The world of literature can be compared to a mirror that reflects society and its primary values, fears, and needs. Throughout history, American society has experienced highs and lows, and American literature has changed correspondingly. Famous writers and poets have always searched for their own styles to appeal to people, express their unique ideas, and join their like-minded fellows—which is exactly how various literary movements have been formed. Transcendentalism and dark romanticism were literary movements presenting controversial views of life.
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Transcendentalism was one of the brightest literary movements of the 19th century, in which a few people belonging to cultured and educated American society founded a movement that proclaimed the power and importance of the individual. Interestingly, transcendentalism merged elements of various literary movements, philosophical doctrines, and religious faith. Such literary figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau were the main contributors to its development.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was appreciated by his peers for his teeming activity in the field of literature and his adherence to transcendentalist ideas. His literary works concerned a great number of issues but first and foremost were ideas regarding individualistic philosophy and the importance of freedom. Many of his contemporaries described him as an anxious person who was terrified by the thought about possible failure. His susceptibility had a significant impact on his view of life. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” written in 1841, Emerson expressed his opinions on democracy and the role of an individual in society.
He believed that public interests could not be placed above the needs of the individual and that each person should rely on himself and strive to become a man of integrity: “Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (Emerson 20). Emerson belonged to a number of philosophers who believed idealistic values to take priority over materialistic ones. Such an opinion was influenced by his well-developed ability to perceive the world through thinking. Moreover, he regarded nature as a living creature with its own soul, and many of his literary works contained elements of spiritualism, a movement that formed in opposition to materialism. Spiritualism’s adherents considered an immaterial reality to be beyond physical matter. As for Emerson’s opinion on political matters, he was a hardliner against a reality riddled with capitalism. From his perspective, a capitalist society contradicted the ideals of morality. As part of his individualistic ideas, he was also critical about the slave-owning system, which he regarded to be a key enemy of freedom and human dignity.
Henry Thoreau was a go-getter impressed by Emerson’s philosophy of life. Like Emerson, he was scornful of people whose life goals were connected to gaining superiority over other people and accumulating material goods. Thoreau was a man who devoted much attention to the development of emotional intelligence, which often served as his inspiration for writing. Due to his high poetic sensibility, Thoreau created many literary works of significant aesthetic merit. His literary style formed and changed with the growth of his interest in environmentalism. Being very critical of American civilization, he preferred the idea of living in natural surroundings.
His works teemed with the importance of close affinity between humanity and nature, and he was also interested in the idea of man’s spiritual strength in the face of the vagaries of life. As for Thoreau’s vision of America, he was very skeptical about its values in those days. Moreover, he was fully engaged in social life and made numerous attempts to declare his opinion publicly. For example, in 1846, he refused to pay taxes in protest of the armed conflict between Mexico and the United States. Such boldness cost him a few weeks of jail time. Indeed, Thoreau disagreed with the US government on many points; he especially saw people’s liability to military service as a suppression of their will, noting that “the standing army is only an arm of the standing government” (Thoreau 3). He also saw the limitation of African American rights as a grave crime against humanity as a whole. Thus, in many ways, Thoreau’s political opinions put him at odds with the ruling class.
Dark romanticism belongs to the number of subgenres of romanticism. With the birth of this movement, American literature experienced a new wave of discouraging ideas. A sense of frustration, melancholia, and images of gloom appeared to replace the euphoria and lively colors of romanticism. Unlike transcendentalists, dark romantics saw people as creatures prone to making mistakes and falling from grace, and they considered human nature to be a major obstacle to building a sound society. Dark romantics believed people to be incapable of overcoming their weaknesses, which is why their literary works often depict the failure of characters to conquer their weaker selves. In creating the right atmosphere, dark romantics often incorporated evil mythical beings as characters of their literary works. In fact, they used images of demons and monsters to depict the dark side of human nature. The pessimism of this literary movement faced a storm of criticism, and many thinkers even asserted that dark romantics propagated socially dangerous ideas.
Edgar Allan Poe’s contribution to the development of American literature can hardly be overestimated, especially in the development of new genres including detective fiction. Many peers described him as a very sensitive and responsive person whose uneasiness often caused mood swings. Despite this irrationality and moodiness, Poe had a constant desire to write and create. Putting his ideas into words, he used a lot of original comparisons, creating a unique literary style that paved his way to success. Poe’s personal philosophy of life was quite controversial because it merged the elements of opposing ideologies such as idealism and materialism. Nevertheless, his view of life represented a sense of frustration and the idea of man’s inability to withstand evil.
As for his attitude to other philosophies, Poe was a vocal opponent of transcendentalist ideas, which appeared too optimistic compared to his own. He regarded the ideas of individual improvement and man’s ability to meet God to be a delusion. In his short horror stories, Poe tried to highlight such features of human nature as cruelty, meanness, and cold-bloodedness. For instance, the murderer from “The Tell-Tale Heart” says this about his crime: “I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him” (Poe 172). Poe’s political attitudes also differed vastly from those of the transcendentalists. Indeed, he believed the idea of social equality to be dangerous; in his opinion, it was popular sovereignty that deprived people of individual freedom. He also regarded social hierarchy as the foundation of any society.
Like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works also contributed to the development of dark romanticism. His numerous unique literary devices have made his writing style iconic. Characters or events described in his works very often act as symbols to catch the reader’s attention. Hawthorne’s personal philosophy shared many features with that of Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, the image of life as he saw it was dark and dim. At the same time, he was not quite as pessimistic about human nature; as an emotional person, he still believed that there were people capable of relying on their moral compass. As for Hawthorne’s vision of the developmental path for America, he believed that some elements of Puritan morality were essential for creating a society in which all people could live in a harmony. In one of his short stories, he laughed at people striving for perfection in the smallest details: “In trying to improve his lovely wife, he had failed to realize she had been perfect all along” (Hawthorne 115). In this way, he denied the significance of the constant perfection that was such an important point for transcendentalists.
In conclusion, these two literary movements presented opposite views on human nature and the correct way of development for America. As for Emerson and Thoreau, they proclaimed the power of the individual and believed that building a sound society in America would require social equality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Poe and Hawthorne were not so optimistic about social changes. In their opinion, the popularization of democratic principles in America would take away people’s individuality and freedom. Moreover, in terms of their approach to life, transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau looked more like people who were going to act, whereas dark romantics like Poe and Hawthorne preferred to criticize and viewed positive change as a mere illusion.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance and Other Essays. 1841.Dover Publications, 2012.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Birthmark. 1843. Infomotions, 2000.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings. 1902. Bantam Dell, 1964.
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Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience: Resistance to Civil Government. 1849. The Floating Press, 2008.