Americanism And The Main Problems
To answer this question it must first be established what it is that makes something or someone distinctly American. To summarize America or American identity would be an extremely difficult task. When one thinks of America certain elements are conjured up: hope, freedom, equality and democracy. Such qualities are concerned with the idealistic version of America and often are not a reality. In fact, in modern America, I find it hard to believe that any such qualities ring true. In this case it must be asked- did they ever? Singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey often (like many) romanticizes Americanism. However, in one of her latest releases the narrative seems to, at long last, condemn the culture, implicitly referencing both the devastating political and environmental climate, ‘If this is it, I’m signing off, Hawaii just missed that fireball, L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot, Kanye West is blond and gone, ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song’. This lyric is taken from Lana’s 2019 album, appropriately named, ‘Norman F*cking Rockwell!’. It is fitting that this comes at a time when she has stopped performing in front of an American flag deeming it ‘inappropriate’. Having discussed the problematic nature of America, I will be critiquing and analyzing the works of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne and determining what it is that makes their writing, in particular, distinctly American.
Emerson is, to many, the father of American literature and according to Kazin and Aaron in A Modern Anthology is considered a pioneer of American aesthetic. He changed the way the nation saw its cultural and artistic possibilities. Emerson’s most notable works are perhaps his essays and lectures. Through these he developed into a philosopher who led the transcendentalist movement in America in the mid-19th century. Originality is a key aspect of transcendentalism as Emerson notes at the beginning of Nature, ‘Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?. In this opening paragraph Emerson is commenting on humanity’s focus on the past. He calls for people not to rely on the past but instead to live in the moment, at one with nature. The rhetorical questions invite the reader to contemplate such transcendentalist thoughts. In this essay he also invites writers to pay attention to the everyday- the ordinary. ‘But if a man be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and vulgar things’ (Emerson, 5). The cosmic imagery is used to show that nature is ordinary yet not mundane. Nothing exists except the ordinary thus it (nature) can teach us everything and through it we can have an original relationship with God and the universe. ‘Through the transcendental impulse Emerson radically changed typology to organic process, in which nature serves as a stabilizing force in achieving harmony of self-reliance with self-transcendence’ (Carlson, xxv). In this way, it can be said that Emerson’s writing is a considerable force in the emergence of a distinctly American form of thought as well as literary expression. Hawthorne, like many, was inspired by Emerson’s theories and shared his socialist dreams. He joined the Brook Farm experiment- a transcendental commune, ‘which Emerson himself- who could hardly be responsible for all the enthusiasms of his disciples- could never bring himself to join’ (Moore, 226). Hawthorne donated the majority of his earnings from the previous year to the experiment in order to fund the lifestyle, however, like much of Emerson’s transcendental thought, the way of life on the Brook Farm was more idealistic than it was practical. ‘But utopia collided with the grizzly realities of a rough and tumble America, which rewards less starry pursuits’ (Reynolds, 24).
Hawthorne is one of the most studied and well known American writers whom is perhaps best known for his short stories. His narrative often sees him tackling political and social issues of his time and in works such as The Scarlet Letter, Young Goodman Brown and The Minister’s Black Veil he is successful in denouncing the hypocrisies of puritanism through his seasoned use of allegory and symbolism. ‘Since the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and certainly after his death in 1864, Hawthorne has become a national prodigy routing skeletons out of New England long before Stephen King’ (Reynolds, 13). In Young Goodman Brown the character goes on a journey into the woods where he becomes acquainted with the devil who informs him ‘“I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem”’(Hawthorne, 90). The dialogue here is quite specific to Hawthorne’s own background once we are aware of it. Hawthorne’s ancestors played a dominant role in the Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692. His great grandfather was John Hathorne, a judge in the trials and the only one not to repent his actions. It’s even argued that Nathaniel added the ‘w’ to his second name ‘Hawthorne’ as an effort to disassociate himself from his notorious relatives. I feel as though Hawthorne not only wrote as a reaction against his family past but also America’s past which was deeply corrupt and full of false virtue. When Goodman Brown is made aware of the sinful nature of his family and friends he exclaims, ‘My Faith is gone!’- both literally and metaphorically, as his wife’s name is Faith. ‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! For to thee is this world given” (Hawthorne, 97). This dialogue conveys how extreme Puritan beliefs are. Puritanism serves a black and white mentality. Hawthorne is essentially condemning their logic. He feels that due to this perspective people lack an understanding of the relationship between good and evil, sin and virtue, thus there is no true relationship with God. Hawthorne’s views on how Puritanism lacked authenticity and fuelled hypocrisy is similar to how Emerson felt that religious institutions were a barrier between one and God. This can be seen in what I have previously discussed about an ‘original relation’ to God and the universe. Transcendentalism derives from Unitarianism. It reacts against the hard-line bible and teaches that nature and the individual self are what is essential for a strong faith in God.
