Sonntag, 16. Dezember 2007
History of American Political Parties
In "The Custom House," the foreword-like part of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne deals with political parties at the time. Democrats and Republicans in their current form only arose after the Southern Dixiecrats merged into the New Conservatives after the 1950s.

If you are not sure about who the Whigs are, what a Locofoco is, or about any of the other terms in the text, make sure to check out this graph, visualizing the development of the American political parties:

Do NOT mistake them for the modern parties. In fact, Licoln, the father of Abolition, was a Republican, and today's party names are very roughly an inversion of the nomenclature of the 19th century.


"The Whig party (1834-56) of the United States was formed to oppose Andrew Jackson and the Democratic party. The Whig coalition's antecedent was the National Republican party organized to support President John Quincy Adams (1825-29).

Led by Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, National Republicans advocated an active federal role in the nation's economic development. Known as the American System, their program called for federally sponsored roads and canals, a high tariff to protect American manufacturers, a powerful national bank, and a go-slow policy on the sale and settlement of public lands.

The leaders and the program proved no match against the popularity of Jackson. He defeated Adams in 1828, rejected federal aid for roads in 1830, vetoed the recharter of a National Bank in 1832, and later that year decisively won reelection against Clay. The repeated defeats led to the formation in 1834 of a new opposition party, initially united on little but hostility to Jackson's bold use of executive power. Joining the economic nationalists in the party were several state-rights southerners, including for a time John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.

The opponents of "King Andrew" took their name from the American Whigs of 1776 and earlier English Whigs who had opposed the power of the British crown.

The wide diversity of views within the Whig party made it difficult to unify around a common program or leader. In the 1836 presidential contest, therefore, the Whigs backed three regional candidates, Gen. William Henry Harrison, Hugh Lawson White, and Webster, all of whom lost to Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren. In 1840 the Whigs backed a single candidate, Harrison, who, like Jackson, was a military hero. The Whigs campaigned to victory through slogan and song, parading Harrison as a humble "log cabin" candidate who wore homespun and drank common hard cider.

As president, Harrison was prepared to let Clay seek congressional passage of an energetic Whig program that included a new tariff and national bank. But Harrison died in April 1841, and his successor, former state-rights Democrat John Tyler of Virginia, vetoed the Whig program and was expelled from the party. The Whigs nominated Clay for president in 1844. The Democrats made the "reannexation of Texas" the campaign's major issue, thereby reviving the dangerous controversy over the extension of slavery. The Whigs, more sharply divided than the Democrats over this matter, suffered a narrow defeat.

Ultimately the slavery issue destroyed the Whigs. In 1848 they won the presidency with another military hero, Gen. Zachary Taylor. Whig Senate leaders Clay and Webster, however, fearing disunion over slavery, played key roles in securing the Compromise of 1850, which include a stronger Fugitive Slave Law that offended many northern Whigs. In 1852 many southern Whigs defected in reaction to the party's nomination of Gen. Winfield Scott for president and the deaths of Unionists Clay and Webster. Furious sectional controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act dealt the final blow. The bulk of the party's remaining members dispersed in 1856 to the nativist Know-Nothing party or to the rising Republican party."


"Democratic Party, one of the two main political parties of the United States. Its origins can be traced to the coalition formed behind Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s to resist the policies of George Washington's administration. This coalition, originally called the Republican, and later the Democratic-Republican party, split into two factions during the presidential campaign of 1828. One, the National Republican party, was absorbed into the Whig party in 1834; the other became the Democratic party.

The Jacksonian Party

In the 1830s, under presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, the Democratic party developed the characteristics it retained until the end of the century. It was willing to use national power in foreign affairs when American interests were threatened, but in economic and social policy it stressed the responsibility of government to act cautiously, if at all. Democrats argued that the national government should do nothing the states could do for themselves, and the states nothing that localities could do.

The party's supporters in this period included groups as diverse as southern plantation owners and immigrant workers in northern cities. They all had in common a dislike of government intervention in their lives. The Democrats' opponents, the Whigs, on the other hand, believed in using governmental power to promote, regulate, correct, and reform."
Samstag, 10. November 2007
Discussing literature as art?
The New York Times
November 11, 2007

Faking It


By Pierre Bayard. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman.

185 pp. Bloomsbury. $19.95.

Carrying this book around recently I’ve caught more than a little flak, not least from my kids, who once thought of me as a literary intellectual, or at the very least as a guy who espoused the virtues of reading. Hey, really, I told them — as well as my wife and the guy sitting next to me on the subway — no kidding, it’s a serious book, written by a professor of literature who’s also a psychoanalyst. A French professor/shrink, no less, who’s written books on Proust, Maupassant, Balzac, Laclos and Stendhal, among other canonical heavyweights. So lay off.

It seems hard to believe that a book called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” would hit the best-seller lists in France, where books are still regarded as sacred objects and the writer occupies a social position somewhere between the priest and the rock star. The ostensible anti-intellectualism of the title seems more Anglo-Saxon than Gallic, an impression reinforced by the epigram from Oscar Wilde: “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.”

Bayard’s critique of reading involves practical and theoretical as well as social considerations, and at times it seems like a tongue-in-cheek example of reader-response criticism, which emphasizes the reader’s role in creating meaning. He wants to show us how much we lie about the way we read, to ourselves as well as to others, and to assuage our guilt about the way we actually read and talk about books. “I know few areas of private life, with the exception of finance and sex, in which it’s as difficult to obtain accurate information,” he writes. There are many ways of relating to books that are not acknowledged in educated company, including skimming, skipping, forgetting and glancing at covers.

Bayard’s hero in this enterprise is the librarian in Robert Musil’s “Man Without Qualities” (a book I seem to recall having read halfway through, and Bayard claims to have skimmed), custodian of millions of volumes in the country of Kakania. He explains to a general seeking cultural literacy his own scheme for mastery of this vast, nearly infinite realm: “If you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.” If he were to get caught up in the particulars of a few books, the librarian implies, he would lose sight of the bigger picture, which is the relation of the books to one another — the system we call cultural literacy, which forms our collective library. “As cultivated people know,” Bayard tells us, “culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter of not having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

Musil’s librarian is a purist, but a perusal of the reviews in this and other publications would probably yield, if only we had the proper instruments, many less extreme examples of literate nonreading. Book reviewers generally imply that they have read the entire oeuvre of the author under discussion, as well as those of his peers, and I have no doubt they will continue to do so. You’d think Nicholson Baker’s “U and I” (a short book I read in its entirety), in which the younger novelist writes a kind of critique of John Updike based on his admittedly fragmentary and incomplete reading, would have cured us of the omniscient stance in book reviewing. But I don’t see many phrases like “From what I’ve read about ‘Moby-Dick ...” or “the part of ‘Finnegans Wake’ that I tried to read ...” in the review pages. Bayard, though, regards such disclaimers as understood. He doesn’t blame us for fudging, and he doesn’t want us to blame ourselves.

