American literature’s progress from Puritanism to Anti-Transcendentalism is a story of how the American nation was formed in the face of various challenges. Having conquered the initial natural hardships of taming the new land, as it is reflected in Puritan works, the search for answers to life’s challenges and essence moved from God to human reasoning in Classicism, from imagination in Romanticism and dark mysteriousness of Gothicism to the knowledge beyond physical world in Transcendentalism and less optimistic Anti- Transcendentalism.
Puritan movement of the 17th Century was developed by Calvinist Protestants who wanted to cleanse religious beliefs as well as their contemporary society (Barbour, Quirk 24). They contemplated that God would purify their inner selves by means of “grace” eradicating jealousy, self-importance, and lust. They prized simplicity in all matters, including their writing. Puritanism in literature was forged during the hard times of the New World settlement, and naturally looked for answers from God to find solutions to their life's everyday challenges. The unknown was identified with the Almighty. Salem witch trials contributed to mysticism and orderly mode of life to extremism. In contrast to that period, the Age of Reason developed during the less difficult times, and thus there was less need in divine help. As a result, the literature became more human-focused (Coan 10). The Age of Reason as reflected in the American literature thus turned into a rational movement with writers feeling that the aims of intelligent people were understanding, independence, and enjoyment of life. The literary movement became centered on the analysis of and conformity with the ancient Greek and Roman classic works. For classicists, lucidity, structure, balance, and rationale were important as opposed to creative thinking. They considered that nature was similar to a system with predetermined, constant laws. They presented a logical evaluation of the surroundings, searching for answers in human mind and thinking capacity. Consequently, they can be characterized by an emotional hollowness. They did not focus on clearing up why there was evil or joy in life. The unknown for them was merely that which a valid explanation had not yet identified. It was the period of American Independence, when mysticism was unpopular, science was the new king instead of God, since all things could be perceived.
Romantic Movement of the 19th Century confronted Classicism favoring the utilization of the imagined and emotional content (Dickinson 15). Romanticism was the time of progress and transformation in the society. The quest for answers was focused on the unknown, the unexplainable, since reasoning, science and God could not be said to explain all things. The movement developed likewise out of the actual wilderness, uninvestigated lands of the West. Such writers preferred intuition over rationale and were more focused on the individual soul as opposed to the entire society. They viewed art as a creative manifestation of a person's spirit. Romantics looked at nature as a spectacular mystery, and a supplier of ethical as well as spiritual lessons, not a system. Romantic Gothicism was characterized by a focus on the somber and the mystical. Notions, such as magical objects, secret pathways, screams, hands in blood, spirits as well as other mysterious beings and actions, were all frequent in the Gothic literature (Nagel et el. 4). Its horror stories portrayed the black side of human character and made their readers afraid.
The American Transcendentalism was developed by Ralph Waldo Emerson who took his creative ideas from German Transcendentalism as well as Indian religious beliefs to create a new school of thought (Kirby 8). The quest for answers from the unknown and unexplored objects went further to the transcending unknown. Transcendentalists considered that the fundamental truths of the world went beyond the actual world and rested above the information that could be acquired from the sensory faculties. They believed that any person has the capability to encounter God directly in his/her feelings. They prized nature and had faith in the spiritual oneness of all living things, proclaiming that God, mankind, and nature had a universal soul. Transcendentalists believed that nothing in nature was insignificant or unimportant and everything was representational and necessary. They likewise promoted the perception that every person came into the world naturally good. Anti-Transcendentalism (similar to Transcendentalism) evolved as a branch of Romanticism, yet incorporated the presence of evil in the universe constructed by Transcendentalism (Kirby 9). Hawthorne as well as Melville was far less positive compared to Emerson and his associates. The Anti-Transcendentalists considered that good along with evil coexisted in the universe and that intuition might lead a human being to evil in the same way as it could guide to good.
Summarizing, it could be said that the American literature is a reflection of the nation’s quest for understanding life in its full scope with hardships and easier times, with good and evil in the universe and tangible as well as intangible matters, hiding the answers somewhere within.
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