subject would be replaced by realistic descriptions of life and its impressions. Whitman would abandon any sentimental idealism.

As far as his intellectual influence is concerned, he believed reading literary texts should not be limited to an elite of intellectuals. Whitman thought it was possible to include the people in the experience of literature. He wanted to make of literature a popular art: the poet can come to play an important role in exalting the people. Through his capacity to sing (= to exalt) and encourage the people, the poet also indicates the way to collective self-realization and self-realization for each individual. Whitman therefore believed that literature, as an instrument of communication, was also a democratic instrument. With Whitman, we realize that his analysis of democratic society can not be separated from his conception of poetry. This relationship is reflected in the poem Song of Myself. According to Whitman, Song of Myself depends on the creative participation of each reader. It is in this context that he defines the great poet as a bridge between the reader and society at large. It is this definition of the poet that he affirmed in the opening lines of Song of Myself:

"I celebrate myself and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume".

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. Modernism

I. Washington IRVING: evolution, nostalgia and imaginary compensation

Irving was not under the influence of sentimentalism or romanticism, the two big influences of that time. In a way, he was the perfect incarnation of the American early literary development. He was a figure of literary transition in a society where American literature was still a hybrid. Irving’s artistic opinions and his style changed dramatically over time but we can detect certain opinions and thematic elements that dominate his early as well as his later works. One of the most important things about Irving is the nostalgic consciousness of change and the evanescence of things and people. This melancholic sensibility is to be found in all his works. Other distinctive aspects of Irving’s writings are:

  • The transformation of material reality through fantasy and imagination. Such a transformation allows the author to represent reality as a fable.
  • The use of humor: human enterprises as trivial and ridiculous (cynicism and bitterness).
  • The use of sentimentalism to describe scenes and characters.

On the whole, Irving emphasizes narration and description rather than analysis and critic. This choice can be explained for he did not consider his prose as an expression of political or cultural positions (consciously). Irving started his literary carrier writing satirical pieces of journalism about the New York cultural and social scene, especially about the Theater circles. We can see that his humor and his early satire were a collage of rational critic, nonsense humor and irony.

In his satirical works, he turned all human beings into fools including the writer himself: that’s self-reference (makes funny comments about himself as a writer), a very modern way of writing. He gave full expression to the sense of his satires and historiobiographies (history in a novel or in historical books); it showed his sharp sense of satire. In 1809, he wrote A History of New York from the creation of the World to the end of the Dutch Dynasty, which is a parody of the New York Dutch descendants and an ironic questioning of objective historical facts and historiographical skepticism. The narrator is Dietrich Knickerbocker. It’s not a monumental but an ironic history. Behind the irony, there is a very serious historical effort on the part of Irving. He rewrites history from his own point of view: it’s very modern. As he develops these two themes, the narrator of the book sees this historical monument of human accomplishment as a monument of human ridicule: he turns it upside down.

In 1815, Irving sailed to Liverpool and traveled extensively in Europe. His English travels inspired The SketchBook of Geoffrey Crayon, a collection of 33 essays and stories. The narrator of his book is the sentimental G. Crayon who expresses his attachment to British culture and its old monuments. The SketchBook is essentially homage to English scenes and English writers. It is conservative in its cultural views and antiquarian in its aesthetic inspirations. Indeed, Crayon doesn’t hesitate to express his preference for tradition, aristocracy and rurality rather than for innovation, democracy and urbanization.

Rip Van Wikle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are his most distinguish pieces. These excellent short stories present a mixture of fantasy and realism, of fable and fact. As far as the use of fantasy is concerned, the short stories already announced the narrative art of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Presently, the legendary opposition between New York and New England, Sleepy Hollow, is comic variation on Gothic fiction (develops an atmosphere of terror, horrifying, macabre and where strange events happen). Throughout the narrative, Irving metamorphoses the setting of the story (the Hudson River Valley) into a fabulous landscape where we can follow his analysis of American history, although we know that the images of the history are the product of his wild imagination and fantasy. The historical context of Sleepy Hollow is that of a rapidly changing American in the face of America: it reflects Irving’s profound fear of America’s territorial expansion and its rapid socio-economic transformation. In this sense, Sleepy Hollow is found on a profound sense of melancholy and nostalgia, as ideal rural past.

