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Romanticism and Realism in American Literature

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   2 December 2008
   Dmitri Kaminiar
   Student #995059083
   ENG250 American literature

Romanticism and Realism in American Literature

   Using the examples from works of Hawthorne, Poe, and Twain, this essay is going to show the differences of Romanticism, a literary style that stressed strong emotions whether seen or heard or read, and Realism - a literary style that was concerned with representing its subjects as they appeared in everyday life without the usage of any literary devices. In addition, it is going to discuss their mutual beginnings in the earlier, less secular, American literature.
   This similarity of original literary elements can be seen in the works of the earlier American authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). He wrote in a style containing the elements of both Romanticism and Realism, as demonstrated by such a piece of fiction as "The Minister's Black Veil":
   Mr Hooper, a gentlemanly person of about thirty, though still a bachelor, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday's garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his own appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view, it seemed to consist of two folds of crepe, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, farther than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. (623)
   This quote demonstrates a mix of the elements that would later become either Romanticism or Realism: "...Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view, it seemed to consist of two folds of crepe". As can be seen from this excerpt, the comment aims to de-mystify Mr. Hooper's new Romantic aura, "this gloomy shade". After all, realistically speaking, crepe is "a light, semitransparent fabric" or cloth - how romantic or mysterious can a cloth be?
   As Hawthorne's story continues to unfold, both the characters in the story and the story's readers discover that these "two folds of crepe" can be very mysterious, not to mention intimidating. The rumours and speculations of Mr. Hooper's congregation just grow and increase throughout the story, until finally, on his death bed, Mr. Hooper cannot stand it anymore:
   ...Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery, which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crepe so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best-beloved; when ma does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and lo! on every visage a black veil! (631)
   The penultimate paragraph of Hawthorne's story summarizes up its whole Romantic/Realistic ambiguity. The reactions of Mr. Hooper's congregation are clearly closer to the Romantic end of the spectrum, as they reacted to him as if he was some sort of a shadowy monster, rather than the man they had known for the better parts of their lives. Mr. Hooper's own reaction towards them, however, is more of a Realistic tint, as he does not hesitate to tell the truth as he sees and knows it:
   "When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best-beloved; when ma does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster" (631)
   Mr Hooper confronts his audience with truth, dispels all the mystery about his veil and its significance, and dies. Secular Romantic and Realistic heroes of literature and art will outlive both the still very religious Mr. Hooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne, however.
   The poem "The Raven" was written in 1845, just nine years after Hawthorne finished writing his story, but it is already very different from "The Minister's Black Veil", and not just because it was written by a very different man. Whereas Nathaniel Hawthorne was religious to some extent, Edgar Allan Poe was definitely secular, and neither his poems, like "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" nor his prose, like "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "Ligeia" show any of the religious elements that were so important to Hawthorne. Rather, Poe's world is a world that has no hope for anything, whether it is love, salvation, escape, etc.:
   Is there--is there balm in Gilead? [...]/Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn/It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore [...]/Quoth the raven, "Nevermore." (677)
   The poem ends with "...my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted--nevermore!" (678)
   Admittedly, this pessimistic and even nihilistic view of Poe's (Aidenn is vaguely suggestive of Eden) does relate to Hawthorne's own views: "I look around me and lo! on every visage is a black veil!" (631), with the veil standing for mankind's fear of the secret sin and of the Creator's all-seeing eye, but, at the same time, unlike Hawthorne's more balanced approach, Poe's Romanticism is carried to the extreme. Unlike the more realistic Hawthorne, let alone Twain, the literary landscape of Poe's literature is almost monotone in its intonation, whether of gloom or despair or similar emotion, and almost monochromatic, as it lacks all color, except for black and possibly for white or grey to sharpen the blackness by contrast. Whether it is a poem as "The Raven" or a story as "The Tell-Tale Heart", a reader will find hardly any reference to any sort of color but black, to any kind of emotion other than the negative ones.
   On the other hand, Mark Twain, also known as Samuel Clemens, wrote almost exclusively in a Realistic genre, practically ignoring the Romantic genre, especially of the Southern romance variety, or even mocking it in the character of Tom Sawyer. (He is equally, or even more fond of attacking Shakespeare.) The novel is extremely realistic, down to the various Southern dialects that were used in America of that time: "the Missouri Negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary `Pike-County' dialect; and four modified varieties of this last [...] with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech". (5) Put in alternative explanation, whereas Poe and other Romantics wrote their works of fiction without any concern for the real world, but totally detached from it, as the story "The Tell-Tale Heart" demonstrates: it completely focuses on the narrator, his victim - the old man with the evil eye and the beating heart - and completely ignores everything else.
   With Realists, such as Mark Twain, it is completely different: the man is highly concerned with the way his fiction fits into the real life, down to the small details, such as the dialect, as the quote above shows. Consequently, the direct language of Huck, or Jim, or any other character in the book probably sounded just the way their real-life counterparts did.