He proposes, and employs, a new set of scholarly abbreviations to go along with op. cit. and ibid.: UB: book unknown to me; SB: book I have skimmed; HB: book I have heard about; and FB: book I have forgotten.

For Bayard, who is well served by Jeffrey Mehlman’s fluid and elegant translation, skimming and sampling are two of the most common forms of reading behavior, particularly with regard to Proust. Paul Valéry, in his funerary tribute in La Nouvelle Revue Française, makes a virtue out of his admittedly sketchy knowledge of Proust by claiming: “The interest of the book lies in each fragment. We can open the book wherever we choose.” Bayard defends skimming as a mode of reading. “The fertility of this mode of discovery markedly unsettles the difference between reading and nonreading, or even the idea of reading at all. ... It appears that most often, at least for the books that are central to our particular culture, our behavior inhabits some intermediate territory, to the point that it becomes difficult to judge whether we have read them or not.”

Lest the reader, or the nonreader, think that Bayard underestimates the power of reading, he proposes that we are all essentially literary constructs, defined by our own inner libraries: the books we’ve read, skimmed and heard about. “We are the sum of these accumulated books,” he writes. (And make no mistake about it, this prof is far more literate and widely read than he pretends to be.)

After anatomizing the different types of nonreading, Bayard addresses the social implications in a section called “Literary Confrontations.” I commend his advice for meeting an author and being forced to say something about his or her new book: “Praise it without going into detail.”

The funniest section in the book describes the encounter between the anthropologist Laura Bohannan and an African tribe, the Tiv, whom she has been living among. She tries to read “Hamlet” to them in the hopes of demonstrating the universality of the story, but the way in which the tribe rejects those parts of the tale that don’t square with their own cultural traditions — they don’t believe in ghosts, for instance — renders the attempt ludicrous.

Bayard proposes the term “inner book” to designate “the set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it.” This notion coincides with Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” of readers, although Bayard’s own inner book may be more indebted to home-team text destabilizers like Derrida and Lacan. Indeed, Bayard sounds more French in the later pages as he employs phrases like “consensual space” and dissolves the boundaries and false oppositions between reader and writer and book into one big sloppy pool of écriture.

To what end? Bayard finally reveals his diabolical intent: he claims that talking about books you haven’t read is “an authentic creative activity.” As a teacher of literature, he seems to believe that his ultimate goal is to encourage creativity. “All education,” he writes, “should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.”

It’s a charming but ultimately terrifying prospect — a world full of writers and artists. In Bayard’s nonreading utopia the printing press would never have been invented, let alone penicillin or the MacBook.

I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity. On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading.

Jay McInerney’s most recent books are “The Good Life,” a novel, and “A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
Samstag, 3. November 2007
Thoreau on the Mississippi
Consider this excerpt from 1851 with regard to our opening, how the American Renaissance relates to European Romanticism:
"...the steamboats wooding up, counted the rising cities, gazed on the fresh ruins of Nauvoo ... I saw that this was a Rhine stream of a different Kind; that .. the famous bridges were yet to be thrown over the river; and I felt that this was the heroic age itself, though we know it not, for the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men."
Compare this to the attitude of Carlyle toward heroes and the common man, for example, or Byron.
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Mittwoch, 17. Oktober 2007
NAAL Overview
The Norton Anthology of American Literature

Volume B: American Literature, 1880-1865


In the early years of the new Republic, educated Americans were generally more familiar with Greek and Roman history, European history, Greco-Roman classics, and British literature than they were with the work of colonial and Revolutionary writers. Many works of American literature were simply not accessible. By contrast, books, magazines, and literary quarterlies from England were frequently republished or reprinted in the United States. Inexpensive postage for printed material further facilitated the use of the British literary canon from Maine to Georgia. In terms of literary knowledge, gender differences were often a greater determinant than regional differences. Women were denied a classical education to protect them from the sexually frank writings in Greek and Latin, as well as from the “evil” effects of novels. Many well-educated Americans advocated the need for a national poem; critics encouraged aspiring writers to take up subjects such as the American Revolution, Native American legends, and stories of colonial battles in order to celebrate the new country. Nonetheless, the popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels altered early calls for a national literature. Personal travel books were adaptable to different regional experiences of emerging American writers.

Although Christian Schussele’s reverential painting Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside depicted a fictional encounter of many writers who had never met, it provides an indication of the shifts to the canon of American writers since 1863. Most notably, the painting includes no women writers of the period, such as Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe; nor does it include several male writers who are currently considered the most important of the century, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville. Despite the fictional encounter in Schussele’s painting, many writers of the period knew each other, often intimately, or knew about each other. Many male writers came together casually for drinking and dining in public houses, or formed clubs, such as the Bread and Cheese Club and the Saturday Club.

Although the United States expanded with the acquisitions of Louisiana from France and the Southwest from Mexico, most of the writers still read today lived their entire lives in the original thirteen states. Improvements in transportation and the expansion of urban areas changed the mental topography of the country. By the 1850s, travel between major cities, with the exception of San Francisco, which became an instant metropolis in the Gold Rush of 1849, ceased to be hazardous. As the country expanded, writers began to look beyond the eastern seaboard for inspiration and subject matter, yet they still looked mostly to the east for their audiences.

While publishing centers developed along the eastern coastal cities of New York, Philadelphia, and later Boston, the creation of a national book-buying market for American literature was long delayed. To earn a living, many literary writers contributed columns and articles to newspapers or edited magazines. Though writers often created characters who lived up to the myth of Yankee individualism, other writers dismissed Americans as intolerant conformists. Differences in social status, such as gender and class, were not uniformly addressed by all writers. Almost all major writers found themselves at odds with Protestant Christianity, which exerted practical control over what could be printed in books and magazines. In the late 1830s and 1840s, Transcendentalism was treated as a national laughingstock or a menace to organized religion in most mainstream newspapers and magazines.

