Also known as the New England Renaissance, the American Renaissance refers to a period of American literature from the 1830s to the end of the Civil War. The movement developed out of efforts by various American writers to formulate a distinctly American literature influenced by great works of European literature. Yet these novels, poems, and short stories utilized native dialect, history, landscape, and characters in order to explore uniquely American issues of the time, such as abolitionism, temperance, religious tolerance, scientific progress, the expanding western frontier, and the Native American situation.
Short fiction of the American Renaissance encompassed a broad range of subjects, settings, and styles—including Gothic romance, detective and horror stories, sea tales, historical fiction of colonial America, and progressive social problem tales, among others—all of which contributed to the first generation of great American literature. Critics consider the shorter work of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lydia Maria Child, as well as the posthumously published sensational thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, as representative of American Renaissance short fiction. These authors viewed the short story or novella as a viable form in which to produce parables that explored literary and political concerns. Critics regard some of the short fiction produced during the American Renaissance as some of the best American fiction ever written.
The American Renaissance was closely associated with an intellectual movement known as Transcendentalism, which is a philosophy or system of thought based on the idea that humans are essentially good, that humanity's deepest truths may be formulated through insight rather than logic, and that there is an essential unity to all of creation. Transcendentalism in the United States became popular among scholars, ministers, and intellectuals in and around Concord, Massachusetts. The American Transcendentalists advocated the development of a national culture and efforts at humanitarian social reform, as well as debate on such issues as the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, workers’ rights, educational innovation, and freedom of religion. The magazine The Dial, founded in 1840 by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, served as a forum for the publication of fiction, poetry, and essays by leading American Transcendentalists and writers of the American Renaissance, such as the poet Walt Whitman and the essayists Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Fuller, and Emerson.
Louisa May Alcott
Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1975
Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1976
A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1988
Freaks of Genius: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1991
Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1995
Lydia Maria Child
The Coronal: A Collection of Miscellaneous Pieces, Written at Various Times (sketches) 1832; enlarged edition published as The Mother's Story Book; or, Western Coronal, 1833
The Oasis [editor and contributor] (sketches) 1834
Fact and Fiction: A Collection of Stories (short stories) 1846; republished as The Children of Mt. Ida, and Other Stories, 1871
Autumnal Leaves: Tales and Sketches in Prose and Rhyme (sketches and short stories) 1857
Looking Toward Sunset [editor and contributor] (sketches) 1865
Twice-Told Tales (short stories) 1837; also published as Twice-Told Tales [enlarged edition] 1842
Mosses from an Old Manse (short stories) 1846
The Snow Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (short stories) 1851
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile (novella)...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: O'Brien, Edward J. “Hawthorne and Melville” and “Poe.” In The Advance of the American Short Story, pp. 42-87. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1923.
[In the following essay, O'Brien discusses the contributions of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe to the development of the American short story.]
Few writers whose life was so uneventful as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne have left more biographical materials of their work for the critic. Of the many paradoxes which his life and writings reveal, none is more remarkable than the fact that a man whose shyness held him exceptionally aloof from men should have so frankly set down his dreams and hopes, his frustrations and disillusions, and shown no repugnance to their publication during his own lifetime. To the psychologist these materials, as well as the diaries and other records published posthumously by his son and others, are invaluable, and offer an unusual opportunity, of which little advantage has as yet been taken, to trace the process of crystallization in a fine artist's work, and the resolution in literature of the personal conflicts in an exceptionally sensitive nature. At some later time, I should like to study these materials at greater length. For the present, I must content myself with calling attention to a few hitherto unstressed biographical matters before passing on to a valuation of Hawthorne's contribution to the American short...
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SOURCE: Buell, Lawrence. “A Narrative Overview of New England's Literary Development.” In New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance, pp. 23-55. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
[In the following excerpt, Buell provides an overview of developments in New England literature between 1815 and 1865.]
