The Romance (American History Through Literature)
The roots of the term "romance" lie in both the medieval romance (twelfth to sixteenth centuries) and European Romanticism (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Medieval romances appeared first in Old French literature in the twelfth century and typically were in verse, although prose romances appeared later. Originally, the term denoted a work in the vernacular Romance languages rather than in Latin. The former were the everyday languages spoken by persons in countries once part of the Roman Empire, including what are now France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. The subject matter of these romances was usually love (courtly love to be more specific) and heroic adventure (often both) with a significant supernatural and magical component. Romances were secular narratives as opposed to epic tales and myths but typically reaffirmed the western Christian mythos. The best examples in English are the Arthurian tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (fourteenth century). "The romance" has thus historically been associated with narratives of adventure, romance, and myth as opposed to realistic stories or portrayals of history, politics, or everyday life. This is one reason why, as European art and literature began to move consciously away from rigid formal rules and distrust of artistic innovation characteristic of the neoclassicism of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, critics and writers chose the term "Romantic" to describe any work that featured the experimental and imaginative exploration of the ideal rather than the conventional and realistic representation of the actual. Whereas neoclassicism had emphasized reason and rationality in intellectual and artistic life, the writers now closely associated with European Romanticism favored imagination over reason and experimentation over rigid adherence to formal rules.
By the late 1700s romance thus had come to refer broadly to any literary work that could be distinguished from works principally realistic in form and subject matter. The novel is considered a highly realistic form of fictional narrative that takes as its subject matter everyday realityhe parlor, the domestic scene, the country estatend renders it in close detail, paying attention to both verisimilitude and probability in plot, characterization, and theme. Medieval romances such as Sir Gawain render courtly life in detail, painstakingly chronicling the minutiae of such familiar scenes from everyday life as the arming of the hero or the hunt. They concern themselves with grand themes such as the nature of love, the chivalric ideal, or proper Christian conduct in a fallen world. The novel is not concerned with such ideals and certainly not with demonstrating the power of the imagination to go beyond the everyday except insofar as it provides insight into such fundamental aspects of humanity as personal identity and ethical decision making. As Terry Eagleton puts it:
Novels are romancesut romances which have to negotiate the prosaic world of modern civilization. They retain their romantic heroes and villains, wish-fulfillments and fairy-tale endings, but now these things have to be worked out in terms of sex and property, money and marriage, social mobility and the nuclear family. (P. 2)
American Romanticism in general and the romance in particular, however, are difficult to trace directly back to their major antecedents. Indeed, to claim that American Romanticism is an object of knowledge in the same way as are European and British Romanticism is to gloss over much of the material and literary history of the antebellum period. For one thing, by the time the writers now associated with the Romantic impulse in the United States began writing, including such figures as James Fenimore Cooper (1789851), Edgar Allan Poe (1809849), Herman Melville (1819891), and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864), European Romanticism was no longer a vibrant, growing cluster of parallel (but often isolated and unaffiliated) cultural movements. Many of the important European Romantic figures, such as Lord Byron (1788824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792822), and William Wordsworth (1770850) in England and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749832) in Germany, were dead. Furthermore, American readers generally preferred domestic and sentimental novels, history, and even poetry to the romances of the country's principal writers of experimental fiction; sales of Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), for example, far outstripped those of all four of Hawthorne's major romances and Melville's MobyDick (1851) combined. What might now be called romances were thus not very popular and certainly did not comprise a major literary movement at the time, only in retrospect. Melville, for example, was virtually forgotten by the time he died, and his work was only resurrected in the 1920s. Finally, the very usefulness of the term "romance" to describe the form taken by a minority of American antebellum novels is under debate. Although the word "romance" was initially defined negatively and simply as being un-novel-like (which is to say, unrealistic), critics have now shown that writers and critics in the period used the term in a variety of ways, many of them contradictory. The historical appropriateness of the term most often used to describe the style of the most significant antebellum writers is thus in question.
Romanticism in the antebellum period may best be understood as a second- (or even third-) generation emulation of European Romanticism from within a distinctly American historical context rather than as a cohesive, self-aware artistic movement. The definition of romance used to describe the practices of those American writers most influenced by European Romanticism must be broad and flexible rather than narrowly descriptive.
THE ROMANCE IN HISTORY
American romance emerged during a period of rapid historical growth and change. The United States was coming of age politically and economically and experiencing occasional tumultuous political conflict as a result. The very landscape and character of the country were changing at a rate the average American found unsettling at best. For example, it became commonplace for Americans to move far and often, splitting up the traditional family structure. The opening of the Erie Canal and especially the advent of the railroad began to erode regional differences, allowing for the flowering of a truly national culture and character but bringing with it cultural and economic pressures that threatened to dismantle long-established local traditions and political and material structures.
