September 22, 2005

The Master Geniuses

I posited a hypothesis in class on Wednesday night regarding the development of a distinctly American literature. It came from a consideration of our reading, part of which was on American literary nationalism of the antebellum period. Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were named, of course, as two early and popular distinctly American authors. And then, of course, there were the Romantics pushing for America to develop her own literature, to do her own thing: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, etc. But the ones which, as usual, really caught my eye were the following:

If the only surviving documents from the 1840s and 1850s were its major novels, historians would face an impossible task in describing the appearance of antebellum American society. The unusual settings favored by [Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe] partly reflected their view that American life lacked the materials for great fiction. Hawthorne, for example, bemoaned the difficulty of writing about a country "where there is no shadow, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land" . . .

Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe ignored Emerson's call to write about the everyday experiences of their fellow Americans. Nor did they follow Cooper's lead by creating distinctively American heroes. Yet each contributed to an indisputably American literature. Ironically, their conviction that the lives of ordinary Americans provided inadequate materials for fiction led them to create a uniquely American fiction, one marked less by the description of the complex social relationships of ordinary life than by the analysis of moral dilemmas and psychological states.

-The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People

My idea, in keeping with this, was that while Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau were attempting to impose a distinctly American form on their writing or that of others, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe were actually succeeding because they weren't actually trying, or, in fact, even thinking about it. I also consider the latter three to be writers of infinite better quality than the former three (although they have their place). In my estimation, once those three begin to write, American literature, as such, starts to actually "get good."

Then I read "Hawthorne and His Mosses" by Herman Melville, and it in turn directed me to read "A Select Party" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The quotes below led me to modify my hypothesis a bit (pardon their length):

It is true, that but few of them as yet have evinced that decided originality which merits great praise. But that graceful writer, who perhaps of all Americans has received the most plaudits from his own country for his productions,--that very popular and amiable writer, however good, and self-reliant in many things, perhaps owes his chief reputation to the self-acknowledged imitation of a foreign model, and to the studied avoidance of all topics but smooth ones . . . Without malice, but to speak the plain fact, they but furnish an appendix to Goldsmith, and other English authors. And we want no American Goldsmiths, nay, we want no American Miltons. It were the vilest thing you could say of a true American author, that he were an American Tompkins. Call him an American, and have done, for you can not say a nobler thing of him.--But it is not meant that all American writers should studiously cleave to nationality in their writings; only this, no American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this leaven of literary flunkyism towards England. If either we must play the flunky in this thing, let England do it, not us. While we are rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically awaits us at the close of the present century; in a literary point of view, we are deplorably unprepared for it; and we seem studious to remain so . . . we should refrain from unduly lauding foreign writers, and, at the same time, duly recognize the meritorious writers that are our own,--those writers, who breathe that unshackled, democratic spirit of Christianity in all things, which now takes the practical lead in the world, though at the same time led by ourselves--us Americans . . . if any of our authors fail, or seem to fail, then, in the words of my enthusiastic Carolina cousin, let us clap him on the shoulder, and back him against all Europe for his second round. The truth is, that in our point of view, this matter of a national literature has come to such a pass with us, that in some sense we must turn bullies, else the day is lost . . .

-Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses"

But now appeared a stranger . . . he was a young man in poor attire, with no insignia of rank or acknowledged eminence, nor anything to distinguish him among the crowd except a high, white forehead, beneath which a pair of deep-set eyes were glowing with warm light. It was such a light as never illuminates the earth save when a great heart burns as the household fire of a grand intellect. And who was he?--who but the Master Genius for whom our country is looking anxiously into the mist of Time, as destined to fulfil the great mission of creating an American literature, hewing it, as it were, out of the unwrought granite of our intellectual quarries? From him, whether moulded in the form of an epic poem or assuming a guise altogether new as the spirit itself may determine, we are to receive our first great original work, which shall do all that remains to be achieved for our glory among the nations . . . he dwells as yet unhonored among men, unrecognized by those who have known him from his cradle; the noble countenance which should be distinguished by a halo diffused around it passes daily amid the throng of people toiling and troubling themselves about the trifles of a moment, and none pay reverence to the worker of immortality. Nor does it matter much to him, in his triumph over all the ages, though a generation or two of his own times shall do themselves the wrong to disregard him.

-Hawthorne, "A Select Party"

And here, let me throw out another conceit of mine touching this American Shiloh, or "Master Genius," as Hawthorne calls him. May it not be, that this commanding mind has not been, is not, and never will be, individually developed in any one man? And would it, indeed, appear so unreasonable to suppose, that this great fullness and overflowing may be, or may be destined to be, shared by a plurality of men of genius? Surely, to take the very greatest example on record, Shakespeare cannot be regarded as in himself the concretion of all the genius of his time; nor as so immeasurably beyond Marlowe, Webster, Ford, Beaumont, Johnson, that those great men can be said to share none of his power?

-Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses"

From these passages it is fairly clear that the emergence of a distinctly American literature was very much a part of Hawthorne and Melville's thinking. And as for Poe . . . well, who dares to plumb the depths of whatever may have been running through his head? Y'know, when he wasn't drunk or high. The point is, that this quite shattered my hypothesis, but it did lead me to an interesting thought. Hawthorne and Melville, although they probably didn't know it, were talking about themselves.

Melville and Hawthorne, along with Poe and those who would soon follow (Henry James, Mark Twain, and, much later, William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, to name just a few), are among the Master Geniuses who tower above the rest in our study of the uniquely American literary tradition. Not a great revelation, perhaps, but it is fascinating to see the men themselves speculating about the form American literature will finally take when it comes into its own, even as they themselves are playing an essential role in shaping it.

Posted by Jared at September 22, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack