American renaissance



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It is not a literary movement, it’s the title of F. O. Mathiessen’s work: he was a literary critic who wrote, in the 40’s, a big work which is a study of 19th century American Literature. According to him the period between 1850 and 1855 was the Golden Age of American literature. In his opinion the most important works of American literature were written in these years, which saw the publication of “Representative Men” by R. W. Emerson, “The Scarlett Letter” by N. Hawthorne, “Moby Dick” (1851) by H. Melville, “Walden” (1854) by Thoreau, “Leaves of Grass” (poetry) by W. Whitman. Mathiessen thought that these works were superior to the English literature of the period. What is certain is that British literature and the newborn American one came from two different traditions and therefore they dealt with different issues. Many British novelists of the period were more concerned with social problems ( for example Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot, “The Mill on the Floss”) or with psychological inquiry (indagine) (for example Stevenson), or with society and respectability (Hardy, Wilde, Shaw). The American literary tradition, since the beginning, had had a strong puritan background and as (poiché) it mostly flourished in New England, which was the place were puritan settlers had established themselves more than two centuries before, the influence of the Bible (also in the language, not only in themes), the sense of predestination, the idea of sin and punishment, are strongly felt. Parallely there’s also a large presence of nature (in Northen America there are immense landscapes), in the sense also of a presence of the divine in nature, which ultimately dates back to Romanticism, but was spread and reinforced by a movement of American writers called “Trascendentalists” (< Trascendentalism). They were a group of writers which developed in a village of Massachussets called Concord, where they lived, and it was a philosophical, religious, literary social movement. The most important representative trascendentalist was Emerson, another was Thoreau (vedi fotocopia).
According to them:
• The spiritual world trascends the material world;
• The physical world offers us only the appearance of reality, but reality itself exists only in the spirit;
• Orthodox religion, that is the religion taught by the various churches, interferes with man’s attempt to live a spiritually free life. Finally man must use his spiritual faculties, which are reason and intuition, to look for the spiritual principle (the soul of Universe), which you can identify with God.
Obviously some philosophers also stressed individualism which, in the most radical philosophers like Thoreau, also involved the rejection of authority, intellectual and social in general but also political.
• One person should live a life of contemplation, developing his intellectual growth, exchanging ideas with his fellow men, avoiding material or economic distraction.
It was rather an optimistic philosophy, in the sense that it was opposed to Puritanism, it was against that insistence of Puritans on the original sin and on the natural wickedness of man.
Thoreau (v. fotocopia) was one who put in practice in his life the idea of freedom from the institutions and he wrote about this experience. He lived in a hut nearby the river and he thought that civil disobedience was the way to rebel, to fight against the institutions when they didn’t go in the right way. “Walden” is a report of the period he spent in a hut.
R. W. Emerson (1803-1882): he visited Engalnd, met Coleridge and Wordsworth, and also Carlyle. He was immensly influencial throughout the 19th century both in England and America, and he stressed the need for American literature to become independent from British models. He said: “Nature is the incarnation of thought.”
MELVILLE, “Moby Dick”
Ishmael is the narrator, but not the protaginist of the story, in that the protagonist is considered to be Captain Achab, and the other protagonist is the white whale itself.
It’s quite a long story; it is a story set at sea, whose main theme is the hunt for an enormous whale by Captain Achab, but it isn’t of course simply the story of a sea voyage, in that it is charged (piena) with symbols. Many symbols are associated with the image of the white whale and to Achab’s hunt. The most important one is the struggle between good and evil, even if we do not know for certain which represents good and which represents evil between Achab and the whale.
Before writing “Moby Dick” Melville had already written books dealing with life at sea: one is “Typee”, and the other is “Omoo”, which are both set in the Southern Seas. Obviously he did not invent the material for these novels, but he drew from his personal experience, in that since an early age he began working on merchant ships and then on whalers. Whale hunting was a very widespread activity in the area north of Boston and in general in New England, and there was a flourishing industry based on whale hunting, in that every part of the whale can be exploited: they aren’t only hunted for food, but also for oil (for lamps) and for their bones (for women’s dresses, waistcoats (bustini)).
It was during one of these voyages that his ship reached Polynesia; in fact “Typee” and “Omoo” are set in Polynesia. This exotic setting had already raised the interest of European writers like Stevenson (he had gone to live in the southern seas himself).
There was a first version of “Moby Dick” which was only the story of a sea voyage and hadn’t got any symbolic associations: it was an adventure story. Then Melville got to know the other famous writer Hawthorne (“The Scarlett Letter”), and it was under Hawthorne’s influence that he re-wrote “Moby Dick” and transformed/turned it into a complex work of art in which facts, events and characters take up a symbolical meaning. In this version there is the dedication to Hawthorne.