Let us start by thinking of New England's literary climate at midcentury as affected most powerfully by a Unitarian-Whig orthodoxy, emanating chiefly from Boston, that was, however, enriched and complicated by a strong dissenting force that had arisen from within it and by considerable literary activity that was on the upswing in other quarters beyond its periphery. The literary aspect of this orthodoxy was a conservative sort of Romanticism first espoused by the Boston literary establishment during the 1820s and 1830s, which commended literature as a vehicle of moral advancement, approved the hopeful Romantic vision of human nature's capacity for improvement, prizing reason rather than emotion as the proper means to that improvement while at the same time granting a secure place for the latter under the ambiguous heading of “moral sentiment” and recommending as literary models—after a long, fond, lingering look backward to the Augustans—1 Wordsworth in poetry and in fiction Scott. Wordsworth's inspiring didacticism and Scott's regional...
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SOURCE: Steele, Jeffrey. “Materializing the Psyche: The Counterexample of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville.” In The Representation of the Self in the American Renaissance, pp. 134-71. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Steele argues that the fiction of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville provide a counterexample to the Transcendentalist writings of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman.]
TRANSPARENCY OR MASQUERADE
It makes a great deal of difference whether or not the self is seen as incarnating transcendent spiritual power. If God—as Emerson believed—is found at the root of the psyche, one's attitude toward psychic phenomena such as intuitive promptings can be one of faith, of subordination to a “higher” power. In Emerson's view the language of the self needs to be made “transparent” in order to reveal the presence of the transcendental signified that he locates in the unconscious. But even though Emerson dreamed of subordinating language to “the unveiling of an unambiguous spiritual or moral truth,” he encountered in his literary practice the intractability of words that could not be entirely shaped to the contours of transcendent power.1 While the new American scholar is to embody in his language “the sacred germ of his instinct” (CW [The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson], 1:61), “the pure...
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SOURCE: Reynolds, David S. “Black Cats and Delirium Tremens: Temperance and the American Renaissance.” In The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, edited by David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal, pp. 22-59. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Reynolds asserts that the writers of American Renaissance literature presented a reconceptualization of the temperance movement in the antebellum era.]
America's literary flowering between 1835 and 1860, commonly known as the American Renaissance, owed much to the temperance movement that burgeoned in several forms during these years. No other single reform had so widespread an impact upon American literature as temperance, largely because of its extraordinary cultural prominence. In particular, the Washingtonian movement, which during the 1840s infiltrated nearly every area of working-class life, made temperance an inescapable phenomenon. As one popular writer noted in 1846, the typical American town had not only frequent temperance lectures but also “temperance negro operas; temperance theaters; temperance eating houses, and temperance every thing, and our whole population, in places, is soused head-over-heels in temperance.”1 Although the campaign against drink did affect alcohol consumption, which dropped from the equivalent of around ten gallons of absolute alcohol per American...
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SOURCE: Siebers, Tobin. “Hawthorne's Appeal and Romanticism.” In The American Renaissance: New Dimensions, edited by Harry R. Garvin and Peter C. Carafiol, pp. 100-117. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983.
[In the following essay, Siebers maintains that Hawthorne utilizes the literary traditions of Gothicism and Romanticism in his stories in order to critique New England's history of witch trials.]
Great literature expresses history, that is, explicates it. Yet part of the literary expression of history may be contingent upon history's capacity to explicate itself. One domain in which this capacity reveals itself concerns the role of the fantastic or the supernatural in art and society.1 In the eighteenth century, the Rationalists work to demystify all forms of supernatural representation, religious and magical, because they associate it with the violence of ideological persecution. Their attempt to eradicate such victimization, however, is only partially successful insofar as they maintain an aggressive attitude toward believers in religion and magic. In a fashion exemplary of the Enlightenment, Voltaire recommends the execution of magicians not because they are witches but because they are idiots. Although the Rationalists make popular the fact of persecution, they do not consider the possibility that they themselves might be persecutors. To combat Rationalism, the...
