On American Romanticism 

from Chapter 4: American Naissance of Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. Viking, 1991.

The peaking of American literary power just before the middle of the nineteenth century still seems such a novel and remarkable event that it remains the heartland for all discussion of American literature, out of which arises any understanding of the originality of American writing, any sense of a modern or modernist lineage. For Whitman it all began with Emerson: "America of the future, in her long train of poets and writers, while knowing more vehement and luxuriant ones, will, I think, acknowledge nothing nearer this man, the actual beginner of the whole procession..." ....

The shape of the period is fairly exact. Its end is clear; it faded with the American Civil War in 1861, though it also raised most of the issues that brought it about. The start is less precise, but Emerson's Nature (1836, with its repudiation of the past and the "retrospective age" and the assertion of a new vision ("I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing, I see all"), will serve, followed by his oration "The American Scholar" of the following year, for many, then and now, the nation's true declaration of literary independence. Throughout the 1840s, an increasingly confident temper was to grow, partly through Emerson's stimulation, in American writing; in 1841 William Ellery Channing spoke of the age's new "tendency in all its movements to expansion, to diffusion, to universality." By mid-century this sense of innovation, intuitional discovery had reached its peak....For today's reader, here is the time of the distinctive emergence in America of the poem, the essay, the questing travel tale, the novel and--if we add Poe's work of the previous two decades--the modern short story.

Behind this efflorescence was the fresh, certain spirit, the conviction of historical opportunity being seized by a novel creativity, that came in large measure from Emerson. "There is a moment in the history of every nation," he said in Representative Men,

"when, proceeding out of this brute youth, the perceptive powers reach their ripeness and have not yet become microscopic: so that man, at that instant, extends across the entire scale, and, with his feet still planted on the immense forces of night, converses with his eyes and brain with solar and stellar creation. That is the moment of adult health, the culmination of power."

This was what Emerson was acknowledging in, or exhorting from, American thought. It was, especially, New England thought. Though Poe from the south, Melville and Walt Whitman from New York, joined the enterprise, a New England that had somehow reactivated its dying religious heritage was the center....[of education, reform, Unitarianism, close contact with Europe] When Alexis de Tocqueville recorded his impressions of America in the 1830s, he found Boston considered itself "the Hub of the Universe." By the 1830s American literature, serious and popular, was already very largely New England literature. The central triumvirate of Longfellow, Holmes and Whittier reigned, along with Dana and Lowell and Channing. It had key women writers, of whom Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author not only of Uncle Tom's Cabin but also of vivid records of New England life, were most notable. There were the voices of new religion and radical reform, like Orestes Brownson, the early abolitionists and Margaret Fuller, both a transcendentalist and the most powerful mind of the era's feminist movement. And there were the transcendentalists.

Emerson's leading role has made the transcendentalism of which he was spokesman seem central, but perhaps it seems more so in retrospect than at the time. It was one of many movements in the air at a point when sects and schisms, religious and philosophical tendencies, stirred New England life and spread abroad to the nation. Utopianism and sectarianism, mesmerism and phrenology, anything that, as Charles Dickens put it, looked "a little beyond," suited the contemporary New England temper. So powerful have Emerson and his circle come to seem that we should not forget that it was in some respects on the dissenting fringe of what Edgar Allan Poe, an outside observer, called "Boston Frogpondium." For most of the century New England represented a more genteel heritage and a more pedagogic one. It was the poetic home of Longfellow, Lowell and Holmes; it was vestigially Augustan, educated, civilized and almost European; it spoke magisterially from pulpits and Lyceum lectures, from magazines and academic groves. Matthiessen's "American Renaissance" was actually part of a broader and more various Naissance; his view has the modern emphasis on talents who were half-tangential to their age. (104-7)