Although conservative Protestants were threatened by Transcendentalism and other resistances to Christian doctrine, they were more threatened by Catholic, Jewish, Asian, and Caribbean immigrants. Refugees from the Napoleonic Wars, famine-struck Ireland, and Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia met with anti-immigration propaganda and violence. The lives of thousands of immigrant laborers from China, the Caribbean, Ireland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries were lost so that railroads could be built quickly and cheaply. In addition to general xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence at the hands of private citizens of the United States, the government itself was responsible for “national sins” including the near-genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and the staged “Executive War” against Mexico, among others. While many white writers actively opposed slavery, one of the most powerful antislavery advocates was Frederick Douglass, who spoke and wrote of his own enslavement.

Americans struggled to make sense of the profound political and social changes in Europe after the French Revolution, which had been inspired partly by the American Revolution. Americans also struggled with advances in scientific knowledge. Even before Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, biologists were publishing evidence of plant and animal evolution. Geologists presented evidence that challenged chronologies of the universe established by religion. As scientists ventured off to distant parts of the world to study and conduct research, European countries and the United States embarked on a ferocious quest for overseas colonies.
"Organicism" in the DHI
Aesthetic organicism usually refers to the doctrine
of organic unity and to its cognates like the idea of
organic form or of “inner” form. The designation arises
from the assumption that a work of art may be com-
pared to a living organism, so that the relation between
the parts of a work is neither arbitrary nor factitious,
but as close and intimate as that between the organs
of a living body. The classic formula for this relation
is double: (1) the parts of the work are in keeping with
each other and with the whole, and (2) alteration of
a part will bring with it the alteration of the whole.
By means of this formula the closest unity between
the parts of a work of art is predicated or, alternatively,
the formula provides the closest way of conceiving
aesthetic unity.
Some critics like John Dewey use the simile to de-
scribe the growth of a work from a faint suggestion
in the mind of the author to the finished composition,
likened to the stages in the growth of a living being
from the germ to the embryo to the fully developed
organism. Indeed it is almost impossible not to use some
organic metaphor in describing this process. But organ-
icism refers to the ultimate result, not to the genesis
but to the relation of the parts in the work once the
whole process of composition is finished, and this or
ganic conception has important critical consequences.
Organicism may also be embodied in the concept of
Organic Form in contrast to Mechanical Form: the
latter is imposed from the outside on something which
is alien to it, while the former develops spontaneously
“from within,” i.e., from the subject matter itself and
not from external rules or prescribed models, and be-
comes its appropriate conformation. Sometimes or-
ganic form has been termed “inner Form” (Schwinger
and Nicolai, 1935), in contrast to external or mechani-
cal form, the latter being an attempt to fashion me-
chanically a composition from the outside. Hence the
historical function of these concepts has been to loosen
the rigid rules of traditional poetics and the pedantry
of genres, and to foster the free play of the creative
imagination that makes up its own rules as it goes
along, and sets them according to the nature of the
subject and the inspiration of the poet—two things
which may be said to constitute a complex unity and
are actually vital factors in the act of creation. The
structure that the finished work will possess will not
be lawless, because of the two conditions of organic
unity mentioned above.
In other words, the general effect of the organic
conception has been to move away from narrow classi-
cism in the direction of what may be vaguely named
romanticism. But the concepts themselves are of clas-
sical (i.e., ancient Greek) origin; they were originally
formulated by Plato and Aristotle. The clause desig-
nated above as (1), the congruence of parts with each
other, and with the whole, comes from Plato's Phaedrus
(264C), and clause (2) from Aristotle's Poetics (VIII.
51A 32-35). In modern times they have been supplied
with new philosophical foundations, being fully devel-
oped in the aesthetics of German idealism. Kant himself
powerfully contributed to the trend, applications to
aesthetics being due especially to the great romantic
thinkers and literary critics, Schelling and Hegel, the
Schlegels and Coleridge. Through their use in literary
criticism organic concepts have gained wide currency
in modern writing of all kinds and may be found in
many paraphrases and adaptations, up to the point of
becoming almost a cliché; but they are capable of
being exactly formulated. They have been so formu-
lated quite recently by John Hospers:
The unified object should contain within itself a large
number of diverse elements, each of which in some way
contributes to the total integration of the unified whole.
... everything that is necessary is there, and nothing that
is not necessary is there.
... in a work of art, if a certain yellow patch were not
in a painting, its entire character would be altered, and
so would a play if a particular scene were not in it, in just
the place where it is (1967).
Page 422, Volume 3
This makes it clear that in the idea of organic unity,
the concept of totality or wholeness is implied. Going
one step further back, we find that the basic concepts
of the One and the Many are implied. For organic unity
consists of a multiplicity of parts which is reduced to
unity, and of a unity which is made up of a multiplicity.
“How the one can be many, and the many be one”
is one of the questions that was argued in Socrates'
circle (Philebus, 14C).
The problem eventually found a solution of one kind
in the Platonic concept of the Idea, which is the unity
of a multiplicity, and then received a different solution
in Aristotle's sense of composite whole (synolon). In
more modern times this unity comes under the cate-
gory of an a priori synthesis in the Kantian sense: its
components are not conjoined empirically, but belong
originally to each other. Using the organic metaphor,
they may be said to belong “naturally” to each other.
For instance, it may be said that Sancho is not an
extrinsic addition to Don Quixote, but that the Don
belongs to Sancho just as much as vice versa: the great
comic situation would not be what it is if one of the
two were omitted.
But there is no need to resort to the organic meta-
phor in order to define such a clear logical unity as
the synthesis of parts in a whole. Also, it should be
noted that this unity can be affirmed of other mental
products besides works of art. A philosophical system
or a mathematical demonstration may be said to possess
such unity; also, a history or any ratiocinative compo-
sition. Hence its already mentioned wide use in all
In order to be meaningful in aesthetics and in literary
criticism, the concept must be integrated by other
concepts drawn specifically from the sphere of aes-
thetics. To be aesthetic, the object defined must be
endowed with beauty, and so beauty itself must be
defined. In the course of this century, beauty has been
