On American Romanticism 

Notes from Richard P. Adams, "Permutations of American Romanticism."

A definition of romanticism in terms of dynamism and organicism has been presented by many critics, beginning with Morse Peckham's "Toward a Theory of Romanticism" (PMLA 1951). As described by Adams, Peckham says romanticism was a "shift away from thinking of the universe as a static mechanism, like a clock, to thinking of it as a dynamic organism, like a growing tree....For those who make the shift, the values of static mechanism--reason, order, permanence, and the like--are replaced by their counterparts in an organic universe--instinct or intuition, freedom, and change. Romantic thought is relativistic and pluralistic; it rejects absolute values, formal classifications, and exclusive judgments; it welcomes novelty, originality, and variety. It is less interested in distinctions than in relationships, particularly in the organic relationship which it posits between man and nature, or the universe, and (less often) between the individual and society. The great chain of being is replaced by an indefinitely extended and complicated live network of connecting filaments, as in the vascular system of a plant or in a mass of animal nerve tissue, by which every phenomenon is tied by countless direct and indirect contacts to every other. When a new fact appears, it is not just another link in the chain or cog in the machine; it is an evidence of organic growth and development, and its emergence changes every previously existing aspect of the universe. A new characteristic is evidence of a totally new an different world.

Therefore a romantic artist will strive, not to imitate an ideal perfection of form which has always existed, but to originate a form which has never existed before and which will uniquely express what he alone feels and knows. To do so, he will rely more on imagination than on logic, more on symbols than on signs or allegories, more on unconscious than on conscious powers. He will believe that he is creating a genuinely new thing and thereby changing and renewing the whole of his organic universe.

Adams later modifies Peckham's theory in his article,

I now feel that the fundamental impulse of romanticism was the shift from staticism to dynamism, and that organicism was mainly a means of control, a defense against chaos, and a technical resource for writing, rather than an article of belief; or that, when it was an article of belief, it led to contradictions an difficulties that might better have been avoided. ... Contradiction of some kind was practically guaranteed. Pure dynamism is, in the strictest sense, ineffable; the concrete feeling of motion, of change, of development cannot be directly communicated because, in order to be communicated, it must be formulated into an abstract statement, and all abstract formulas are static. Moreover, pure metaphysical belief in dynamism is an acutely uncomfortable if not impossible exercise. It is complete anarchy, which most people, including writers, find intolerable. In order to make something, as a writer must do in order to be a writer, one must have not only the energy of motion but, in addition, some device or formula, some mechanism or some organism of direction or control. What they discovered...is that the energy is the primary consideration, and that any kind of control can be used, so long as it works. That is, it must give some concerted direction to the energy, without completely stopping it and preferably without unduly obstructing or inhibiting or distorting its motion....
The trouble with organicism as an article of belief is that its logical conclusions are static. If the universe is regarded as a perfect organism, everything must be in its place, leaving no room for change, growth, or development, any more than there is in the formistic perfection of renaissance Platonic idealism. From perfection, whether it is conceived formally or organically, there is no place to go; perfection is the dead end of change. A writer who wants primarily to express the energy of motion, but who also insists on following the logic of organicism to its static conclusions, will contradict himself; and that is precisely what the writers in Matthiessen's American renaissance pantheon did: Emerson and Whitman most frankly and cheerfully, Thoreau less frankly, Hawthorne and Melville less cheerfully.

Emerson had a strong feeling for the energy of motion, but he also had a strong belief that the organization of the universe was ultimately a perfect unity. The feeling and the belief contradict each other continually in his work. For example, in Nature (1836), the chapters on "Commodity," "Beauty," "Language," and "Discipline" generally deal with the dynamic feeling; "Idealism," "Spirit," and "Prospects" with the static belief. In "Self-Reliance" Emerson exhorts us to trust ourselves, even if self-trust brings us to self-contradiction; but, when he explains "the reason of self-trust," he asks us to rely not on our individual, changing, self-contradictory selves after all, but on an "immense intelligence," elsewhere called the Over-Soul, in which all contradictions are resolve and temporal unreliabilities transcended, all individual souls subsumes. This transcendence appears to be what American transcendentalism is mainly about. And yet Emerson was not able to give up his sense of the movement of change, and he most often contradicted himself, not by developing from one view into another, but by insisting on both his basic views, the progressive and the ideal, the dynamic and the static, at the same time, in the same book, the same essay, and sometimes the same sentence. He was himself keenly aware of the contradiction, but, perhaps fortunately for the richness of his work and its appeal to latter-day readers, he was unwilling to abandon either of his incompatible convictions.

