Archive for March, 2014
It’s hard to avoid superlatives when talking about Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She was practically unknown as a writer in her own time and, very probably, had she published more than the hand-few of works that were ever made available during her life, she would have met with almost no success, since her form of writing was not at all in sympathy with the poetic expectations of the mid-to-late 1800s (a fact that can be gauged by the many changes that were systematically made by her publishers who either misunderstood her authorial intentions or simply disagreed with them). But subsequent critical appraisal of her poetry has been extraordinary positive in its assessment, to the extent that she is now unquestionably viewed as a fundamental ‘element’ in American literature, one of the two or three major creators of a genuinely “American” poetic voice and a hugely influential precursor of later poetic development in the English language.
Some of the many things that are traditionally observed of Dickinson are her domestic, introspective vision (one that contrasts very emphatically with the more broadly narrative and expansive ideals of American writing in the 1800s, which aimed—in part, at least—to reflect and express the sense of adventure and achievement that motored the move ever westward), her ‘cerebral’, almost metaphysical, preoccupation with the tiny details of everyday life, and her curious attachment to the ballad form, its reassuringly simple and mostly unvarying structure serving as a sort of architectural template, to be used again and again for her widely varying reflections.
All of this is true and is worth attention. But the element of her poetry that I would most like to focus on is the way in which her writing is so dramatically not of its time. In the same way that it is hard to avoid superlatives in referring to this poetry, it is equally hard to avoid over-emphasising the extent to which Dickinson was ahead of itself. Not by a decade or so, not even by a generation: Emily Dickinson is such a revolutionarily distinct poet within the context of the C19 that she can fairly be said to be 50, 60, 80, 100 years in advance of other writers. By this I mean that her own form of poetic expression would have been artistically valid in the 1950s, 1960s, the 1990s or even today. This is truly extraordinary.
Where do we find the extraordinariness of her writing? That’s not an easy thing to say, but there are a few elements that mark this poetry as unique and ground-breaking. To start with, as we saw in our last session, there is Dickinson’s intense word play, one that always revolves around the particular phonic quality of her word choice, as if she is testing her ideas through sound. We also notice that her writing is characterised by what is, for the mid 1800s, a breathtaking freedom from following the regulations and impositions of conventional syntax and prosody, an aspect that would have found little favour in her own world but which has become greatly valued in our postmodern times. And the overall effect of all this—often disconcerting and somewhat mysterious—is a meditative body of work that makes much earlier poetry appear stilted and artificial in comparison. It is hardly a surprise to discover that Dickinson’s poetic expression would be something enormously valued by Modernist writers, another group whose contemplative, experimental forms of writing would stand in stark contrast to conventional ideas about ‘normal’ writing.
This week, changing substantially from the mid-century prose fiction of Hawthorne and Melville, we started looking at the cultural movement known as Transcendentalism. We noticed that this movement actually means many things, some of them apparently contradictory.
If we’re looking for a parallelism that might help us to readily understand the broad parameters of this movement, it may help to think of British Romanticism, an aesthetic and philosophical rejection of the rationality of the Enlightenment. Similarly, Transcendentalism reacts against the rationality underlying the philosophical movement called Harvard Intellectualism (an Enlightenment-like approach to the great intellectual questions of the day) and against the religious beliefs of Unitarianism, which—to summarise greatly—differs from other Christian churches in denying the existence of the Trinity and, in consequence, forwards a more obviously rational explanation of divinity than the essential mystical union of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Like Romanticism, Transcendentalism also recognises the supremacy of Nature, a universal force of which Man is not the centre but simply yet another interconnecting, interconnected element.
As we recalled, it’s not true that Romanticism was unconcerned with politics—at the very least, even a superficial understanding of Blake or Shelley, to cite two obvious examples, would show us that this is certainly not the case; but on balance the movement is far more concerned with forwarding a philosophical and aesthetic response to life than in interacting with the political developments of C19 Britain. In this respect in contrast to Romanticism, however, one of the principal objectives of Transcendentalism was to engage directly with the political concerns of the 1840s and 1850s in the US. And in this sense, Transcendentalism takes on a far less mystical and much, much more practical guise.
The basic political position of the Transcendentalists (still present in certain aspects of contemporary US politics, particularly in modern Republicanism) was that government should always be as small as possible; they even argued—as we see in Thoreau—that no government at all is the best possible way of allowing a genuinely independent people to live.
