The Legacy Of Reform - The Tumult Of Reform
american america hawthorne innocence defined
For good or for ill, ante-bellum reformers had defined the dimensions of the abuses that marred the American dream. They compelled the nation to look upon social injustice and they proposed solutions. They refused to allow the American conscience to continue its undisturbed sleep. They delivered a manifesto of conscience which stated that the abuses of society were the responsibility of the individual. With uncompromising clarity, they told a republic of free men that the price of freedom is individual responsibility. Unfortunately, although they recognized the price of a free society, they failed to plumb the depths of the problems with which they dealt. It was sufficient for them to know that wrong existed and that they had right on their side, for they were convinced that so armed they could not fail to triumph.
The Literary Dissent. As the reformer struggled to reconstruct the world about him, America witnessed an explosion of literary genius unmatched before or again in the nineteenth century. Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and a host of lesser lights wrote poetry, short stories, and novels which were major contributions to the literature of the English language. And they explored themes that were peculiarly American. With harsh exactitude, Hawthorne defined the dilemma of the American writer who would write romance: Europe alone provided the "poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon as they are . . . in America." Imagination alone permitted flight from the omnipresent realities of America. "No author, without a trial," Hawthorne groaned, "can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity in broad and simple daylight."
The Theme of Innocence. As Hawthorne suggests, the American lived in a world where the illusion existed that a primeval innocence had been regained. Yet, from the pen of Melville came the great novel, Moby Dick, which told of the American Ahab's struggle to master the elements. In the vast American wilderness, he seemed to say, "lonely death" followed "lonely life." The American slaughtered the desolation of the frontier, only to be recaptured by a relentless past in which the ancient corruption of mankind reasserted itself. The theme of innocence-lost agitated even the jubilant poetry of Walt Whitman, who wrote: O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me, O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you, Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations, Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me, Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night, By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon, The messenger there arous'd, the fire, the sweet hell within, The unknown want, the destiny of me.
But the Americans of mid-century made the gallant fight, hoping to redeem what they thought to be the last best hope of mankind: their America.