   Regarding romance and the Romanticist movement, Tom Sawyer, Huck's friend and the hero of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer deserves a special mention: he tends to confuse books with real life, and his plans in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn often seem to have been taken out of books, for example:
   Now we'll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer's Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood". (20) "[...] stealing cattle and such things ain't robbery, it's burglary [...] We ain't burglars. They ain't no sort of style. We are highwaymen. We stop stages and carriages on the road, with masks on, and kill the people and take their watches and money. (21)
   The above quotes sound bloodthirsty... until the reader realises that these speeches are made by a schoolboy, who never killed anyone, and who clearly has no idea of how the real world works. Tom trusts the books completely (22) and will always take the books over the real life. It is no wonder, then, that his gang broke down in a month with all the boys resigning, even Huck. Maybe Twain is not suggesting that people who write books have no idea about real life, but he certainly suggests that people who trust books over real life get into trouble. As far as Mark Twain and the other followers of the Realism movement are concerned, one can ignore the real life only at their own peril, and romance, especially the overly romantic kind, just may not work in the real life. Later on in the book, in chapter XII, Huck and Jim encounter some real-life robbers, and these men indeed do not have any sense of style, nor are they anything like what Tom Sawyer and the other boys imagine them to be. To add insult to injury, Huck and Jim encounter the bandits on a wreck named "Sir Walter Scott", named after a famous British Romanticist author. This suggests that Twain thought that romance just hid the ugliness of reality and led innocent folk into trouble.
   It should be noted that Mark Twain published his book in 1885, just forty years after Poe's "The Raven" and forty-nine after Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil". To recap, Hawthorne's story contained the elements of both the Romanticist and the Realist movement, with the author freely using the elements of both movements to push his point across to the readers. Conversely, neither Poe nor Twain seem to care much for the movement opposing to them: Twain just mocks romance in the character of Tom Sawyer and other folks whom Huck and Jim meet down on the river, and Poe blithely ignores reality as it is, focusing on his protagonists alone.
   When it comes to protagonists and other elements shared by Romanticism and Realism, a number of differences clearly arises. Firstly, in Realism, any character, even the protagonist, like Huck Finn, is just one of the many individuals that compose the colourful tapestry of life. Meanwhile in Romanticism, especially so pointed and obvious as Poe's is, the main character is often the pivotal center of the story, with the other characters (if any), like the old man and policemen from "The Tell-Tale Heart" are like satellites that "orbit" around the protagonist and are judged in importance in their relationships with the protagonist. Thus, in "The Tell-Tale Heart", the old man is almost as important as the story's protagonists are and is given some characterization at least, even if it is stilted and slanted, while the police officers are practically faceless and undeveloped as characters. This situation is in obvious opposition to such a sharply Realistic author as Twain, who gives all of his characters, no matter how briefly they are presented (like the riverside robbers that Huck and Jim encounter in chapter XII), some inner depth and development. Finally, Hawthorne in his story "The Minister's Black Veil" again seems to be straddling middle ground, of sorts. His characters are not as well developed as Twain's are, but his world is still much more realistic than Poe's nearly monochrome landscape of mental angst and anguish, as it was said above.
   Secondly, the same thing can be said about the settings and backgrounds of the respective works. Just as with the characters, the Romanticist movement does not spend much time on settings and backgrounds: Poe's "The Raven" just takes place in some study room that has a "bust of Pallas just above my chamber door" (678), but that is it. There are no other descriptive landmarks, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" lacks even that. The settings in Poe's fiction are as generic as possible, as opposed to Twain's, or even Hawthorne's, who does not hesitate to describe the black veil of his Mr. Hooper as just two folds of black cloth.
   There are, however, some distant similarities between the two genres. For example, neither Poe nor Twain seem to hold religion in much regard. Poe seems to blithely ignore it in "The Tell-Tale Heart", and in "The Raven", the dialogue appears to suggest that death is a final frontier, that there is no afterlife "[...] if, within the distant Aidenn/It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore [...]/Quoth the raven, "Nevermore." (677) As for Twain, religion, like Romanticism, is something to mock and make fun of, like the Biblical wisdom of King Solomon in Chapter XIV. Since Twain is a realist, it is reasonable to say that he believed that religion, like Romanticism, and other information that came from books, does not always stick up to scrutiny in real life (at any rate Huck could not make Jim believe in King Solomon or similar Biblical characters).
   In conclusion of the essay, hopefully, it has become clear that while the American literature began in a rather simple, straightforward, mainstream direction, by the middle of the 19th century it cleanly split into several directions, each one leading away from the original, Puritan-slash-semi-religious texts of the first settlers. Hawthorne had already partially drawn away from it in his stories (though nowhere near the level of Poe or Twain), and the latter authors just parted ways with it completely. Hawthorne, and Poe, and Twain, and their contemporaries were just steps on the way to modern American literature, but they were important steps - both Romanticism and Realism remain equally important in our literary studies even today.
  
   Bibliography
   Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Minister's Black Veil. The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
   Poe, Edgar Allan. The Raven. The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
   Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart. The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
   Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
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