In this, Irving proved to be an author with profoundly American impulses. He faced a country plunging into change, development and expansion but at the same time, when he’s trying to understand this country; he expresses his nostalgic desires to preserve the eternal arcadia of the colonial vision. His paradox is the American one.

During his diplomatic service in Spain, Irving turned to biography: The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus represents an important change in his literary life. In this biography, he kept using the narrative techniques that he used in his novels, mixing history and fiction. In his historic books, he abandoned his ironic tone: it became more serious and formal despite the fact that he kept using the narrative techniques. All his novels are the products of very precise researches. However, Irving did not define such works as purely economic literature. In The Conquest of Granada, he described Granada as somewhat "between history and romance". From this period, The Alhambra is the only book that can be compared with the SketchBook.

In 1832, after 17 years in Europe, Irving returned to the USA that was in full expansion and he realized that its New Frontier was a big source of literary inspiration. During that period, he traveled extensively in the West. Results:

  • A Tour of the Prairie (1835)
  • Asteria and The Adventure (1836)

Irving has always been interested in the Frontier. Like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, in a way, Irving thought of his western books of the 1830’s not just as literary experimentations but also as a concrete contribution to the west world expansion of the USA and the realization of his "manifest destiny".

II. James Fenimore COOPER: the voice of the Frontier as general critique

Jacksonian democracy’s rise and its effect on the Frontier represent the most important elements in the historical background of Cooper’s fictions. 1829-1837: democratic populist campaign based on a fight for poop people (land, farms and realization of the American dream) but no place for Indians. For Cooper, realizing your dreams is a good ideal. But it does not come without the extermination of Puritans entities: Indians and Nature.

Cooper’s role in this history of American literature: his representation of the Frontier certainly appears as his greatest contribution to an authentically American literature. Cooper transformed the American Frontier into a symbol of a national myth. Among the general public, Cooper is known for his leatherstocking tales (main character: Natty Bumpo):

  • The Pioneer (1823)
  • The Last of the Mohicans (1823)
  • The Prairie (1827)
  • The Pathfinder (1840)
  • The Crater (1847)

The Last of the Mohicans

Compared with the other leatherstocking novels, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is the most complex and dramatic. It’s complexity and dramatic powers come from the ambiguities of the Frontier itself. Similar to Captain Smith’s vision of nature, The Last of the Mohicans represents the Frontier as the scene of constant struggle. His characters are more characterized by action than reflection. In Cooper’s fictions, action and struggle very often degenerate into violence and absurd tragedy. This representation of the Frontier shows an understanding of American history in general as an ambiguous and complex process in which the people struggling to possess and keep the land are subjected to natural and historical forces they can not control: Nature is seen as bigger than man in tragic view. Indeed, The Last of the Mohicans often describes scenes of a devastated Nature, scenes that powerfully suggest the theme of what America has lost, the grace of primitive natural beauty. Nature is humanized: we can’t remain indifferent. Along with the poetry of its natural scenes, The Last of the Mohicans also reflects Cooper’s sense of realism. Indeed, judged by the standards of his time, his wilderness fiction as the whole follows very closely the best sources of Indian studies that existed in the early 19th century. Moreover, Cooper met and spoke with the most important Indian chiefs of this period. He overall pictured that general picture we get in his narratives: the tragic, dramatic and ambiguous change. Even his most courageous and energetic characters find themselves incapable of facing the forces of Nature and History. According to Cooper, the phenomenon of settlement is the ideal metaphoric expression of the tragedy of American civilization. But, in Cooper’s narrative vision, the Frontier is also an image of the sense of opportunity that comes from with change. In this description of the process of settlement, Cooper describes with eloquence the hopes and aspirations of the pioneers and simultaneously the Indians’ feeling of loss and displacement.

