American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman

Excerpt

All my reading of American literature has been done during the era of Van Wyck Brooks and Parrington. It was hardly an accident that when I graduated from college in the early nineteen-twenties, I knew very little of our own literature except some contemporary poetry that I had read with my friends. The now encouraging, if tardy, attention that is being paid by our universities to our cultural past dates in most instances since that time. Consequently, the appearance of Lewis Mumford The Golden Day (1926) was a major event in my experience. Through Mumford I became aware of the body of ideas he was popularizing, with their first expression in Brooks' America's Coming of Age (1915); and Brooks' stringent demands for a culture adequate to our needs were the strongest influence on my own first work, a critical biography of Sarah Orne Jewett (1929). These statements of my debts to Brooks and Mumford should be as explicit as possible, since when I come to discuss Melville, I am forced to take issue with the accuracy of Mumford's interpretation (1929). And by the time Brooks wrote The Flowering of New England (1936), he had relaxed his standards. He was no longer concerned with ideas, or with critical discriminations, but with describing the surfaces of the milieu that had produced the writing, good or bad. His picture is charming but sentimental. His method is most successful in its vignettes of minor and forgotten figures, but it has robbed the period of most of its clash and struggle, it has so diluted Thoreau that it is hard to tell him from Bronson Alcott, and, as I shall have to show when dealing with Hawthorne, it has deprived one of our few tragic writers of his chief significance.

The two critics who have helped me draw a circle of definition around my subject are Coleridge and Eliot. The leading practitioners in their respective times of the type of criticism that is always fertile--the artist's comment on the principles of his craft--these two have had a particular value for my purposes. Coleridge was the immediate stimulus to Emerson . . .

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