defined as Gestalt or total image, created by the poetic
imagination and expressive of human feeling. The parts
discernible in the object are organically (indissolubly)
united, so that alteration of one part produces altera-
tion of the whole. Nor can aesthetics really be
grounded without a concept of reality, or some type
of metaphysics. This means introducing other concepts
besides the organic ones and going well beyond the
Platonic and Aristotelian sphere of ideas.
Considered however in its abstract generality, as it
is in ancient thought, organic unity is susceptible of
another formulation: “the whole is more than the sum
of its parts,” a saying often repeated in modern times,
but the author of which is unknown. But Plato said
something very close to that when he wrote: “The all
is not the whole” (Theatetus, 204B), “the all” being,
as the context shows, the sum of the parts. In aesthetics
this means that the work of art is not produced by
the mere superaddition of isolated pieces to each other:
to join the single parts an essential link is necessary,
connecting all of them.
Still more philosophically, Aristotle said that “the
whole is prior to the parts” (Politics, I. 2. 1253a 20).
This is often interpreted to mean that the parts imply
the whole. Aristotle himself commented that the parts
are posterior to the whole because in the whole they
exist only potentially: “only when the whole has been
dissolved they will attain actuality” (Metaphysics, V.
11. 1019a 9-10). Aristotle applied this principle to the
theory of the State and it had considerable vogue
afterwards. Aestheticians took up the principle: the
great representative of organicism in England, Samuel
Taylor Coleridge, speaks in The Friend (1818) of “the
Aristotelian maxim, with respect to all just reasoning,
that the whole is of necessity prior to its parts” (Part
II, Essay 10). More specifically in his Philosophical
Lectures (1819) he enjoins: “Depend on it, whatever
is truly organic and living, the whole is prior to the
It is the a priority of the whole that makes its unity
intrinsic, as opposed to the extrinsic aggregation of
parts. To quote Coleridge again, “the distinction, or
rather the essential difference, betwixt the shaping skill
of mechanical talent, and the creative, productive
life-power of inspired genius; in the former, each part
separately conceived and then by succeeding act put
The concept of organic unity raises some basic ques-
tions: (1) Is it possible to divide an organic work of
art into parts? (2) If it is possible, is it necessary so
to divide it? What purpose is served by the division?
(3) If it is both possible and necessary to divide, what
procedure should be followed in this division? How
do we divide the work into parts that are vital and
not artificial?
The first question implies the more general problem
of the divisibility of any unit, which has been debated
by several philosophers. Into this debate we cannot
enter here, but we indicate that there is such a prob-
lem. Assuming (1) that the work admits of division,
we ask: (2) What purpose is achieved by doing so?
Precisely to show the necessary unity of the whole by
observing the relation of the parts to each other and
to the whole. This can only be done by taking them
in succession, one after the other, as A. W. Schlegel
did in his analysis of Romeo and Juliet (1797), one of
the earliest examples of organic criticism: first the
characters are considered, then the features of the style.
Another exponent of organicism, A. C. Bradley, raised
the question: If we believe in the organic unity of the
Page 423, Volume 3
parts, why do we separate them in analysis? To which
he gave the answer:
To consider separately the action and the characters of a
play, and separately the style and versification, is both
legitimate and valuable, so long as we remember what we
are doing. But the true critic in speaking of these aspects
does not really think of them apart: the whole, the poetic
experience, of which they are but aspects, is always in his
mind; and he is always aiming at a richer, truer, more
intimate repetition of that experience (1909).
As Goethe said, we must first distinguish, and then
unite (Gott und Welt: Atmosphäre, 1821). Division of
parts is essential also to a criticism that comes to an
adverse conclusion on the value of the work, since the
worse the work, the greater will be the incongruity
between the parts, like Horace's Humano capiti...
(Ars poetica, 1).
Once the work has been divided into its essential
parts, the procedure of the critic will be to evaluate
the relation of the parts to each other and to the whole,
basing his final judgment on the results thus arrived
at. But (3) what is the correct method of dividing a
work of art into parts? It may be answered that they
should be so divided that each part preserves some
meaning of its own. Hence a poem should not be
divided into purely verbal units, since such words as
articles and conjunctions do not possess a meaning of
their own, nor do most single words really. But a
complete line of verse or a complete stanza may have
a meaning of its own, so that it can stand by itself.
The same is true of sections of prose such as para-
graphs, chapters, etc., and of plays, such as acts and
scenes, so they may all be legitimate divisions.
However, it is a moot point whether the parts of
a beautiful object should be beautiful too. Plotinus
argued that if the whole is beautiful, the parts also
must be beautiful: “the whole cannot be made up of
ugly parts; beauty must penetrate everything”
(Enneads, I. vi. 1 50). Here it may be enough to say
about this division what Plato said, that one must not
hack away at the parts of a beautiful whole like a
clumsy butcher (Phaedrus, 265C.). The individuality of
the work of art is also relevant to this question, since
it excludes the so-called rules of composition and the
partitions of rhetoric, as Socrates rejected the partitions
and rules of contemporary rhetoricians (ibid., 266-67).
In the Poetics, Aristotle applied the principle of
organic unity only to the plot of tragedy, but not to
the other parts of tragedy, nor to their relation with
each other and with the whole. The other parts are
enumerated and defined, but even their number is not
definite: once five, then three. However, the principle
is implicit in the Ars poetica of Horace or the Epistle
to the Pisos (ca. 14 B.C.). From its very first line, a poem
is compared to a living body, in which it would be
incongruous if a human head were joined to a horse's
neck (1-13). Unity has been rightly called the govern-
ing consideration of the Ars: the poem should be
simplex dumtaxat et unum (34), actually a unity of
different parts. Cicero, like Philodemus, extended the
principle of organic unity to the relation between
language and thought in expression: “words do not
subsist if you remove the meanings (res), nor can there
be light in the meanings if you remove the words” (De
oratore, III, 5-6). The principle reappears in pseudo-
Longinus, On the Sublime: “Since by nature there are
in all things certain parts which are necessarily in-
volved in their matter, it follows that one cause of
excellence is the power to choose the most suitable
of the constitutive elements and to arrange them so
that they form a single living body.” For instance,
Sappho in her most famous ode selects the most char-
acteristic symptoms of passion, and then proceeds to
“bind them one with the other” forming a perfect
poem (Ch. X).
Plotinus in his first book (Enneads, I. vi) considers
the beautiful object a synthesis of various parts brought
together so as to form a coherent whole, the many
being reduced to one. He then raises the already quoted
question about the beauty of the parts. While he does
