Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau

Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau

Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau

Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau

Synopsis

In recent years, formalist and deconstructive approaches to literary studies have been under attack, charged by critics with isolating texts as distinctive aesthetic or linguistic objects, separate from their social and historical contexts. Historicist and cultural approaches have often responded by simply reversing the picture, reducing texts to no more than superstructural effects of historical or ideological forces. In Writing Revolution, Peter J. Bellis explores the ways in which literature can engage with--rather than escape from or obscure--social and political issues.

Bellis argues that a number of nineteenth-century American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, saw their texts as spaces where alternative social and cultural possibilities could be suggested and explored. All writing in the same historical moment, Bellis's subjects were responding to the same cluster of issues: the need to redefine American identity after the Revolution, the problem of race slavery, and the growing industrialization of American society.

Hawthorne, Bellis contends, sees the romance as "neutral territory" where the Imaginary and the Actual--the aesthetic and the historical--can interpenetrate and address crucial issues of class, race, and technological modernity. Whitman conceives of Leaves of Grass as a transformative democratic space where all forms of meditation, both political and literary, are swept away. Thoreau oscillates between these two approaches. Walden, like the romance, aims to fashion a mediating space between nature and society. His abolitionist essays, however, shift sharply away from both linguistic representation and the political, toward an apocalyptic cleansing violence.

In addition to covering selected works by Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau, Bellis also examines powerful works of social and political critique by Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller. With its suggestions for new ways of reading antebellum American writing, Writing Revolution breaks through the thickets of contemporary literary discourse and will spark debate in the literary community.

Excerpt

My objective here, put in its broadest terms, is to think about the ways in which literature can engage with or act upon the world. No act of representation, whether political or discursive, is ever simple; each transforms or displaces its object in some fashion. But representations—and aesthetic representations in particular—are nevertheless often consigned to second-order or derivative status in relation to their “originals.”

In literary studies, formalist and deconstructive readings have been under attack for some years now, charged with isolating texts as distinctive aesthetic or linguistic objects from their social and historical contexts. But historicist and cultural approaches have often responded by simply reversing the picture, reducing texts to no more than superstructural effects of historical or ideological forces—a kind of “thick propaganda,” in Sacvan Bercovitch’s phrase. What I hope to explore here is a middle ground, a terrain on which discourse can interact with its social and cultural context. How, I mean to ask, might it be possible for literary discourse to intervene in and help to shape the realms of history and politics?

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