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SOURCE: Jay, Gregory S. “Poe: Writing and the Unconscious.” In The American Renaissance: New Dimensions, edited by Harry R. Garvin and Peter C. Carafiol, pp. 144-69. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983.
[In the following essay, Jay discusses the discourse of sexuality, philosophy, and textuality in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.]
Can the dispossession of consciousness to the profit of another home of meaning be understood as an act of reflection, as the first gesture of reappropriation?
—Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy
But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master of its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind. We psychoanalysts were not the first and not the only ones to utter this call to introspection.
—Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
But evil things, in robes of sorrow, Assailed the monarch's high estate … And, round about his home, the glory That blushed and bloomed Is but a dim-remembered story Of the old time entombed.
—“The Haunted Palace”...
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SOURCE: Current-García, Eugene. “Poe's Short Fiction.” In The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History, pp. 59-83. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
[In the following essay, Current-García discusses major thematic and stylistic elements of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.]
When Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore on 7 October 1849 he had written and published, during the preceding twenty years, between seventy and eighty tales and sketches, some of which had been republished, with certain revisions, a number of times in different magazines. Many of his tales and sketches also reappeared in three collections during the last decade of his life: Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a two-volume collection containing twenty-five pieces, 1840; The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe, a small volume containing only “The Murders in the Rue Morge” and “The Man That Was Used Up,” 1843; and Tales, which contained twelve pieces, published in 1845.1
As in the case of Hawthorne's canon, the difficulty of pinning down the precise number of tales and sketches that Poe wrote and published is due in part to uncertainty regarding some early prose writings attributed to him, which may or may not have been his work, and to the question of whether to consider some of Poe's reworked and retitled tales as separate ones or to call them simply variant versions of the...
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SOURCE: Lee, A. Robert. “Voices Off and On: Melville's Piazza and Other Stories.” In The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story, edited by A. Robert Lee, pp. 76-102. London: Vision, 1985.
[In the following essay, Lee discusses Melville's use of narrative voice to express multiple perspectives in his short stories.]
In summer, too, Canute-like, one is often reminded of the sea. For not only do long ground-swells roll the slanting grain, and little wavelets of the grass ripple over upon the low piazza, as their beach, and the blown down of dandelions is wafted like the spray, and the purple of the mountains is just the purple of the billows, and a still August noon broods upon the deep meadows, as a calm upon the Line; but the vastness and the lonesomeness are so oceanic, and the silence and the sameness, too, that the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail.
And this recalls my inland voyage to fairy-land. A true voyage; but, take it all in all, interesting as if invented.
—‘The Piazza', Piazza Tales (1856)
So, part-way into ‘The Piazza', Melville has his narrator assume the voice of an evidently poetical ex-mariner. Just previously, he has...
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SOURCE: Rosenblum, Joseph. “A Cock Fight between Melville and Thoreau.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 2 (spring 1986): 159-67.
[In the following essay, Rosenblum argues that Melville's short story “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo” represents a critique of Thoreau's Transcendentalism as expressed in his volume A Week.]
In 1948 Egbert S. Oliver suggested that Melville's “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” was intended as a satire “on the buoyant transcendental principles which Melville heard echoing and re-echoing in the New England hills, especially those emanating from Concord, and, more particularly, a passage from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.”1 Since the appearance of Oliver's article, most critics have agreed that in this story Melville was attacking Thoreau, though there has been some disagreement on the precise butt of the satire. Thus, William Bysshe Stein claimed that it was a response to a passage in “Walking,” and more recently Allan Moore Emery has suggested that the story may allude to a number of Thoreau's works—A Week, “Walking,” and even some of his contributions to The Dial.2 Without quarreling with these suggestions, this essay seeks to demonstrate that Melville has implicated Thoreau, particularly through repeated allusions to A Week, far more extensively than anyone has yet noted. Further, it maintains that Thoreau was not...