not use explicitly the organic simile, the human face
is his example of living beauty; but he rules out mere
symmetry and proportion as the definition of beauty,
and introduces the Aristotelian concept of Form, to
which we now turn.
Aristotle's hylomorphism assumes certain powers in
Form that make it much more than mere shape: it is
actuality in antithesis to potentiality, and it confers
meaning and purpose on its matter. But it was not
extended to literature by Aristotle, who never speaks
of Form in the Poetics. However, the concept has been
found most fruitful by later criticism, as the Form and
Content of literature (French la forme et le fond,
German Gestalt und Gehalt or Form und Stoff). In its
simplest definition the content of a work is what it
is about, and the form is the manner in which it is
treated; but the two concepts admit of deeper defini-
tion. When they are thought of as the parts of which
the work of art is made up, their relation may be
defined in terms of organic unity, that is, form must
be in keeping with content and content with form, so
that if you alter the one, the other is altered too. Taking
form in the sense of metrical form, the content of a
sonnet must be perfectly adapted to the form of the
sonnet, and it cannot be turned into the content of
an ode without altering it, and vice versa.
The organic unity of form and content is denied by
Page 424, Volume 3
all theories that make one of the two predominant and
the other unessential, conceiving them as separate parts
that can be manipulated independently of each other.
Such is the meaning of Formalism, which makes Form
everything, and reduces content to nothing. This
J. C. F. von Schiller does in his Aesthetic Letters (1795,
letter XXII), followed later by Oscar Wilde's “Form
is everything” (1891). The opposite theory (for which
we have no name, but it might be called Contentual-
ism) makes content predominant, and form indifferent.
But in organicism the two cannot be separated.
Since for Aristotle form is operative not only in
artefacts but also in living beings, the latter form may
well be defined as organic. But in Aristotle we do not
find the phrase, which is characteristic of romantic
speculation. For Aristotle, Form is applied to matter
by natural forces, as part of the system of the universe;
in art, form preexists in the mind of the artist or crafts-
man and is applied by him to the chosen matter. But
for Aristotle, faithful to ancient realism, this form is
not produced by the artist, and the whole concept of
artistic creation is alien to him.
In recent times the form of the literary genre or
type—such as the set form of tragedy or the epic, as
defined by rules—has been considered Organic Form.
But since it is indifferent to its matter, it is not really
organic. The content of all poetry being individual,
the form should also be individual, and not set and
rigid according to preconceived rules. Few conceptions
are so alien to the organic principle as the divisions
and subdivisions of rhetoric, especially in its appli-
cation to poetry. There form is separated from content
and defined independently of it, and the unifying power
is lost from sight. But the fact that the parts of a
sentence are called by rhetoricians “members” (árthra,
kóla) shows that an echo of the organic simile may
still be heard in the babel of rhetorical classifications.
Through the medieval period the rhetorical tradition
kept alive these vestiges of organicism, and Horace no
doubt helped. The speculations of the scholastics on
unity brought them closer to the Platonic tradition,
even though the Phaedrus was apparently forgotten.
It is therefore remarkable that Dante could formulate
the organic principle and its simile so definitely in his
Men call beautiful the things in which the parts fully an-
swer to each other, so that from their harmony pleasure
results. Thus a human being appears to be beautiful when
the members duly answer each other; and we say a song
is beautiful, when its sounds are duly respondent to each
other according to art (I, v, 3-15; trans. G. N. G. Orsini).
With the Renaissance and the revival of the Poetics
(not to speak of Plato), the principle returned into the
critical discussion of literature. Aristotle's definition of
organic unity in the plot, for instance, reappears in
Aristotelian interpreters like Daniel Heinsius, in his De
tragoediae constitutione (1611). From there it passes
into Ben Jonson's Timber; or Discoveries... (posthu-
mous, 1641), thus becoming a part of neo-classical
tradition in England. In the same century Nicolas
Boileau was legislating on poetry in France, mainly
on the foundation of Horace, as interpreted by strict
French intellectualism (1674). Organic precepts re-
appear, but somewhat less sharply:
Il faut que chaque chose y soit mise en son lieu,
Que le début, la fin, répondent au milieu;
Que d'un art délicat les pièces assorties
N'y forment qu'un seul tout de diverses parties.
(I, lines 177-80)
Boileau also translated Longinus, thus making available
another source of organic ideas. Twenty years later
(1694) he published a commentary on Longinus, mainly
disputing Charles Perrault.
In the eighteenth century we may find organic con-
cepts even in the manifesto of English neo-classicism,
Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711):
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not the exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip or eye we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
(Part II, lines 43-46)
Shaftesbury's share in the formulation of the concept
has been made much of by German scholars, but it
seems that he just came very near and merely caught
a glimpse of it. “Inner form” appears in him, appar-
ently on the foundation of Plotinus, but only once does
he ascribe organic unity to the work of art (Notion
of the Tablature, posthumously published in 1714).
The concept of inner form was transformed by J.
Harris (Hermes, 1751), and Herder saw it as the spirit
within the body of the poem. Herder is the first literary
critic to make use of the concept of organic form in
practical criticism. In 1771 he applied it to Shake-
speare's dramas and in 1776 Goethe, then Herder's
disciple, set up the “inner form” of a play as against
“the unities, beginning, middle and end the rest of it,”
the traditional Aristotelian concepts of form.
As science developed the investigation of the physi-
cal organism, so philosophy turned to analyze the
essence of the living organism. Leibniz gave a me-
chanical definition of it as “a natural mechanism,” i.e.,
a machine made up of smaller machines (Principles of
nature and grace [1714], para. 3). His own meta-
physical speculations turned on the unity of substance
and its division into parts which are posterior to the
Page 425, Volume 3
whole (at least in idealibus: letter to Des Bosses, 31
July 1706), thus reaffirming the Aristotelian a priority
of logical unity.
Goethe's view of nature was fundamentally organic.
He condemned the analytical scientist, who murders
to dissect, in a famous passage of Faust: “The parts
in his hand he may hold and class/ But the spiritual
link is lost, alas!” (lines 1938-39). A modern scholar
states that Goethe took over from Neo-Platonism “the
idea of form from a process at work even in the inmost
parts of an organism and to fuse it completely with
the idea of form as an outward shape. The one is not
the cause of the other; they are completely reciprocal.
Inner structure determines outward shape and outward
shape inner structure” (Wilkinson, 1951).
Kant had already employed organic unity to define
the structure of pure reason in the Critique of Pure
Reason (2nd ed., 1787). The ideal principles of pure
