Antebellum America: Literature, Art

In the first half of the nineteenth century, an American national literature was born. Naturally accompanying it was the first American reference work, Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. While Webster's work did not create American English, the dictionary did declare the independence of American usage. Webster insisted on using American spellings, such as “plow” for “plough”; taking the “u” out of such words as “labour” and “honour”; and writing definitions taken from American life.

Another important literary milestone was Ralph Waldo Emerson's “American Scholar,” an address he gave at Harvard in 1837. At a time when many in the United States remained in awe of European culture, he argued that Americans were self‐reliant enough to develop a literature reflecting their own national character. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” he told his audience. Emerson espoused transcendentalism, which proclaimed that intuition and experience provided knowledge and truth just as effectively as did the intellect, that man is innately good, and that there is unity in the entire creation.

Emerson's “American Scholar” speech and transcendentalism both influenced and reflected an impressive flowering of American literature. The country's literary centers were New England and New York. From New England came the historical works of George Bancroft ( History of the United States, ten volumes, the first published in 1834), Francis Parkman ( The Oregon Trail, 1849), and William H. Prescott ( History of the Conquest of Mexico, 1843) as well as the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Emily Dickinson (although Dickinson did most of her writing after the Civil War). Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller were the region's most noted authors. New York produced Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman; Edgar Allen Poe, though bom in Virginia, did most of his writing in New York and Philadelphia.

James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was among the first writers to appreciate the value of the frontier as a distinctly American literary setting. Beginning with the Pioneers (1823), he created a body of work that celebrates the courage and adventuresomeness of the American character and explores the conflict between the wilderness and the advance of civilization. His five novels featuring the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, collectively known as the “Leatherstocking Tales” and including such classics as the Last of the Mohicans (1826) and the Deerslayer (1841), were all bestsellers. Cooper portrayed nature as something to be used but protected and not conquered.

Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau's fame rests on two works, neither of which received much attention during his lifetime. Walden (1854) is an account of two years he spent in his cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. The stay was an experiment in self‐sufficiency, a reaction to what the transcendentalists saw as growing commercialism and materialism in American society. Although Thoreau did not completely cut himself off from civilization during his stay, he believed that only in nature could individuals really understand themselves and the purpose of life.

In 1846, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War, which he, like many abolitionists, saw as nothing more than an attempt to expand slavery. He spent one night in jail before the tax was paid by a relative. To explain his actions, he wrote “Civil Disobedience” (1849), stating, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right,” a position that reflected the individualism of the transcendentalists taken to an extreme. Although ignored in the nineteenth century, Thoreau's discourse influenced Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle for the independence of India and the American civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s.

Walt Whitman. In 1855, Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which he continued to revise, rearrange, and enlarge until his death in 1892. A revolutionary work that greatly influenced American poetry, it expressed Whitman's love for his country in lusty and controversial free verse that included homoerotic images. While many critics at the time found Leaves crude and vulgar, Emerson found Whitman's poetry to be decidedly American, democratic and plain. Whitman shared Thoreau's abolitionist sentiments, but the two parted company on politics; Whitman had an unbridled faith in democratic government, despite its imperfections.

Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. Nathaniel Hawthorne was fascinated by the dark side of the Puritan mind. His novels, especially the Scarlet Letter (1850) and the House of Seven Gables (1851), dealt with revenge, guilt, and pride. Although he had been involved with Brook Farm and wrote the Blithedale Romance (1852) based on his experiences there, Hawthorne did not share the transcendentalists' faith in the perfectibility of man.

Herman Melville, unlike many of the writers before the Civil War, did not receive recognition for his work while he was alive. His first novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were set in the South Pacific, where he had visited as a sailor. Moby‐Dick (1851), based on Melville's experiences on a whaling ship, was not appreciated as one of the great works of American fiction until the 1920s.

Edgar Allan Poe focused on literary genres different from those of his contemporaries: the short story and short poem. His work reflected his own pessimistic outlook on life and focused chiefly on the mental state of the characters. He is credited with pioneering detective fiction in such stories as the “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1843) and gothic horror in the “Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and the “Tell‐Tale Heart” (1843).

American art. In the decades before the Civil War, a distinctive style of American landscape painting attracted considerable attention. The Hudson River school, comprising such artists as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Asher Durand, captured on canvas the massive trees, sparkling water, and lush American environment, conveying a sense of the majesty and mystery of the wilderness that was quickly disappearing. Just as Emerson had claimed that Americans should write about themselves in their own place, Cole noted in an essay published in 1836 that it was not necessary for artists to go to Europe to find subjects for their paintings: “American scenery… has features, and glorious ones, unknown to Europe. The most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.”