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SOURCE: Hazlett, John Downton. “Re-Reading ‘Rappucccini's Daughter’: Giovanni and the Seduction of the Transcendental Reader.” ESQ 35, no. 1 (1989): 43-68.
[In the following essay, Hazlett considers the themes of romance and seduction in relation to Transcendentalism in Hawthorne's short story “Rappucini's Daughter.”]
Not surprisingly, most interpretations of “Rappaccini's Daughter” have been launched on the assumption that Hawthorne was writing one of his usual “blasted allegories.” Hawthorne himself invites such a reading in the story's self-mocking, self-advertising preface by creating a fictional editor who introduces the work as the production of a French author named M. de l'Aubépine (the French word for Hawthorne), whose meager reputation is partly the result of his “inveterate love of allegory.”1 So readers have regularly pushed off in their critical barks in quest of the allegorical meaning of the story's most problematic character, Beatrice. On the basis of the discoveries made in this search, they construct a general allegorical interpretation of the tale. This approach has yielded several rich readings, but none of them quite satisfactorily explains either the inconsistent use of symbolic conventions in the tale or the ambiguities of Beatrice's character.2 The re-reading I offer here is that Hawthorne, a writer with immense capacities for...
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SOURCE: Tallack, Douglas. “Not Unoriginal: Herman Melville's Short Stories.” In The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story: Language, Form and Ideology, pp. 140-80. London: Routledge, 1993.
[In the following essay, Tallack examines Melville's use of narrative technique and point-of-view in “The Town-Ho's Story.”]
That would be too long a story …
—Herman Melville, ‘The Town-Ho's Story’
Shortly before its publication in 1851 as Chapter 54 of Moby-Dick, ‘The Town-Ho's Story’ appeared in an issue of Harper's Magazine accompanied by a footnote which read: ‘From “The Whale”. The title of a new work by Mr Melville, in the press of Harper's and Brothers, and now publishing in London by Mr Bentley’ (Melville 1851: 658). Later in 1851 the Baltimore Weekly Sun and the Cincinnati Daily Gazette also carried the story with similar footnoted explanations. The dual generic reference implicit in this minor incident in American literary history is tied up with the more abstract issue of the status of ‘The Town-Ho's Story', a short story which contextualizes Moby-Dick while coming from it. The footnote is also a reminder of the external circumstances in which literature is received, a concern that the story conveys as a thematic...
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SOURCE: Mills, Bruce. “Literary Excellence and Social Reform: Lydia Maria Child's Ultraisms for the 1840s.” In American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 3-16. New York: Garland, 1995.
[In the following essay, Mills analyzes Child's short stories in the context of her work as an abolitionist, social reformer, and transcendentalist.]
Fifteen months after retiring from a tumultuous two-year editorship of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Lydia Maria Child voiced astonishment over the literary success of Letters from New York (1845), a collection of journalistic transcendental essays first printed in the pages of her abolitionist newspaper. “The great popularity of [Letters] surprises me,” she wrote, “for it is full of ultraisms.” Encouraged by this success, Child announced that she meant “to devote the remainder of [her] life to the attainment of literary excellence” (Selected Letters 209). Between January 1845 and May 1848, her devotion to her art took the form of 24 stories and sketches published in the Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine and the Union Magazine of Literature and Art. To twentieth-century scholars, her efforts to craft an artistic vision consistent with both her literary and reformist views raise intriguing questions: What does her magazine fiction reveal about her (and...
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Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking, 2000, 161 p.
A concise biography of Herman Melville.
Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994, 804 p.
A biography of Lydia Maria Child, discussed in the cultural, historical, and political context of her time.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992, 348 p.
Biographical study of Edgar Allan Poe.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991, 596 p.
Comprehensive biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Stern, Madeleine [B.]. Louisa May Alcott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950, 424 p.
Respected biography that has been influential in generating further research into Alcott's life and works.
Benesch, Laus. Romantic Cyborgs: Authorship and Technology in the American Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, 246 p.
Essays on the intersection of American Renaissance literature and the discourse of technology in...
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