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Making Connections

  1. The period introduction for 1820–1865 notes the development of the “American Renaissance” as a way of describing those years in terms of literary nationalism. Some examples of works from these years that try to develop and represent a national character include Emerson’s “The American Scholar” and “The Poet” and Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and “Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Any literary project attempting to adapt or cause a “rebirth” in such a national perspective depends on its earlier representations; in the same way, its success or failure will be borne out by what succeeding authors found helpful in their own works. For early attempts that helped form the beginnings of this national character, see those sections of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which describe the voluntary Mayflower Compact; the efforts of Cotton Mather, “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” and Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” to distinguish the elect quality of what the colonists were doing; and the personal narratives of Benjamin Franklin, John Woolman, and Thomas Jefferson. For significant extensions and revisions in American literary nationalism after the Civil War, please see Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free,” Ezra Pound’s “A Pact,” Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” and Michael Harper’s “American History.”
  2. Part of the provisional quality of literary nationalism in the 1820s resulted from the repercussions of the American Revolution and authors’ attempts to make sense of the dramatic change from imperial colony to new nation. Some of the works from 1820–1865 depict characters coming to grips with sudden independence, including Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” After 1865, however, the Civil War seems to have joined the Revolution as a major historical challenge to work through as an American author. Some examples of Civil War retrospects include Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Herman Melville’s “The Portent,” Stephen Crane’s “War is Kind,” and Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.”
  3. One major development in American literature 1820–1865 is the expansion of the means to produce and the audience to read American novels, poems, newspapers, and magazines. The economics of making a living as a writer also enters into the literature of this time in works such as Emily Dickinson’s “[This is my letter to the World]” and “[Publication is the Auction]” and Fanny Fern’s “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” and “Fresh Leaves, by Fanny Fern.” By the Civil War the profession of the full-time author had become established, but before 1820 its beginnings can be traced in Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to her Book” and Benjamin Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth.” Another interesting trajectory is the appearance of famous works in widely circulated pamphlet form, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Hamilton, Jay, and Madison’s The Federalis , as compared with works that appeared in the new periodical medium, such as Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
  4. In Nature, Emerson proposes a radically different approach to the way people should interact with their environment. Many of the authors from 1820–1865 share an interest in charting a special relationship between American characters and the natural landscapes they inhabit, such as Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Dickinson’s “[A Bird came down the Walk —]” and “[I dreaded that first Robin, so],” Poe’s “The Raven” , Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” , Whitman’s “Facing West from California’s Shores” , and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (especially “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” []). This special relationship has a long legacy beginning with John Smith’s General History of Virginia and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Sarah Kimble Knight’s The Private Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York , and Philip Freneau’s “The Wild Honeysuckle” and On the Religion of Nature . Later efforts to link an American voice with a country setting include Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A Wild Heron,” Willa Cather’s “Neighbor Rosicky,” Robert Frost’s “”After Apple Picking” and “Birches,” Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying,” and Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur.
  5. Emersonian Transcendentalism lent itself to many of the reform movements of the antebellum years; some of the best examples of works showing signs of his influence include Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” and Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit.” Emerson’s emphasis on the mind’s ability to rethink the way the world works is reminiscent of earlier American texts, whether spiritually based, like John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity , or explicitly devoted to the emerging nation, like Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence.” Legacies of Emerson’s willingness to reject the status quo and use literature to argue for change extend into the present, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” to Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”