In Whitman's work we see essentially the same contradiction. Whitman puts a heavier and more consistent emphasis on the dynamism of change, but he also clings to a belief in an ultimate organic perfection of the universe, as a necessary conclusion of change, if not as a present reality....The poet himself, and each individual person and thing, as Whitman implies in all his work and most clearly says in "Passage to India," loses individual identity in death or dissolution, and in so doing "melts in fondness" into God the ultimate unity....

Thoreau ran into the contradiction by emphasizing the dynamism of his experience at Walden, his feeling for the novelty of each day and season, with images of morning and spring, at the same time that he celebrated the absolute unity of "the laws of Nature" which he inferred from the regularity of the pond as measured in the dead season of winter.

For Hawthorne and Melville, who were less transcendentalist, and sometimes anti-transcendentalist, organicism was a matter less of belief, perhaps, than of feeling; at any rate, they seem to have been less inclined to carry it to static conclusions. Doubting the ultimately perfect organization of the universe, they tended less to easy optimism and more to a concern with human maladjustments and conflicts. Writers of fiction, rather than of poems and poetic essays, they worked in an inherently more dynamic medium, concerned with temporal events, change, and vicissitude. They used the organic metaphor as a means of control, a way of giving some coherence to what might otherwise have been mere noise and confusion; but they did not let it dominate their thinking or their art to the degree that their more transcendentalist contemporaries did.

In Walden, "for convenience," Thoreau said, he put "the experience of two years into one," making the book to that degree fictional. He symbolized the growth of his protagonist by describing it in terms of one complete cycle of seasons, beginning and ending with spring, the season of rebirth. The pattern is simple (although it admits an infinite amount of embroidery), the protagonist is successful, the tone is optimistic, and the implication is that the world is a very well organized enterprise, in which there is no need for any sane, energetic man to be uncomfortable.

Hawthorne used a similar organic pattern in "Young Goodman Brown," but for Brown the result is more complex. He goes through the motions of the pattern without experiencing the growth; he "dies" out of childhood, but he is not "reborn" into maturity, as the pattern implies he ought to be. The esthetic effect is generated by a powerful tension between the implication of organic development and the fact of Brown's failure to develop, which remains unresolved in a conclusion filled with rich and fascinating ambiguities. The feeling of dynamic life that it conveys is not as inspiring as the feeling conveyed by Walden, which, considered as a long lyric poem in prose, in indisputably one of the world's great books; but the impact of "Young Goodman Brown" is considerably more concrete and, I suspect, for many readers more compelling....

These works all celebrate the force of change in the world, of motion, of dynamic life, while at the same time they all use the organic metaphor to provide coherence and structural order, either because the authors believed that the universe was really organic, or because they needed the metaphor as a technical control, or both....

Emily Dickinson is in many ways more consistently dynamic than any of the writers in the American renaissance group. Her best effects very often represent moments of intensely melt motion or change; sudden (or suddenly realized) disappearances, losses, or escapes; sharp transitions from one stage to another in a day, a season, or a life; and celebrations of the sheer power of wild weather or wild (though usually repressed) emotion. Her best techniques are compression and contrast, both of which tend to emphasize the energy of change by bottling or blocking it, or suddenly releasing it, or catching the flick of it, so to speak, from the corner of an eye. Her typical poem is a clever little net in which to snare a moment of reality, and her reality is change, which can never be caught for more than a moment. Her speakers live in a quicksilver world, where everything is touch and go, and usually more go than touch. Her work is often lacking organization, finish, and control. It makes up for such deficiencies by its vigor and by the brilliance with which it often succeeds in showing us the very leap and dart of change. .... Emily Dickinson's poems have a remarkably modern feel to them....she does not seem to be trying to organize or control the anarchy of change in any systematic way, but rather to confront it with various kinds of momentary stops and quirks that enable us to glimpse it, or just fail to glimpse it, as if in a stroboscopic flash, in mid-career. The trick, when it succeeds, has a strong appeal to modern sensibilities, which relish motion for its own sake, and the more sparks flying the better.