This position rests on the belief that a government will always act in a paternalistic way, and in doing so infantilises the citizenry. Not only this, but also that—when organised by the government for the purpose of achieving its objectives—peaceful, moral individuals can be coerced into behaving and acting in ways that are radically opposed to peaceful and moral activity.
The Transcendentalists were thinking here most particularly about slavery and the US-Mexican war (though one of the abiding legacies of this movement is the idea that the individual always has the moral responsibility to question and reject any governmental-imposed collective action that appears to be morally unacceptable: an idea that would take on enormous importance in the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War).
A direct—and controversial—consequence of this belief is that right-thinking individuals should engage in civil disobedience, rejecting the government’s authority over them and refusing to participate in its actions (this was enthusiastically followed by Mahatma Gandhi in pre-Independence India and Martin Luther King during the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s in the US).
For the Transcendentalists, civil disobedience also meant the rebuttal of the individual’s obligation to pay taxes to the state. Put simply, if you believe that your government is acting in ways that you cannot morally support, you will therefore be complicit with this immorality if you participate in supporting the government actively (in the case of Thoreau et al., for example, through taking part in the C19 expansionist adventures in the US west and south) or passively, through the payment of taxation.
Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) is an extended argument that explains and justifies the basic political position of Transcendentalism with respect to the notion of government; it is an eloquent counter-position to the energetic construction of state that the immediately post-independent US government was engaged in, an engagement which often resulted—as we have seen in the underlying preoccupation of much C19 literature—in an uncomfortable betraying of the great, revolutionary ideals that had motivated the War of Independence.
One of the issues we looked at last week in our discussions on The Scarlet Letter was the tempestuous encounter between Hester and Arthur (and Pearl, in fact, though we didn’t really consider her role in this meeting), in the safety and secrecy of the forest. This episode occurs, as you will remember, in chapters 17-18.
Narratively, this is a hugely significant moment: it is the first opportunity we have to see the two characters in an intimate and direct interchange (up to this point, the novel has focussed on the consequences of their ‘sinfulness’ and has only allowed us the briefest of exchanges between them). It is an opportunity for the narrator to rekindle their feelings—something that is done in a hugely effective and profoundly suggestive way, as we saw—and it is a central moment in the overall plot of the novel, with Hester’s proposal of an escape to Europe finally offering the possibility of an ending to her years of marginality and sadness.
This is all important and each of these aspects could be given more attention. But I would like to emphasise another question (one that we touched on in class but which I think deserves fuller attention here). And that is the way in which this forest episode clearly reveals both of the lovers to be victims and how it strongly suggests that their ‘transgressions’ are natural, minor and utterly pardonable; in contrast, the inhuman malignancy of Roger Chillingworth is seen to be the true sin, a veritable evil that destroys both individual and community.
It might appear to modern readers that Dimmesdale is more a culprit than a victim, or that—at any rate—his suffering is minor compared to that of Hester’s. This is a fair point, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Arthur’s suffering is not significant. In my discussion of this scene, I suggested that the narrative focus on the two characters’ intimacy—and the way that it revealed just what opportunities had been lost between them both—was a clear suggestion that the ‘system’ that caused such suffering (that is, the justice imposed by the Puritan authorities) is at fault. It exposes extreme Puritan values to be harmful and destructive. And in revealing clearly that true evil lies with Chillingworth and not at all with Hester or Arthur, it is forwarding (at last) the notion of an alternative morality, one that rejects the labels of the founding communities and that sees, instead, the goodness, the ‘naturalness’ of the feelings expressed by the protagonists and, in contrast, the harmfulness of punishing such feelings according to notions of ‘correctness’ that have nothing at all to do with the true and vital love felt by Hester and Arthur.
In this sense, the episode in the forest is the clearest expression to this point of the novel’s emphatic stance against both Chillingworth and, indeed, against puritan morality. And this latter point is, once again, a significant reminder of how Hawthorne’s text is a constant reflection on the need to revise America’s foundational history and to question public discourse that attempts to justify a system of beliefs that is detrimental to the truer values of human dignity; a pressing issue as the storm clouds of the US Civil War gather on the horizon…
Last Wednesday’s class was cancelled because of strike action. In its place, I’ve prepared a podcast that discusses aspects of Hester Prynne’s character, and that makes a number of suggestions about the significance of the scarlet letter (that is, the object) for the novel’s protagonist.
You can download the podcast at this address: http://soundcloud.com/us-history-culture/scarlet-letter.