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Reconstructing the American Renaissance

ISSUE:  Spring 1989
Beneath the American Renaissance. By David S. Reynolds. Knopf. $35.00.

In this exhaustive study of America’s great 19th-century writers in the context of antebellum popular culture, David S. Reynolds seeks to consolidate and deepen the insights of F.O. Matthiessen’s classic of American literary criticism, American Renaissance (1949). In fact, “deepen” is an apt word, since Beneath the American Renaissance delves into the fertile soil of a popular culture which, according to Reynolds, had a profound and heretofore under-appreciated impact upon our serious writers. Ambitious not only in its comprehensive investigation of the socioliterary matrix that produced these writers but also in its attempt to redirect the course of contemporary literary criticism, Reynolds’ study forces the reader to reexamine a number of long-held assumptions about our literary heritage and about the way we evaluate “canonized” literary texts.

One of Reynolds’ major assertions is that because of the boldly idiosyncratic nature of their works, and occasionally because of their extreme personal alienation from the political and social realities of their times, our major 19th-century writers are too often considered in a vacuum, as if they lived in a rarefied artistic world that bore little relationship to their boisterous and often sensational popular culture. That they were often rejected by that culture is, of course, a critical commonplace; and modern commentators never tire of pointing out, in a tone of condescending disbelief, that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was considered the work of a madman, that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was vilified for its frank sexuality, and that Emily Dickinson, rejected by the literary arbiters of her day, published only a handful of her 1,775 poems, all anonymously. And although the other four authors of the period accorded “major” status—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allan Poe—enjoyed greater popular acceptance, even they have seemed, in their most profound works, to have been writing on the margins of a crass, philistine culture that considered high art an indulgent luxury, if not a needless frivolity. Thus Thoreau might be considered to have spoken for all the serious writers of his day when he wrote, in Walden, of wishing “not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century.”

The artist’s fantasy of spurning his surrounding social reality (also expressed in Dickinson’s famous poem, “The Soul selects her own society”) is surely experienced by any serious writer in any culture. Yet Reynolds spends more than 600 painstaking pages in arguing that the major antebellum writers were actually part and parcel of their culture, almost every facet of their great works related intimately to popular genres and trends. Examining long-forgotten novels, pamphlets, newspapers, and historical documents, Reynolds places the major writers firmly in their cultural milieu and at the same time shows how they managed to universalize such topical materials and forge them into literary art. In his own words, he “questions the long-held notion that American authors were marginal figures in a society that offered few literary materials. The truth may well be that, far from being estranged from their context, they were in large part created by it. Each of their careers illustrates in a different way Emerson’s belief that the writer “needs a basis which he cannot supply; a tough chaos-deep soil, . . .and this basis the popular mind supplies.”“

In the process of reconstructing this contextual “basis,” Reynolds attempts to discount a major 20th-century critical shibboleth: that the great 19th-century writers were rebelling against a literary culture that stressed religious piety and social conventionality. To prove the contrary, he unearths a vast literature that was subversive to the core. Popular reform texts, sensational crime novels and pamphlets, erotic writings (many of them as explicit as anything published today), works championing the rights of women, outrageous and racy humorous writings—all these enjoyed an enormous popular success and exerted a tremendous influence on our major writers of the period. Reynolds gives manifold, often compelling examples of this popular fertilization as it worked in virtually every major antebellum text.

In the first section of his study, “God’s Bow, Man’s Arrows: Religion, Reform, and American Literature,” he shows how the increasingly theatrical styles of religious oratory and the intensely emotional reform movements early in the century led to a phenomenon Reynolds calls “immoral didacticism,” a literature ostensibly imbued with a pious or reforming purpose that achieved popularity, paradoxically, because of its titillating explorations of the very sins it supposedly decries. Some of this literature suggests that antebellum society isn’t so remote as we may suppose, as in stories focused upon sexually transgressing clergymen. “In antebellum popular fiction,” Reynolds writes, “a good minister is hard to find. As scandals involving actual preachers and reformers began to fill sensational newspapers, popular American novelists . . .quickly gave new publicity to the reverend rake, who was typically portrayed as a harsh clergyman with an overactive sex drive.” This stereotype, Reynolds asserts, influenced Hawthorne’s characterization of Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. Similarly, temperance literature influenced such Poe tales as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat,” which show “reform images retained but an explicit moral message now totally eclipsed.” And in the 1840’s and 1850’s Whitman wrote on nearly every popular reform, but he explored “the imaginative rather than the political possibilities of reform rhetoric, so that popular reform was chiefly important as a training ground in zestful, defiant writing.” As for his popular temperance novel, Franklin Evans, Whitman later said that the book was “damned rot,” and that he had produced it for money in only a few days, guzzling wine as he wrote.