The Pioneers

The vastness of Cooper’s historical vision, the complexity and tragic sense of this Frontier can be seen in his first Frontiers novel, The Pioneers, which shows Cooper’s profound attachment to the Frontier as a philosophy of life based on hope, with its suggestion of autobiographical nostalgia. More than anything else, the autobiographic element shows the eloquence with which Cooper described the Frontier. Again, as in his other narratives of Nature, Cooper’s conception of the Frontier is never simplistic. On the one hand, he describes the daily life of the pioneers and their relations with Nature in idyllic terms. On the other hand, behind the Frontier idyll, there is the irreversible march of historical process. The settlers’ irresponsible destruction of natural resources is a dramatic reminder of human intrusion upon the wilderness. The complexity of Cooper’s narratives of a Frontier resides in the ambiguity of his feelings toward the settlement process. In The Pioneers, one has certainly the sense of his enthusiasm concerning America’s conquest of Nature; however, we also feel his profound anxiety as an unstoppable march of civilization. In this sense, his works are the first expression of a really ecological consciousness. Although the question of ecological danger was a serious subject for Cooper, he found the social disorder that comes with economic changes even more problematic. In this sense, the social themes of his novels have a prophetic quality. They tell of the limits and dangers of Jacksonian democracy and its proclamation of the possibilities on the individual. He saw in it the future destruction of America’s sense of community and responsibility. In the final analysis, The Pioneers and its contrast between Nature and civilization is less pessimistic than some of Cooper’s later novels.

Indeed, The Pioneers offers a harmonious synthesis between the European and Indian past. The American Frontier is supposed to be the neutral ground where the synthesis is supposed to happen. This trend to make a synthesis of the past and the present, development and wilderness, the American people and Native Americans, seems to be the result of a division within Cooper himself. This particular aspect of his fiction reflects his own role in the settlement of American, which is full of contradictions. On the one hand, Cooper grew up in a Frontier community, believed in the ideal of success through progress: his imagination was influenced by the beauty of Nature and by the hopes of building a civilization. On the other hand, for he grew up in a Frontier community, he knew more than anyone else the ecological and ethnic disasters that the Frontier communities created. So, his fiction can be considered as the product of his contradiction.

The Crater

Cooper placed the settlement setting on a fantasy island in the Pacific. The Crater is perhaps America’s first really allegorical novel. It offers a symbolic representation of America’s evolution from a hopeful past to a chaotic present to an apocalyptic future. As in Cooper’s other settlement novels, the settlement on his imaginary island is confronted with the outside dangers of Indian tribes. Eventually, the community succeeds only to realize that the most serious danger to the development of the settlement comes from the community itself.

Cooper’s change from the ambiguous optimism of The Pioneers to The Crater‘s vision of disorder is also a personal change. This change marks his move toward an increasing position with social order. Cooper’s later novels show how deeply he felt the necessity to put a sense of order into his social vision, the vision of a society of a society developing beyond control. Despite his conservatism, Cooper was no extreme conservative but moderate. However, his positions were misinterpreted: his argument for a re-consideration of the principles of American democracy, his critic of mad development and ecological irresponsibility were considered as conservative. His opinions were seen as an expression of unhappiness with the very existence of democracy as a system. In fact, the negative things that Cooper associated with Jacksonian Democracy were not just the negative aspects of a political system but of an entire philosophy, of an entire society. Through his novels and political writings, Cooper wanted to expose several social and economic symptoms:

  • Explosion of cities aligncenter upon the accumulation of capital.
  • Superficial press.
  • Disintegration of civility and social coherence.
  • Generalized materialism and the collapse of small communities.

In the final analysis, Cooper’s greatest accomplishment as a novelist does not reside in his critic of the abuses of Jacksonian Democracy but in his transformation of his personal contradictions into an imaginary scene of truly mythical dimension. His works remained as essential models for an American literary sensibility and its mystique of Nature. They also represent the first model for a sensibility committed to ecological responsibility and cultural tolerance.

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. Modernism

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