Discuss the concept of "innocence" in American writing of the 19th century.
It was a pristine land that the Puritans found in America and the Rev. Winthrop declared that they must be "as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people...upon us." With a society patterned after God's word, the Puritans hoped to maintain an innocence lost in Europe. Later, creating a uniquely American hero, Natty Bumppo, James Fenimore Cooper portrays an innocent and virtuous frontiersman, whose love of nature, simple morality, superb resourcefulness, and distrust of urbanity mark him as a true Romantic:
[His facial ]expression was simply that of guileless truth, sustained by an earnestness of purpose, and a sincerity of feeling, that rendered it remarkable.
Underscoring this concept of the innocent man in the 19th century, the Transcendentalists furthered the belief that man can preserve or regain his innocence in a return to Nature whose quest offers a higher truth. Although Herman Melville denied that America could become "a New World Eden," his character Ishmael of Moby Dick can be interpreted as a prototype of the innocent who flees society, or is cast out (as his name implies) for the sea that can cleanse him. He tells readers,
Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it.
One literary critic writes of Ishmael,
Like a heroic Old World Adam, Ishmael leaves his physical world toward spiritual depth (toward the sea), suffers into knowledge and spiritual rebirth, [and] returns to the human race....(Ch 1)
Certainly, the thirteen-year-old Huckleberry Finn is an innocent who encounters the corruptions of society in the persons of the duke and the king, the feuding Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, thieves, and in his experience with slavery. But, like Ishmael, Huck returns to the healing powers of water as he retreats to the raft on which he and Jim float down the Mississippi River. Indeed, it is on the water that Huck finds his moral conscience and spiritual rebirth as he repudiates slavery and refuses to report Jim's capture and being held at the Phelp's plantation; instead, he decides to rescue his friend.
Again, the innocence and spiritual rebirth that can be attained in nature is depicted by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel about sin, The Scarlet Letter. For, when the adultress Hester Prynne, who ingenuously sought love with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, meets the minister in the pristine forest and casts off her bonnet and scarlet letter into the cleansing waters of the brook, her hair regains its lustrous sheen,
a radiant and tender smile" appears upon her face, and a "crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale....Such was the sympathy of Nature...with the bliss of these two spirits!
Moreover, their child Pearl is symbolic of the innocence yet in Hester and Dimmesdale as she is described as an elf, a sprite, and the like.
The great Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau write extensively of the nourishment of Nature to the innocence of man. Having gone to Walden Pond to learn the essentials of life, Thoreau discovers that man must "Simplify, simplify, simplify" and live innocently with only the essentials, thus avoiding corrupting traits. Likewise, Emerson advocates that man retire from society and commune with Nature where truth is to be found. Society, Emerson contends that society is "in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" as it forces conformity and rejection of natural innocence.