Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. David S. Reynolds. Harvard UP, 1989.
Excerpts from the Introduction:"The pre-Civil War period...has long been recognized as the richest in America's literary history, the period that produced Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson. This study compares the major literature with a broad range of lesser-known works, combines literary analysis with social history, and discusses writings of various geographical regions and of both sexes. It attempts to bridge the gap between criticism that treats literature as self-referential and cultural history, in which the uniqueness of the literary text often gets lost. American literature was generated by a highly complex environment in which competing language and value systems, openly at war on the level of popular culture, provided rich material which certain responsive authors adopted and transformed in dense literary texts.
Delving beneath the American Renaissance occurs in two senses: analysis of the process by which hitherto neglected popular modes and stereotypes were imported into literary texts; and discovery of a number of forgotten writings which, while often raw, possess a surprising energy and complexity that make them worthy of study on their own. An understanding of the antebellum context questions the long-held notion that American authors were marginal figures in a society that offered few literary materials. The truth may well be that, far from being estranged from their context, they were in large part created by it. Each of their careers illustrates in a different way Emerson's belief that the writer "needs a basis which he cannot supply: a tough chaos--deep soil,...and this basis the popular mind supplies."....
The view of the major writers as alienated rebels has become deeply ingrained in our view of American literature. It has become common to view high literature as an isolated act of rebellion or subversion against a dominant culture. Indeed, several schools of critics have argued that the most distinctive characteristic of American literature is its rejection or transcendence of social concerns. Lionel Trilling in The Liberal Imagination (1950) anticipated many later cultural theorists, most notably Richard Chase, by defining classic American literature as an alternate reality distant from social life. Several generations of close readers, from the New Critics through the poststructuralists, have emphasized the supposedly autonomous nature of literary works, placing them at a distance from a popular culture regarded as tame and simplistic. Psychoanalytic critics have typically argued that major authors projects in their works private fantasies and aggressions in reaction against a banal culture that provided no outlet for the tabooed. More recently, with the rise of new historical methodologies in literary criticism, this notion of the alienation of American authors from their society is beginning to be questioned.
The interpretation of the major writers as isolated subversives reifies the existing canon and ignores the open nature of literary texts. It should be recognized that the major writers saw themselves as distinctly democratic artists committed, in Melville's words, "to carry republican progressiveness into Literature" and to immerse themselves so deeply in their time and culture that their works actually became, in Whitman's phrase, "the age transfigured."
This book suggests that during the American Renaissance literariness resulted not from a rejection of socioliterary context but rather from a full assimilation and transformation of key images and devices from this context. Literariness-distinguished by special density and by demonstrable artistry of language or structure--is an intrinsic quality of certain works that can justifiably be called "major"; but it is misleading to remove these works from their context or to ignore unfamiliar writings that in time may also be designated as major....
The deep affinities between the major writers and their popular contemporaries may be bypassed in selective readings in the unfamiliar literature of the day, creating a lopsided view of antebellum popular culture, one that greatly exaggerates the importance of Conventional literature while neglected the immense cultural power of what I call Subversive literature, which was bizarre, nightmarish, and often politically radical. The tendency has been to view the works of writers like Melville and Hawthorne as a revolt against a sentimentalized, optimistic literary culture....little has been written on the Subversive and Romantic Adventure modes, which not only became increasingly influential as time passed but also broke new literary ground that was cultivated by the major writers....
Much of this book is devoted to showing the ways in which the social and literary environment became riddled with moral mixtures and ambiguities that prompted various literary responses. Conventional literature tried to avoid or defeat these ambiguities; Romantic Adventure either evaded or objectified them; Subversive literature allowed them to erupt volcanically in often chaotic, fragmented fashion.
When we arrive at the small group of literary texts we find a compact explosiveness of image that occurs because an unusually large variety of cultural codes and strategies are fused. Literary texts brought a measure of self-consciousness and control to the literary responses, as certain authors began to manipulate the modes and play them off against each other. The typical literary text of the American Renaissance is far from being a "self-sufficient text," sealed off from its environment. It is indeed what one might call an "open text," since it provides an especially democratic meeting place for numerous idioms and voices from other kinds of contemporary texts. These idioms and voices often conflict to create paradox and irony. But they also fuse consistently to create a kind of stylistic implosion resulting in extraordinary compaction of image. Emerson's "transparent eye-ball," Hawthorne's scarlet letter, Melville' s white whale, the water of Walden Pond, Whitman's grass leaves--all such complex images represented an enormous compression of varied cultural voices in an explosive center. In the literary text, ambiguity or mystery itself becomes a central issue consciously treated. In Emerson, Thoreau, and WHitman, mystery forms the basis of an exultant individualism and an affirmation of stylistic potency; in Melville, Hawthorne, and Dickinson this potency coexists with more problematic ponderings of ambiguity. It is when each specific contemporary textual strategy is stripped of merely local, time-specific referents and fused with other contemporary textual strategies and classical devices that a new universality is achieved.
The arrival at literariness after an immersion in the popular is repeatedly scrutinized throughout this book. In most cases it can be said that literary texts were produced only after the major authors had gained firsthand expose to competing value systems and literary modes....
American writers followed a roughly similar career pattern of early experimentation with popular modes followed by self-conscious mixture of the modes, then stylization of the modes in highly complex literary texts, and sometimes in late career a recoil away from the purely literary toward other forms of expression. In the literary text, which usually is produced in mid-career, we witness a coalescence of competing systems manifested in central images that are irreducible to a single meaning.
To note the unique complexity of the literary text is not to elevate it to the dubious heaven of aporaria or indeterminacy. The distinguishing quality of the literary text is not radical subversiveness but unique suggestiveness and great reconstructive power. During the American Renaissance, the proliferation of popular social and imaginative texts was liberating, since it released rich images for literary use, but at the same time it was potentially disturbing, since it threatened to bring about a complete inversion of values and an obliteration of genuine emotion. The major writers sought in their central texts to incorporate as many different popular images as possible and to reconstruct these images by imbuing them with a depth and control they lacked in their crude native state. Uniquely attentive to conflicting voices within their contemporary culture, they transformed a wide array of popular modes and idioms into literary art by fusing them with each other and with archetypes derived from classic literature and philosophy. Their adaptation of an unusual variety of their culture's popular literary strategies made their works time-specific and culture-specific. Their fusion of these strategies with classical archetypes aided their effort to lend resonance to themes and devices that remained formless or undirected in their popular form. The density of their best works results from this willed reconstruction and intensification of a varied range of popular images. (3-10)