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This article is about the American Renaissance in literature. For the use of the term in architecture and the arts, see American Renaissance. For the white supremacist periodical, see American Renaissance magazine. The American Renaissance and the Critics. Wakefield: Longwood Academic. Westport, Conn. Retrieved April 23, A Companion to American Literature and Culture. What Hath God Wrought? The Transformation of America, — New York: Oxford University Press, The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. If Stowe offers nuanced portraits of Southerners, she is especially affecting in her depiction of enslaved blacks.
The original subtitle of her novel, The Man that Was a Thing , points up the dehumanizing effects of slavery. The prevailing view of blacks, in both the North and the South, was that they were less than human. Racism was rampant in the North, and enslaved blacks in the South were treated as property to be bought, sold, and, frequently, maltreated.
They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They were appalled by the sexual exploitation of enslaved woman like Prue and Cassy, and they were horrified by the fatal lashing of the gentle, strong Uncle Tom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is hard to point to a single author of the antebellum period who was not in some way caught up in the political and social currents of the age.
Not only was there a substantial body of political writing produced by African Americans, but stirring antislavery works were produced by poets like Whittier, Lowell, and Longfellow and by novelists such as Lydia Maria Child and Richard Hildreth. Popular culture came into its own in the antebellum period, taking on dimensions that have lasted until this day. Bestselling literature fell into two general categories: the sentimental-domestic and the sensational. This literature, aimed mainly at women, purveyed what modern scholars identify as the cult of true womanhood, promoting the values of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.
The contrasting genre, sensational literature, included crime pamphlets, penny newspapers, pulp adventure fiction, and the city-mysteries novel. America witnessed a succession of popular crime pamphlets and collections such as Record of Crimes in the United States The Pirates Own Book , and The Lives of the Felons, or American Criminal Calendar , that fed into popular sensational fiction by Joseph Holt Ingraham, Ned Buntline, Sylvanus Cobb, and others, much of it published in so-called mammoth story weeklies. This literature, under a thin veil of didacticism, often presented criminals as dashing, clever, or no more corrupt than outwardly respectable types.
In the eyes of conservative critics, the engaging villain was a real threat to society. Among the most popular sensational genres of the period was the city-mysteries novel, which transferred Gothic darkness to the complex urban environment. The city was suddenly perceived as a strange and overwhelming place, full of hidden crime, racial and class divisions, violence, and squalor, phenomena reflected in fiction that was volatile and often nightmarish. American authors tried to outdo each other in the vividness with which they described urban sensations.
The winners in this grisly competition were George Lippard and George Thompson. I have known a mother and her son—a father and his daughter—a brother and sister—to be guilty of criminal intimacy. Edgar Allan Poe knew well the sentimental-domestic and the sensational genres that dominated the literary marketplace. As a reviewer, Poe commented on every sort of literature, from the moralistic to the sensational. At the same time, Poe criticized what he regarded as the excesses of popular sensational fiction.
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He had no toleration for the common character type of the engaging criminal—the evildoer shown in a positive light. Simms with that species of delight with which we have seen many a ragged urchin spin a cockchafer [i. The sadism and perversity of which they are guilty is communicated not through extensive descriptions of blood but through portraits of their diseased psychology. Poe at his best brings order and control to the horrific or sensational.
He sculpts terror, using controlling devices such as the first-person narrator, understatement, and singleness of effect. His invention of the detective genre stems from his effort to apply logic and intuitive reason to crimes of the sort that were commonly reported in the penny press. His fascination with codes, cryptograms, puns, and the like shows his overriding concern with various kinds of logic. Poe, then, was in the ambivalent position of a writer immersed in popular culture and yet in some ways repelled by it.
He was simultaneously the alienated genius and the panderer to the mass audience. As magazine editor, fiction-writer, and poet, he knew he had to emphasize the sensational themes that captivated popular readers. By asserting such control in his own works, he produced enduring literary art. Like Poe, Hawthorne was a professional writer with an eye on the literary market.
Unlike Poe, he catered to this market on occasion. One group of his short stories shared the preachiness and optimism of conventional literature.
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But Hawthorne was also profoundly aware of the contrasting strain in American culture, associated with darkness and violence. Much of his interest in gloomy themes came from his guilt-ridden preoccupation with the Puritan past. He counted among his ancestors two Puritan leaders, William Hathorne, who persecuted Quakers, and John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne probed the harshness of Puritans in his fiction, and their Calvinistic faith provided the basis for his preoccupation with human sin.
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Hawthorne, however, was neither a Puritan nor a Calvinist. Instead, he frequently imported into Puritan settings motifs from 19th-century sensational writings. The characters he chose for the novel were common in sensational literature. Hawthorne followed in the wake of popular sensational novelists who used subversive characters to puncture pious pretensions of supposedly respectable people. Hawthorne used similar characters in his tale of an adulterous woman who was involved with a clergyman and who had a misbehaving child and a vindictive husband with the powers of a demonic pseudoscientist.
There were, however, notable differences between The Scarlet Letter and popular novels. Hawthorne put stereotypical characters in a fully realized early New England setting.
He invested these characters, who were portrayed with lip-smacking prurience in popular fiction, with new resonance and depth. Arthur Dimmesdale possesses both the illicit passions of the reverend rake and the conscience of the sincere Puritan preacher.
A hypocrite, he is nonetheless truly tormented and humanly believable. Hester Prynne is the adulterous wife but much more as well: she is a charity worker, a skilled seamstress, a bold thinker, and, above all, a woman committed to her lover. Her wayward daughter, Pearl, and her betrayed husband, Roger Chillingworth, come close to being stock characters, but they too have dimensions unseen in popular stereotypes. Pearl is not just the undisciplined rebel who refuses to recite her catechism; she is also a force for honesty, since she constantly demands that her mother and her paramour publicly confess their love.
Even Chillingworth, an unsavory combination of the vengeful cuckold and the satanic pseudoscientist, serves a moral function by helping keep alive a sense of sin within Arthur Dimmesdale. By placing subversive 19th-century characters in the moral context of bygone Puritan culture, Hawthorne creates a masterpiece of irony, symbolism, and psychological complexity.
Having returned in from five years at sea, Melville set out to record some of his experiences in his adventurous early novels Typee and Omoo But, all the while, we cannot forget that he is a murderer. Melville continued to explore the engaging criminal in his portrayal of the sailor Henry Jackson in Redburn Such paradoxes, many of them rooted in popular culture, culminated in Moby-Dick.
The greatest paradox of American democracy, Walt Whitman averred, was the relation between the individual and the mass—or, on the political level, the relation between the separate states and the Union, which, along with slavery, was at issue in the Civil War. Several forms of literature were characterized by narrative discontinuities, oddly juxtaposed imagery, and confusions between dream and reality that were manifested in a centrifugal style. Tocqueville noted that the bumptious, egalitarian spirit of the young American republic yielded a literature that was defiantly disruptive.