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An American Renaissance

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. By F. O. Matthiessen, Oxford University Press. $5.00.

F.O. Matthiessen provides the standard by which his “American Renaissance” may be judged. He points out that five of our greatest writers—Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman—flourished in the 1850’s; that, indeed, “Representative Men,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “The House of the Seven Gables,” “Moby-Dick,” “Pierre,” “Walden,” and “Leaves of Grass” were all published in the half-decade of 1850-1855. “You might be concerned with how this flowering came, with the descriptive narrative of literary history,” he writes. “Or you might dig into its sources in our life, and examine the economic, social, and religious causes why this flowering came in just these years. Or you might be primarily concerned with what these books were as works of art, with evaluating their fusions of form and content. By choosing the last of these alternatives my main subject has become the conceptions held by five of our major writers concerning the function and nature of literature, and the degree to which their practice bore out their theories.”

A little later in his Preface he makes his purpose specific and detailed: “My aim has been to follow these books through their implications, to observe them as the culmination of their authors’ talents, to assess them in relation to one another and to the drift of our literature since, and, so far as possible, to evaluate them in accordance with the enduring requirements for great art.” His approach to the several problems he deals with is explicitly “through attention to the writers’ use of their own tools, their diction and rhetoric, and to what they could make with them.”

Let it be understood at once that Professor Matthiessen has succeeded almost completely in accomplishing his aim. His standard of endeavor is exceptionally high, but his book lives up to it. This is the finest work of the year in American literary history and criticism, and one of the finest of the last decade. It contains over six hundred pages of scrupulous and sensitive analysis, careful reasoning, generous but not profligate appreciation, and belletristic scholarship which is actually used and not merely ornamental. I doubt that there is any really significant new information in it, but there are new insights. At least, there are insights so well documented and so acutely expressed that they have the value of discoveries—for they awaken our interest in things previously ignored, forgotten, or inadequately appreciated.

The range is wide, the study thorough, within the limits of the aim. Emerson on the consciousness of the age, on eloquence and expression, on the organic relationship between words and things, on the nature of beauty, and on method—such are the topics Professor Matthiessen discusses. Of comparable inclusiveness are his discussions of Thoreau as artist, as thinker; of Hawthorne on good and evil, on politics, on the theory of art; of Melville’s form and use of language, his debt to Shakespeare, his conception of the source of social evil, his sense of tragedy, the structure of “Moby-Dick”; of Whitman’s linguistic experiments, his rhythm, his vision of the land, his influence. These are all difficult and important problems, the illumination of which is basic to an understanding of the art of those five masters. Few readers can fail to find such illumination in Professor Matthiessen’s treatment of them.

Having thus freely and cordially paid tribute to this excellent book, I hope I may be forgiven a few words of comment on a peculiarity of the author’s attitude toward his function as critic—a peculiarity which unnecessarily restricts the scope of his inquiry. He assures us—and he proves— that he is well aware of the social and intellectual currents (“the background”) of the period, but he asserts that he has “concentrated entirely on the foreground, on the writing itself.” He quotes Parrington: “I have not wished to evaluate reputations or weigh literary merits, but rather to understand what our fathers thought”; then he tells us, “My concern has been opposite. Although I greatly admire Parrington’s elucidation of our liberal tradition, I think the understanding of our literature has been retarded by the tendency of some of his followers to regard all criticism as ‘belletristic trifling.’ ” At last he asserts that he is “preoccupied with form.” In short, we are given the impression that the author is about to abstract the art of the time from the ways of thinking and living of that time.

He does nothing of the kind. He writes: “The one common denominator of my five writers, uniting even Hawthorne and Whitman, was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy”—and he proceeds to mention the implications of the democratic struggles. When he states that his avenue of approach is through the writers’ diction and rhetoric, he explains that “an artist’s use of language is the most sensitive index to cultural history, since a man can articulate only what he is, and what he has been made by the society of which he is a willing or an unwilling part.” In other words, Professor Matthiessen knows perfectly well that he cannot “evaluate . . . in accordance with the enduring requirements for great art” without at the same time estimating social and philosophical values; that he cannot explain “what these books were as works of art” without at the same time explaining how and why they came to be.

He does what should be done. His book is shot through with social, political, and even economic interpretations. See his analysis of the origins of Thoreau’s diction; see his remarks on the psychological causes of Melville’s emotions about his environment. This book is first-rate criticism: it does not divorce aesthetics from thought, craft from culture. What, then, is the reason for Professor Matthiessen’s indecision about his own method, his rather confused and certainly confusing statement about what he is doing? That is for him to answer. Perhaps he has studied T. S. Eliot too long and too affectionately. Perhaps he has listened too politely to his academic colleagues. I know, however, that if he had let himself go and devoted just a little more space to social content and cultural relations, his book would not have suffered. On the contrary, in certain respects his studies of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman might thereby have been sharpened. If he is justified in making several excursions into the fields of photography and painting, he would surely be justified in bringing in a few more words about the changes in American life that were then occurring. For those changes, as Professor Matthiessen knows but only incidentally admits, affected the art of his five masters more than did the brush and camera work of the period.


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