reason constitute “a self-subsistent unity, in which as
an organized body each member exists for every other,
and all for the sake of each” (B xxviii). The idea is
more fully developed in the “Dialectic of Pure Reason”
and the “Doctrine of Method,” the last parts of the
In his aesthetic theory, Kant came very near to
defining explicitly the work of art as an organic unity.
The idea is implicit in his Critique of Judgment (1790,
para. 65), where he traces out the “analogy” between
a work of art and a living body, and also does some-
thing which critics of organicism claim has not been
done: he points out the differences between them.
These are, first, that in an organism “parts produce
one another: it is self-organizing”; second, that an
organism that goes out of order “repairs itself”; and
third, that a natural organism can reproduce itself.
Kant definitely warns that there is no real identity
between nature and art, because the art product always
involves an “artificer” while nature does not.
Kant also made the sharpest antithesis between the
organic and the mechanical by defining the organism
teleologically, as a whole in which “every part is recip-
rocally end and means” (para. 66). In a work of art
purposefulness is also apparent, but not real, although
the harmony of the parts produces aesthetic pleasure
The powerful impulse of Kant can be felt in all later
German speculation. Mere atomistic empiricism, the
unconnected sensation or enumeration of the parts of
a subject, became anathema; every intellectual pro-
duction, be it a philosophical treatise or a poem, was
to be organically articulated, each part related to the
others and to the whole. In Schelling's System of
Transcendental Idealism (1800) art became the intel-
lectual intuition which reaches the Absolute beyond
all contradictions, and in his Discourse on the Relation
between the Fine Arts and Nature (1807) he formulated
the concept of organic form in the arts.
Meanwhile the brothers Schlegel had carried the
concept of organic form into literary criticism. In
August Schlegel's Lectures of 1801 organic concepts
prevail, as well as in the more famous Vienna lectures
on the drama (1810). There he gave the final blow to
the neo-classical depreciation of Shakespeare, whose
tragedies, being devoid of the classical dramatic unities,
were claimed to be without form. But the unities, he
showed, are a purely mechanical form, applied ex-
ternally to a subject; while real art possesses organic
form which is inborn and develops from within, pro-
ducing an outward arrangement dictated by the nature
of the subject. This was immediately taken up by
Coleridge in his English lectures, and became the
foundation of a new, positive interpretation of Shake-
spearean tragedy—an interpretation which has borne
fruit ever since.
Coleridge is the main representative of organicism
in English criticism. In his most formal definition of
Beauty he started from Plotinus: “the indivisible unity
which appears in the many” (Enneads, I. vi. 3) and
then stated that “the sense of beauty consists in the
simultaneous intuition of the relation of parts, each to
each, and of all to the whole” (“On the Principles of
Genial Criticism Concerning the Fine Arts,” III
“Unity in multiplicity” is Coleridge's favorite aes-
thetic formula, which he repeats in many guises (“unity
in multeity,” il più nell'uno, etc.). In his definition of
the Imagination, this unity becomes a unity of
disparates, or even of contraries, thus converging into
another speculative doctrine dear to the idealists: the
unity of opposites. It may even be suggested that this
unity is the only one close enough to act as the unifying
power of the Imagination, the “esemplastic” power of
which Coleridge theorized (Biographia Literaria, Ch.
XIII). The use Coleridge made of these concepts in
his practical criticism was fully expounded by Gordon
MacKenzie (1939).
William Blake also asserted the organic unity of
expression: “Ideas cannot be given but in their
minutely appropriate parts” (Prose Address, ca. 1810);
an original invention cannot “... exist without execu-
tion organized, delineated, and articulated....” As
Croce will say, “The poem is as those words, that
rhythm, and that metre” (Essence of Aesthetic [1912],
Ch. II).
After Schelling, Hegel definitely affirmed (in 1838)
that organic unity was the basic characteristic of a
poem: “Every genuine work of poetry is an essentially
infinite organism... in which the whole, without any
Page 426, Volume 3
visible intention, is sphered within one rounded and
essentially self-enclosed completeness” (Philosophy of
Fine Art, Part III: “Poetry”). From Germany the idea
spread to other European countries where it found
support in native traditions.
During the Victorian era the greatest literary repre-
sentative of organicism was perhaps Walter Pater, as
seen in his Appreciations (1889). Later in the century
the idealistic philosopher B. Bosanquet reaffirmed
organicism as his definition of beauty (1892).
Coming to the present century, the definition of
organic unity was debated among English philosophers
of the twenties and thirties, J. E. McTaggart (1921-27)
and C. D. Broad (1933). One of the strongest champions
of organic unity in English aesthetics of the mid-
twentieth century is Harold Osborne. In his Theory of
Beauty (1952) he defines beauty as organic unity or
Gestalt, “a configuration such that the configuration
itself is prior in awareness to its component parts and
is not explicable by a summation of its parts and their
relations according to discursive and additive princi-
ples.” On this foundation he built up his detailed work,
Aesthetics and Criticism (1955).
German thought also fertilized Italian criticism.
From Hegel Francesco de Sanctis developed his aes-
thetic, which he applied extensively to the criticism
and to the history of Italian literature. The aesthetic
form of a work for him is actually generated by its
content; it is “... the life which the content acquired
in the mind of the poet” and the two are organically
inseparable (essay on Settembrini, 1869). From De
Sanctis, Benedetto Croce developed his own organi-
cism. In his earliest Aesthetic (1902; trans. 1909; 1922)
he appealed to the principle that “... the whole de-
termines the quality of the parts” (Part I, Ch. i) and
that the imagination effects “... the fusion of all
impressions into an organic whole” (ibid., Ch. ii). On
the basis of the unity of thought and expression Croce
rejected “modes of expression,” such as the plain and
the ornate, the simple and the elevated, the poetic and
the prosaic, as well as “figures of speech” and all other
ornamentations (Part I, Ch. ix), thus consolidating his
exclusion of rhetoric and the theory of genres from
literary criticism. The concept of dynamic form is
paramount in every sphere of Croce's thinking (Orsini,
1961). Hence his warning not to take “... the meta-
phorical term `organism' literally, as was done by lin-
guists like A. Schleicher” (1905). His own criticism
generally looks for the form of mental activity preva-
lent in the individual work—practical or theoretical,
conceptual or utilitarian—and distinguishes it from the
other forms which may also enter into the work (“po-
etry and non-poetry”).
Organic concepts, or at least organic terms, play a
large part in American criticism. In the nineteenth
century Coleridge's ideas were largely influential, as
shown in the surveys of H. H. Clark and R. H. Fogle
(1955). They turn up in writers such as Poe, Emerson,
Thoreau, and Whitman. In time the Coleridgian con-
cepts were watered down, and some twentieth-century
writers have only a vague notion of them. The term
“organic” is prominent in S. Pepper's aesthetics (1945),
but his philosophical use of it is his own. He calls