Jacksonian democracy unleashed powerful political and cultural forces. Its extension of suffrage beyond landowners and the upper class allowed a wider swath of the American populace to gain access to power and influence. Emergent divisions included farmers, nascent industrial workers, factory owners, and immigrantsll of whom were often at odds culturally and politically. Rapid industrialization fueled the growth of cities, putting their inhabitants' needs in conflict with the interests of farmers. Immigrants, who in the two decades before the Civil War were largely Catholic Germans and Irish, threatened to eclipse the country's Anglo-Protestant majority. The country's economy grew exponentially and rapidly, creating unease and bringing with it fairly regular economic downturns, including the panics of 1837 and 1857. Tensions among slave and nonslave states grew steadily throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the catastrophe of the American Civil War.
The massive territorial expansion and resulting displacement of the indigenous North Americans that occurred actually added to the pressures rather than relieved them; the question of whether the new territories were to be slave or free drove political discourse and political action in countless facets of American life. In the decades preceding the war Congress enacted a series of legislative compromises that left both sides dissatisfied and served only to escalate tensions. Finally, not to be overlooked is the impact the Mexican-American War (1846848) had on the American psyche, especially for its writers. The transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau's (1817862) refusal to pay his taxes in protest of the war is the most famous example, but a majority of American artists and intellectuals were disillusioned by the country's first experience of empire. Slavery was a horrific injustice that had been with the country since the eighteenth century, but the Mexican-American War was a war of aggression initiated with little justification other than to seize land and secure the country's expansion south and west. In the midst of this period of uncertainty, Americans struggled to define what it meant to be "American" and whether and how the American experiment in democracy would turn out.
There are many easy parallels between U.S. history and American romance. One of the first important critics of the country's romancers, F. O. Matthiessen, argued that all writers of what he termed the American Renaissance were united by their commitment to the promise of democracy. It is not surprising that the freedom and tumult of a country whose cultural and political centers shifted regularly produced art that was both experimental and at times as idealistic as the country imagined itself to be. Melville's whalers epitomized the pluralism rampant in the country, and Walt Whitman's great American epic poem, "Song of Myself" (1855), elevated the prostitute, the cabin boy, and the blacksmith, among countless other figures from the American scene, to heroic and mythic status. But critics have also shown how American romance interrogated American democracy at least as often as it celebrated it.
Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick (1851) has been seen as both a tyrant and a heroic but dangerous fanatic, the sort of figure democracies produce only to have them turn on the people who bring them to power. Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882) were deeply critical of capitalism and especially suspicious of its effect on individualism, something Romantics of all stripes valued above virtually everything else. And Hawthorne's recastings of early American history were some of the first attempts by an American writer to revisit and reevaluate the earliest and perhaps darkest glimmerings of the American experience. American romance was perhaps a natural result of a set of historical conditions that encouraged stri-dent personal expression and skepticism of established authority, as long as these were tempered by respect for the ideal and by the promise of republicanism variously defined. American romancers struggled in various ways to explore this complex milieu. As Hawthorne describes it in "The Artist of the Beautiful":
The chase of butterflies was an apt emblem of the ideal pursuit in which he had spent so many golden hours; but would the beautiful idea ever be yielded to his hand like the butterfly that symbolized it? . . . Alas, that the artist, whether in poetry, or whatever other material, may not content himself with the inward enjoyment of the beautiful, but must chase the flitting mystery beyond the verge of his ethereal domain, and crush its frail being in seizing it with a material grasp! (Pp. 45758)
BRIEF CRITICAL HISTORY
As a critical descriptor, the term "romance" was first authoritatively established by Richard Volney Chase in The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957):
The main difference between the novel and the romance is in the way in which they view reality. The novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail [sic] the romance is free to render reality in less volume and detail. . . . Character itself becomes, then, somewhat abstract and ideal. . . . The plot we may expect to be highly colored. Astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility. (Pp. 123)
Chase's work was largely a formalist attempt to establish a descriptive, genre theory of the American novel form, and he was following a well-accepted distinction that could be traced back some 150 years. New Historicists and others who have done much important work in recovering a historical rather than strictly formalist understanding of the period have demonstrated that "romance" was used variously and often conflictingly by writers and critics and that Chase's account is ahistorical at best. Nina Baym, for example, has documented how nineteenth-century critics used "romance" and "novel" virtually interchangeably. Equally important, antebellum critics rarely if ever discussed the novel-romance dichotomy in the terms established by Chase. In Baym's words:
There were reviews and essays that did make an effort to distinguish the two terms, but definitions varied from review to review. . . . In many cases the distinction appears to be entirely ad hoc; the reviewer is developing an idiosyncratic scheme and calls on these two words to make a point in a classification not duplicated in other critical writings. (Novels, p. 228)
In the context of nineteenth-century literary theory, then "romance" meant nothing other than "fiction" as opposed to nonfictionhe essay or historynd the writers who used it simply intended to distinguish their work from works of fact.
