Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Critical Essays

Introduction

Richard Henry Dana, Sr. 1787-1879

(Also wrote under pseudonym of The Idle Man) American essayist, poet, editor, short story writer, critic, and lecturer.

Considered a minor literary figure, Dana was among the first American literary critics to be a proponent of romanticism. Following his conversion to Congregationalism in 1827, Dana rejected the romantic mode and began a sustained conservative attack on what he saw as the paucity of American culture.

Biographical Information

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1787, Dana was the youngest of five children. After schooling in Newport, Rhode Island, he entered Harvard College in 1804, but was expelled three years later for taking part in a student rebellion. Dana's hopes of a comfortable career as an independent man of letters were severely compromised when his brother Francis lost much of the family fortune in property speculations. Admitted to the bar in 1812, Dana married Ruth Charlotte Smith one year later. When the North American Review was founded in 1815, Dana became a contributor, and in 1818 he was named assistant editor. His outspoken review of William Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets countered the prevailing neoclassical critical fashion and he was denied the editorship of the journal, causing him to resign from his post. In 1821 Dana began to publish a new periodical, The Idle Man, but it ran only six issues. Following his wife's death in 1822, Dana was influenced by the revival movement led by Lyman Beecher and, in 1826, he converted to Congregationalism and began to write on religious matters. In the latter part of his career, faced with penury, Dana extended the range of his literary endeavors, writing poetry, teaching English literature, and lecturing on Shakespeare. Suffering from failing health, Dana retired to his house at Cape Ann and died there on February 2, 1879.

Major Works

Dana's broad literary output included poetry, short fiction, book reviews, lectures, and essays. His first publications were reviews and critical essays for The Monthly Anthology and its successor, the North American Review. Dana's notorious review of Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets, in which he praised William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the expense of neoclassical poet Alexander Pope, established his reputation in Boston as a romantic iconoclast. Dana's early prose fiction, such as the gothic tale "Paul Felton" (1822), is characterized by its exploration of the supernatural and the psychology of the imagination. Dana published his first volume of poetry, The Buccaneer and Other Poems (1827), at the behest of his friend William Cullen Bryant, and followed it with Poems and Prose Writings (1833). A two-volume edition of the Poems and Prose Writings was published in 1850. Of Dana's poems, the long poem "The Buccaneer" has helped sustain his reputation as a noteworthy poet. In 1838 Dana began a series of seven lectures on Shakespeare, but these remain unpublished. His later essays reveal his rejection of the romantic mode and offer a conservative critique of American cultural shallowness and anti-intellectualism, conditions which stemmed, Dana believed, from America's passion for social equality and its disinterest in the past.

Critical Reception

The strength and independence of Dana's literary opinions often exposed him to censure. During his period of literary activity, his work met with both critical hostility and public indifference, but it was also well received by many reviewers and, for a time, he enjoyed a solid reputation as a serious literary figure. Many of Dana's contemporaries found his poetry stronger in conception than performance. Often viewed as a provocative essayist and an idiosyncratic reviewer, Dana left an intellectual stamp on his work which enhanced his essays and sometimes damaged his poems. His philosophical seriousness was at times taken for Calvinist brooding, and he was criticized for his gloomy tone. Although his lectures on Shakespeare were prompted by financial expediency, they were generally well received. Modern critics, such as Doreen Hunter and Robert A. Ferguson, have focused their analyses of Dana's work on his rejection of romanticism in favor of his later conservative views of religion and law. Dana's professional life ended in obscurity; he lived long enough to see his own career eclipsed by that of his son, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.