“organistic criticism” the kind that conceives aesthetic
value as “the integration of feeling,” which omits the
unity of the parts in the whole. Cleanth Brooks called
“organic” his own idea of the poem as a system of
actions and reactions, of stresses and balances like the
physical pressures in a bridge, which is obviously not
organical but mechanical (1941, p. 36). He draws closer
to genuine organicism in books written in collaboration
with R. P. Warren, especially Modern Rhetoric (1949).
A faithful presentation of the organic concepts is by
R. B. West and R. W. Stallman (1949). M. H. Abrams
in The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) gave one of the
fullest definitions, both historically and critically, of
organicism, but he unnecessarily adopted Pepper's
classification of kinds of theory. M. Krieger put forward
an “organic theory of poetic creation” (1950), but he
was diverted from the organic concepts by the Aris-
totelian theory of language as a medium and not as
an organic form.
The distinction between organic unity and organic
form may perhaps be defined as that between an earlier
and less developed form of theory and a later, more
specific form of it—the latter still having a future in
front of it. But the concepts are now so widespread
that it is impossible to follow out all variations of them.
Organic unity is so indispensable a prerequisite of
aesthetics that it is often taken for granted and omitted
as obvious. But both concepts in their strict form are
still capable of development and revision.
There are also critical trends adverse to organic
conceptions. The opposition comes mainly from repre-
sentatives of traditional poetics and rhetoric, with their
separation of form and content, thought and expression,
and from their prescriptive formulas for composition;
also from neo-Aristotelians and others who are opposed
to the idealistic philosophy which underlies much of
organicism. The latter has been identified by other
critics with the idea of unconscious growth, which
ignores “the conscious, critical element in composi-
tion.” But in the idealistic context organic unity applies
to the result of the conscious act of composition, to
the completed work and not to its genesis. Likewise,
the incomplete or fragmentary condition of a work
today cannot provide an argument for denying organic
character to its original text, nor can the fact that
Page 427, Volume 3
the original text may now be disfigured by textual
corruption. More recent critics have denied the idea
that a good poem is injured by losing some of its parts
(Lord, 1965); others have traced the principle to
different philosophical systems, like Leibniz' (Benziger,
1951). The fact that the organic metaphor refers to
a biological phenomenon like the human body has been
considered a fault, but that can be easily removed by
dropping the metaphor and formulating the concept
in its logical form as the synthesis of particulars, to
be found actually in a work of art as created by the
mind, and only analogically in a living body. Nor is
the metaphor necessary to provide the name for the
principle, since it has been given other designations,
such as “esemplastic” or “coadunative unity” by Cole-
ridge, an “intensive manifold” by T. E. Hulme, or a
“synthetic configuration” by Osborne.
Most of the topics in this article are more fully treated
in G. N. G. Orsini, “The Organic Concepts in Aesthetics,”
in Comparative Literature, 31 (1969), 1-30. The most notable
contributions to the history of the idea were made by the
German scholar Oskar Walzel in his Vom Geistesleben alter
und neuer Zeit (Leipzig, 1922), and other works listed in
this article. In English, the fullest historical exposition is
in M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp... (New York,
1953), and one of the most perceptive critical expositions
is in Sir Herbert Read, The True Voice of Feeling (New York,
1953). The works of René Wellek contain much that bears
directly on the subject.
The following are references made in the course of the
article. W. Blake, Complete Writings, ed. G. Keynes (Oxford,
1966), pp. 395-96. B. Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetic, 2nd
ed. (London, 1904), pp. 32-33. A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lec-
tures on Poetry (London, 1909), pp. 257-59. C. D. Broad,
Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy (Cambridge, 1933),
I, 240. C. Brooks, “The Poem as Organism: Modern Critical
Procedure,” English Institute Annual 1940 (New York, 1941),
pp. 20-41; idem, “Implications of an Organic Theory of
Poetry,” in M. H. Abrams, ed., Literature and Belief, English
Institute Essays, 1957 (New York, 1958), pp. 53-79; idem
and R. P. Warren, Modern Rhetoric: With Readings (New
York, 1949). H. H. Clark, “Changing Attitudes in Early
American Criticism: 1800-1840,” in Floyd Stovall, ed.,
Development of American Literary Criticism (Chapel Hill,
N.C., 1955). S. T. Coleridge, “On the Principles of Genial
Criticism...” (1814), in J. Shawcross, ed., Biographia
Literaria, 2 vols. (London, 1907), II, 238-39; idem, The
Philosophical Lectures, Hitherto Unpublished, ed. K. Coburn
(New York, 1949), p. 196; idem, Shakespearean Criticism,
ed. T. M. Raysor, new ed., 2 vols. (London, 1960), I, 4-5.
B. Croce, Brevario di estetica, trans. Douglas Ainslie as “The
Breviary of Aesthetics” (Houston, Texas, 1912); book title,
The Essence of Aesthetic (London, 1921); the original is also
in Nuovi saggi di estetica, 2nd ed. (Bari, 1920), pp. 39ff;
idem, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Lin-
guistics, trans. Douglas Ainslie, 2nd ed. (London, 1922), pp.
2, 20; idem, Problemi di estetica (Bari, 1910), pp. 192-93.
F. De Sanctis, “Settembrini e i suoi critici,” in Saggi critici,
ed. L. Russo, 3 vols. (Bari, 1965), II, 306. J. Dewey, Art
as Experience (New York, 1934), pp. 192-93. R. H. Fogle,
“Organic Form and American Criticism: 1840-1870,” in
Stovall, op. cit. For J. Harris, see Schwinger, below. G. W. F.
Hegel, Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F. P. B. Ormaston,
4 vols. (London, 1920), IV, 51; cf. on “The Beauty of Na-
ture,” I, 163-67, 173-75. J. Hospers, “Problems of Aes-
thetics,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards,
8 vols. (New York, 1967), I, 43. M. Krieger, The New Apolo-
gists for Poetry (Minneapolis, 1950); idem, “B. Croce and
the Recent Poetics of Organicism,” Comparative Literature,
7 (1955), 252-58. G. MacKenzie, Organic Unity in Coleridge
(Berkeley, 1939). J. E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence
(Cambridge, 1921), I, 165-66. G. N. G. Orsini, B. Croce as
Philosopher of Art and Literary Critic (Carbondale, 1961),
p. 317, n. 26; idem, “Coleridge and Schlegel Reconsidered,”
Comparative Literature, 16 (1964), 116-18. H. Osborne, The
Theory of Beauty (London, 1952), p. 124. S. C. Pepper, The
Basis of Criticism in the Arts (Cambridge, Mass., 1945). R.
Schwinger and R. Nicolai, Innere Form und dichterische
Phantasie (Munich, 1935). R. B. West and R. W. Stallman,
The Art of Modern Fiction (New York, 1949), esp. “Form,”
p. 647, and “Structure,” p. 651. O. Wilde, Intentions
(London, 1891), p. 201. E. M. Wilkinson, “Goethe's Con-
ception of Form,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 37
(1951), 186.
For the identification with unconscious growth see: J.
Benziger, “Organic Unity, Leibniz to Coleridge,” PMLA,
66 (1951), 24-48. The following titles do not discuss
“unconscious growth” but the general concept. T. E. Hulme,
“The Philosophy of Intensive Manifolds,” in his Specula-
tions, ed. H. Read (London, 1924), pp. 171-214. C. Lord,
“Organic Unity Reconsidered,” Journal of Aesthetics and
Art Criticism, 52 (1964), 263-68. W. Van O'Connor, An Age
of Criticism, 1900-1950 (Chicago, 1952), p. 58.