Michael Davitt Bell goes so far as to argue that as it was used by critics, romance denoted little or nothing vis-à-vis the realism-romance distinction so germane to discussions of European Romanticism:
To describe romance in this way was not, finally, to distinguish it from realism or mimesis, for the general run of nineteenth-century comments on romance distinguish it not from realism but from reality. . . . What matters most, then, in discussions of romance is neither content nor form but psychological motive and effect. (P. xii)
But as any cursory perusal of the major critical studies of the antebellum novel makes clear, readers of preivil War American fiction must decide for themselves what romance means, taking into consideration antebellum critical and writerly practices; historical studies of audience and reception; and most importantly, the novels themselves. For example, Charles Feidelson has argued that it is the romancer's use of the "symbolistic imagination" that gives the romance its essential character. R. W. B. Lewis focuses on the Adamic myth he believes manifests itself throughout the tradition, whereas Harry Levin has tried to show that the tradition is best understood in terms of the "power of blackness" (a phrase coined by Melville to describe Hawthorne's work) present in the best examples of the form. Evan Carton focuses on how the American romance takes the very distinction between fact and fiction as both form and content. It is thus a "self-consciously dialectical enactment of critical and philosophical concerns about the relation of words to things and the nature of the self " (Carton, p. 1). Finally, Emily Miller Budick notes that although all romances reject mimesis, they also "insist on the reality of history and society in order to cast doubt on the mind's autonomy and to force the imagination to consider something outside itself" (p. ix).
What is important in understanding American romance is that the term does not apply to all novels of the antebellum period but is rather an approach to writing novels characteristic of several of the writers from the antebellum period most associated with the Romantic impulse in the United States. Romance may be regarded as a diverse array of supremely imaginative and experimental narrative modes. Melville and Hawthorne are perhaps the two best examples: Melville for how he practiced romance, and Hawthorne for how comprehensively he attempted to define it.
THE ROMANCER'S CRAFT
American romance chooses to sacrifice mimetic realism in hopes of achieving a heightened sense of the "Romantic" as it has been traditionally defined (see above). It is characteristically self-conscious in its forms and themes, tending heavily toward the experimental. As the romance moves away from the domain of the realistic novel, it approaches the poetic, the mythic, and the symbolic. Whereas realistic novels take as their subject matter the everyday, the romance strives to leap beyond the everyday to the universal and transcendent. For example, in Moby-Dick, Melville exhaustively chronicles the minutiae of life on a nineteenth-century American whale ship, but in so doing he strives to go beyond the everyday to the very underpinnings of philosophy, politics, history, and the problems of human existence. As he discusses the significance of the whiteness of the whale, the book's narrator, Ishmael, muses beyond the color white to the very depths of the human condition: What is it about whiteness that so provokes the imagination?
Is it by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? . . . of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? (P. 195)
Romance is also highly self-conscious. It typically takes fictionality as one of its themes and so tends to be highly experimental in form, something critics in the period typically viewed with skepticism. American writers of romance shared the view that an artist should explore the limits of established literary genres and conventions creating new ones as needed. Poe is credited with inventing both the mystery story and science fiction, for example. Charles Brockden Brown's (1771810) novels recast the familiar gothic novel form in an American mold, replacing the medieval castle with the American frontier while retaining the gothic's penchant for the irrational and the mysterious. Melville broke new ground with each successive novel, challenging readers and critics in the process, so much so that one New York paper greeted the appearance of his sixth novel, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), with a headline declaring its author insane.
Hawthorne also played with established conventions. In "The Custom-House," the preface to The Scarlet Letter (1850), the relation of the actual to the imaginary is taken under consideration in a characteristically Romantic manner: as both form and content. Although prefaces usually function as part of the proscenium or narrative frame, setting off what follows as "just pretend," it is quickly apparent that Hawthorne's preface is a fiction all its own. Specifically, it is the story of how Hawthorne came to write the tale of Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, but by the end the narrator of the preface has been transformed from Nathaniel Hawthorne, real-life custom surveyor victimized by his political enemies, to a purely fictive and highly creative imaginative voice. Instead of providing a factual ground for the fiction which follows, the facts of the sketch themselves thus become fictions, allowing Hawthorne to explore one of the fundamental components of the literary transaction: the relationships among authors and readers, fact and fiction. The preface makes clear that for Hawthorne, romance involves experimentation, play, metafictional allusion, and narrative gamesmanship.
Insofar as writers in the period attempted to define the romance explicitly, Hawthorne's prefaces form the most important primary sources. In the prefaces to all four of his major romances, he describes his craft in provocative if not entirely unambiguous detail. Taken as a whole, they advocate for the "sacrifice with relation" most critics agree romance takes as its first principle and expound on the benefits the romancer hopes to achieve. The payoff is that in so doing the writer creates a space somewhere between the fantastic and the everyday within which to explore the imaginative, formal, and thematic possibilities of the subject matter. In "The Custom-House," this effect is described as follows:
Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,aking every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,s a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. . . . the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. (Pp. 356)
And as might be expected, critics have written volumes on Hawthorne's characteristic practice of the romance mode. For the purposes here it is sufficient to note that the prefaces form a manifesto of sorts for American romance, advocating the benefits of experimentation in form and theme and demonstrating in the romances themselves how shunning mimesis perhaps allows for a deeper penetration into the entire range of human desires and behaviors, including sin, shame, jealousy, envy, and murder, among countless others.
See also The Blithedale Romance; "The Custom-House"; Democracy; The House of the Seven Gables; Individualism and Community; Literary Criticism; Moby-Dick; Romanticism; The Scarlet Letter
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Michael J. Davey