Both Emerson and Hawthorne place a focus on the importance of sight and perspective in their writing. In Nature, Emerson uses a philosophical metaphor to present his message, ‘Standing on the bare ground,- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. This is a ‘dramatic account of a revelatory or mystical experience, in the natural world, in which he attains an enormously expansive vision, and also loses the sense of distinction between his own identity and that of the natural world’ (Myerson, 159). If nature is the moral manifestation of God, how we perceive and understand it is of great importance. The ‘Transparent eyeball’ quote is effective in summing up all of the religious ideas within Nature and it depicts Emerson’s significance and contribution to American thought and culture. D.H. Lawrence referred to Hawthorne as ‘The American wonder child with his magical allegorical insight’ and Hawthorne has even himself referred to his story The Minister’s Black Veil as a parable. He uses the black veil as a symbol to teach a lesson on perception and moral behavior. The light changes from light to dark when reverend Hooper appears in the veil. ‘Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles’ (Hawthorne, 54). This light imagery creates a symbolic conflict between good and evil. The minister says “Why do you tremble at me alone?” referring to the fear and superstition surrounding the veil when they should in fact “tremble at each other”. He goes on to say, “I look around me and lo every visage is a black veil” (Hawthorne, 65). Hawthorne’s use of dialogue is successful in demonstrating the materialistic concerns of the Puritans. They perceive a simple black veil as having evil connotations however they fail to see the sin in each other as it is hidden and not in plain sight, unlike the ministers. This further reinforces views on hypocrisy within Puritanism. Ironically, if they had paid attention to the sermon instead of the superstition and gossip they might have connected the sermons subject with the veil. We can use the narrative in The Minister’s Black Veil to not only teach a lesson on the problematic nature of the Puritans but of America. Its materialistic values and preoccupation with opulence mostly due to the glorification of Hollywood and the American dream is more worrying today than it ever was. In this way, the setting of many of Hawthorne’s stories (17C Salem) can be a microcosm for the whole of America.
The writing of both Emerson and Hawthorne is in many cases political. ‘In his lectures of the 1860s Emerson further applied his cultural and transcendental criticism, but broadly to American society rather than to literature alone’ (Carlson, xliii). In his essay The American Scholar Emerson comments on the destructive capitalist nature of America ‘The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. There is no work for any but the decorous and the complaisant. Young men of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the Earth below not in unison with these, but hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges or die of disgust, some of them suicides’ (241). In other words, the countries reality does not reflect the ideals upon which it was founded; ‘As Bercovitch cogently concludes, Emerson “expressed himself by expressing the myth of America.”’(Carlson, xliii). He further reinforces his disapproval of the society in another essay- Self-reliance, ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which its members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. This virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs’ (243). What Emerson is expressing is that American society does not favor its members, instead its processes create a hierarchy thus the image often portrayed of America via the idea of the American dream is false. Emerson feels that self-reliance and the qualities that come with it would create a better America. This is the type of idealism associated with transcendentalism. ‘Criticisms should see literature in the context of cultural history- its spirit of place, its zeitgeist, and its cultural roots’ (Carlson xxx), thus we must question the absence of slavery in both Emerson and Hawthorne’s published works. However, it has been argued that those who have criticized Emerson’s ignorance of slavery and the issue of slave abolition only concentrated on his earlier works such as Nature and the first and second series of his essays. It must be noted that Emerson did provide lectures on the subject of slavery after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. It is Hawthorne who is much more problematic when it comes to the notion of slave abolition. Hawthorne’s failure to comment, in any way, on slavery in his writing is concerning due to the fact that he was able to comment on other downfalls of society such as hypocrisy in religion and the mistreatment of women evident in the characterization of Hyster Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. ‘Not surprisingly, Hawthorne’s continual retreat from literature into politics was also fraught with conflict…Contemptuous of the abolitionists, he considered them fanatics and slavery a repugnant system that, if left alone, would perish in its own good time, a view hardly credible for a man cynical about humanity and its enlightenment’ (Reynolds, 35). We must ask ourselves whether the writing of an individual can be considered distinctly American through and through if it fails to include narrative on such a huge part of Americas history, that being slavery.
Regardless of this, both Emerson and Hawthorne had and still have a huge impact on readers and thinkers today. What I consider to be great about the writing of Emerson is its philosophical characteristics. ‘On the day after his death the Boston Daily Advertiser’ declared America’s loss of Emerson to be ‘the loss of the most “philosophical mind and temper of this century”’(Myerson, 272). Hawthorne’s notoriety is perhaps more acquainted to his literary influence and ability. However, it cannot be denied that both writers introduced their fellow Americans to a range of philosophical, literary, religious and political concerns and this is what I consider makes each individuals writing distinctly American.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. New York: J. Munroe, 1849. Online (Google E-book).
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Old Manse. United States: Ticknor and Fields, 1864. Online (Google E-book).
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice Told Tales. United States: Ticknor and Fields, 1866. Online (Google E-Book).
- Unknown author. ‘Kanye West suggests African-American slavery was “a choice.”’ BBC News. BBC, 2/5/19. Web. Accessed 1/12/19.
- Pelly, Jen. ‘Lana Del Rey- Norman f*cking Rockwell’. Pitchfork. Conde Nast, 3/11/19. Web. Accessed 1/12/19.
- Kazin, Alfred. Aaron, Daniel. EMERSON- A MODERN ANTHOLOGY. Dell Laurel, 1958. Print.
- Carlson, Eric W. Emerson’s Literary Criticism. United States: University of Nebraska Press, 1979. Print.
- Myerson, Joel. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2000. Print.
- Reynolds, Larry J. A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New york: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001. Print.
- Moore, Geoffrey. AMERICAN LITERATURE (A Representative of American Writing from Colonial Times to the Present). London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1964. Print.