[See also Analogy of the Body Politic v1-11 ; Classicism v1-55 ; Criticism v1-71 ; Hegelian... v2-46 ; Literature v3-11 ; Metaphor in Philosophy v3-23 ; \Platonism v3-63 v3-64 v3-65 ; Romanticism in Post-Kantian Philosophy. v4-28 ]

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1941 Time Magazine Review of American Renaissance
Monday, Jun. 02, 1941
American Masterpieces

AMERICAN RENAISSANCE—F. O. Mathiessen—Oxford ($5).

Between 1850 and 1855, five Americans published seven books which made that half-decade the most explosive in American cultural history. The men: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman. The books: Representative Men, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby Dick, Pierre, Walden, Leaves of Grass. "You might search all the rest of American literature without being able to collect a group of books equal to these in imaginative vitality."

So says Francis Otto Matthiessen, an Associate Professor of History and Literature at Harvard. His American Renaissance is a study of these books and men. The result of ten years' work, it weighs

2 lbs., 9½ oz., runs to 656 pages, contains some 300,000 words, each of which was put there with evident care. It attends to its business with the strict energy a good boxer would use in cutting down a bigger man. Its business: "To follow these books through their implications . . . to assess them in relations to one another and to the drift of our literature since, and, so far as possible, to evaluate them in accordance with the enduring requirements for great art." One of its five subjects inevitably emerges as the greatest writer the U.S. has yet produced. Matthiessen does not pick him in so many words, but a reader can.

Emerson is Matthiessen's toughest assignment "because of his inveterate habit of stating things in opposites." He all but worshiped Plato's ability to reconcile fact and abstraction, spent his life in a ceaseless effort to do likewise. That effort made him what he said of Goethe: "The cow from which the rest drew their milk." His conceptions of "the infinitude of the private man," of the equality of all souls, of content as above expression (to the point of windy disregard for expression), of the poet as seer or prophet, of the intuitive moment as final knowledge, of all things as symbols—these (and a luminous excitement over democracy) were the stock-in-brain of all Transcendentalists, but it was Emerson who articulated them first.

He never wrote a "masterpiece"—"the sentence was his unit"—but his theory of expression "was that on which Thoreau built, to which Whitman gave extension, and to which Hawthorne and Melville were indebted by being forced to react against its philosophical assumptions." Thoreau had Emerson's Nature solid underfoot to start his life on. In an analysis of Walden's quietly magnificent form, Teacher Matthiessen passes Thoreau on Coleridge's test of "the organic principle" —that form must arise out of the properties of the material—and names him one of the ancestors of modern functionalism.

Suffering and loneliness were Hawthorne's whole school. He had no more patience with Transcendentalism than with Phrenology (which Poe and Whitman swallowed whole), even less with Transcendental optimism for America. Like most of the sensitive men of his time, he saw "significance" in common things.

Sometimes they had the full vitalizing power of real symbols; sometimes, clumsily, he tried to kick meanings into them, as when he jotted down: "Meditations about the main gaspipe of a great city —if the supply were to be stopped, what would happen? . . . It might be made emblematical of something." He got his meanings, his characters and their actions most perfectly synchronized in The Scar let Letter. In Seven Gables, as Matthiessen takes pleasure in showing, he worked out a thorough and frightening economic-spirit ual image of America, only to foozle it at the end.

Matthiessen makes out a thorough case for Hawthorne as a creator of genuine tragedies; but seems to exaggerate in crediting him with "a penetration no less deep than Dostoevski's into the mysteries of suffering." By far the most exciting pages of American Renaissance are those devoted to Herman Melville, "the American with the richest natural gifts as a writer." Melville had the good luck to reach the age of 25 bitterly experienced as a sailor, and virtually uneducated. He then sat down to such a ravenous use of his mind as few men can have equalled.

He could not stomach Emerson's innocent blandness towards evil: "Enough of this Plato who talks thro' his nose!" His own intuition was the antithesis of Emerson's: "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright." He was more excited by Hawthorne's "great power of blackness," his "short, quick probings at the very axis of reality." Between Hawthorne and Shakespeare, Melville's genius took on a heat that flared the thin edges of insanity and that only utter exhaustion could ever quiet. Moby Dick was its Dionysian profusion; Pierre -"about the most desperate [book] in our literature"—its scalding, berserk phase.

In Moby Dick, Melville was less concerned with individual sin than with "titanic, uncontrollable forces which seem to swamp man altogether." Matthiessen makes clear his prodigious ability to manage—or to make one beast of—so rampant a tandem of allegory, symbol and fact as the white whale. He points out Ahab's complete fatalism (another violent reaction against Emerson), nominates Ahab as a "symbolical . . . American hero"—"a fearful symbol of the self-enclosed individualism that, carried to its furthest extreme, brings disaster both upon itself and upon the group of which it is part. . .

an ominous glimpse of what was to result when the Emersonian will to virtue became in less innocent natures the will to power and conquest." He also makes it abundantly clear that Melville was no mere whirlwind of tortured metaphysics but one of the most conscious democrats of his time.

After Melville, great Walt Whitman seems unfairly naive and flabby. Matthiessen observes that he saved himself from the bathetic role of an Every-Man-His-Own-Messiah only by his genuine warmth towards all other men. Though he worked at it more bravely than any other, he never created popular language: the one Whitman poem to seep through to the proletariat of the grade schools is in rocking-horse ballad meter, O Captain! My Captain! His poetry has been less influential in our time than that of his "polar opposite," the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins.

As for the literary descendants of Melville, there are enthusiasts like Waldo Frank and there is one man of genius, Hart Crane. Matthiessen makes nothing of him. But he does quote from Crane, as a chapter head, lines which magnificently carry the voices of both poets, and design for them a common epitaph: Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil, Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled . . . High in the azure steeps Monody shall not wake the mariner.,9171,790146,00.html
Freitag, 20. Juli 2007
First of all...a question...
: I would like to go back in time and live in 19th century New England.
Where do I sign up?
No Way!

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Created by sfroehlich on 2007.07.20, 22:29.