In his remaining three sections, Reynolds investigates sensational erotic and crime literature, women’s literature, and popular humor. He describes the way in which Hawthorne, for instance, an avid reader of sensational crime stories in the 1830’s, transformed such materials into profound fictional probings of guilt and evil. He argues that Dickinson, though her reclusive life might seem to epitomize the 19th-century writer’s alienation, is actually representative of some important stylistic trends becoming predominant in the 1850’s. Reynolds insists that her bold language, elliptical phrasing, and shifting personae both reflected and transcended the flourishing “literature of misery” being produced by scores of women writers in the 1850’s—all of whom sought, though none with Dickinson’s success, to explore the painful limitations of feminine conformity imposed by American Victorian culture. Proceeding methodically through the works of all seven “canonized” writers, discussing certain works more than once—Melville’s The Confidence Man, for instance, is treated in three separate discussions as an example of immoral reform literature, as a “subversive” sensational novel, and as a work profoundly influenced by popular humor—Reynolds plots a complex critical map in which these writers are seen, definitively, as inseparable from their times.

Clearly, the validity of Reynolds’ main thesis is undeniable, and the strengths of this work are formidable indeed. The author’s research is so exhaustive that he appears to have read virtually every word published in antebellum America. He re-creates in compelling detail the 19th-century milieu, revealing that beneath a thin veneer of conventionality lay a seething, energetic, relentlessly subversive cultural reality. Moreover, Reynolds’ critical stance is admirably balanced in its fusion of historical scholarship with the insights of contemporary literary theory. Viewing his own work as “reconstructive criticism,” he convincingly puts forward his approach as a sensible, undogmatic method of synthesizing the best insights from various critical schools of thought: “The reconstructive approach might be said to provide a means of integrating various disciplines that in the past have been fragmented. Like several forms of formalist criticism, it recognizes literariness and forbids simplistic generalizations about the correspondence between the exterior world and the text. On the other hand, it does not sacrifice meaning to the gray arena of linguistic relativism or shifting reader response.”

However grateful we may feel for Reynolds’ prodigious labors of reconstruction, however, the book’s flaws are considerable; and they are surely thrown into bold relief by the author’s implied comparison of his work to F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance. For while Matthiessen’s book is so densely textured and adroitly constructed that it may be considered a work of art in its own right, Reynolds’ book, in sharp contrast, often has the quality of a plodding “survey,” proceeding methodically and predictably through the major texts in chronological order. Although the book is an invaluable source of information that scholars will mine for decades to come, not many will manage to read it straight through. Thus one of the book’s greatest strengths—its impressive, truly phenomenal thoroughness—also becomes one of its most irritating features. A tireless classifier, Reynolds concocts a capitalized label for every feature of antebellum imaginative writing, from Dark Reform works to Adventure Feminist fiction; his discussions are often repetitive; and having stated a thesis, he piles up his evidence in numbing profusion. He seldom illustrates a point with one example when half a dozen near-identical ones will do; and since many of his lengthy quotations are from forgotten works that one has not read, and will surely never read, the fault is all the more grievous.

Reynolds also indulges in a number of perplexing mannerisms of style and presentation. For instance, he grossly overuses capitalization and italics, as if assuming that the Careless Reader will miss the point otherwise. A typical example: “In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne retains the devalued male figure but takes the wholly original step of fashioning a heroine who embodies all the dark female roles of the Subversive novel and who at the same time serves the redemptive function of the Conventional moral exemplar.” Perhaps related to this tic is a tone that is consistently defensive of his own originality, a shrill and repetitive insistence that he is discovering critical truths that “have gone unrecognized,” or have “been recognized but not fully interpreted,” or are “not adequately appreciated,” or “have been overlooked by previous scholars.” Such locutions recur in every chapter, making the reader wish that Reynolds had recognized that his book’s genuine originality does not require these bothersome self-advertisements. Finally, he sometimes indulges in terms that should have offended an attentive editor’s eye, as when he calls Hawthorne a “fictionist,” or discusses the “giganticness” of the typical American author, or uses a criterion he calls “literariness” to judge the value of a given work.

More serious, however, are the lapses in critical acumen that seem the result of the author’s intentness upon proving his thesis. Though he argues for “integrative close readings” of the major texts, he works so single-mindedly at integrating them into their historical context that he sometimes fails to make evaluative distinctions or does injustice to the complexity of individual works. Proceeding through all of Melville’s novels, he gives the egregious and almost unreadable Pierre the same intense scrutiny he gives to Moby-Dick, as if the works were even approximately equal in literary stature. In the well-known Dickinson poem, “I’m “wife”—I’ve finished that—,” which is clearly a fantasy of married bliss, Reynolds finds traces of a flourishing “antimarriage” literature, presupposing a skeptical tone in the poem that simply isn’t there.

Such determined attempts to relate individual works to cultural trends also create a blurring of the various authors’ psychological imperatives. Ignoring Dickinson’s emotional breakdown of 1861—62, Reynolds makes the absurd claim that “It is no accident that Dickinson’s most productive literary period was in the early 1860s, for this was the moment when all women’s rights activity was suspended.” Likewise he attempts feebly to argue that Whitman might not have been homosexual, after all, and that the “Calamus” poems might only have been the poet’s reaction to popular sensational love stories of the time: “in his poetry he was trying to avoid the pitfalls of the sensational love plot and accordingly deemphasized seduction scenes between men and women.”

If this list of complaints and quibbles seems long, it should be remembered that this is a very long book and that its flaws are far outweighed by its erudition, thoroughness, and frequently original insight into America’s literary heritage. A major examination of our literature, and an important contribution to the current debate over the American literary canon, Beneath the American Renaissance is a provocative and valuable work of criticism.


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