There are different interpretations of the conflict between captain Achab and the whale. The theme is very traditional: the quest. There are clearly influences from previous works (like “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” for example, and the “Grail Legends”).
The language is full of Biblical terms, in fact the Puritan heritage was very strong in New England. The most striking references to the Bible are taken from the Old Testament; in particular there are parallels with the Book of Jonah, whose protagonist defies God and is punished. The other biblibal inspiration is the Book of Job: Job is crossed by destiny, and he would like to know the causes of his sufferings, but God tells him that man has no right to question the will of God, that is the works of one who had created the world and the universe before man existed and whose power therefore is infinite, while man is powerless and unfit to discuss with him. In this sense the white whale symbolizes the immense power of God in contrast with man and the fact that man must not defy him.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE (1804-1864), “The Scarlet Letter”
Nathaniel Hawthorne is the one who influenced Melville and under whose influence Melville completely changed the spirit of his Moby Dick.
He was born in a place called Salem, Massachusetts: this place is notorious (tristemente famoso) because in the 17th century witchcraft trials had been held there, involving many people. There was really a witch-hunt and many innocent people were condemned. So Massachusetts and in particular Salem have always been associated with a very strict and narrow-minded Puritanism, since this was the area where the first Puritan colonizers settled whe they left Europe. Therefore it’s not a coincidence that this writer was born in Salem. It deeply influenced both his spirit and his production. Hawthorne even discovered that some of his ancestors had been involved in witchcraft trials, in the sense that they had been the judges, not the victims; so he felt a sort of moral burden (peso), a sense of guilt for the sufferings that his ancestors had inflicted upon innocent people, even if they had been guided by moral zeal.
The second place which is associated with Hawthorne’s life is Concord, that is a place where he spent some years with his wife, and that is that village in Massachusetts where Emerson and the members of the Trascendentalist movement lived.
If we consider the Puritan heritage we can say that Hawthorne was not so pessimistic as the Puritans and we can say that the influence that Puritanism had upon him is to be found especially in his concern with the problem of evil, of sin; we can say that it is on the dark side of the human soul that he investigates in his works, yet he’s not so morally oppressive as the Puritans. In fact the protagonist of the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, is a positive character, and we can see clearly that the author sympathizes with her.
Hester Prynne arrives in the Puritan colony of Boston which is still a large village; she is a married woman and she has arrived in Boston before her husband; however her husband doesn’t arrive and he is thought to have been murdered by the Indians. Hester falls in love with a young clergyman, and their passion is kept secret; she bears a baby, called Pearl, so she is accused of adultery, because her husband’s body has not been found and so he can’t be considered dead. She undergoes a process, and she is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her clothes. Her husband isn’t dead at all, he was taken prisoner by the Indians; he comes back in secret disguise and he tries to discover who Hester committed adultery with. He understands it’s the clergyman and starts to torment him until he is destroyed by his sense of guilt and dies after confessing his sin.
There are also romantic elements in The Scarlet Letter, it is also a love story, a story of secret sinful passion, and of witchcraft. There’s a large use of dark settings, there are Gothic elements, for example the prison, blood, the red mark on Dimmesdale’s breast (petto) (supernatural element).
Hawthorne’s style is very rigorous , his plot is extremely well-organized, with extreme precision, all the events are logically connected; there is an organic use of symbolism, in the sense that the same symbols are present from the beginning to the end of the story, which gives unity. His language is very rich, very detailed and very conservative and archaic too, it largely draws (attinge) on the Bible.
There is an introduction to “The Scarlet Letter” in which the author-narrator says that while he was working at the Customs (or Custom House) he found a parcel with a scarlet “A” embroidered on a piece of cloth; he also says that with this letter he found some documents concerning the story of Hester. In this way he gives credibility to his story.
This passage is the introductory part: it is a long introduction by the narrator in which he tells about the town of Salem, the history of this town and his family. He says that he feels particularly linked to this town because his ancestors were part of those first colonists who had settled there in the 16th hundreds. He also says that he’s still obsessed by the memory of his ancestors and especially by the fact that they weren’t only men of justice and soldiers and high members of the Church, but they were also ruthless (spietati) persecutors; so they are remembered especially for their cruelty which, in the memory of people, has cancelled also their good actions. In this introduction, which is obviously in first person narrator, because the author wants to give the idea of a sort of diary, the narrator asks for pardon for his ancestors and for the evil they did.
This introduction already gives us the idea of what Hawthorne was mostly concerned about. Despite the influence by Trascendentalism (optimistic movement), he believes that there can be evil inside man as some of his characters witness, in particular Hester’s husband, with his thirst for revenge, driving him to madness and to death, as well as Dimmesdale.
Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre were a famous couple in their times: they were beautiful, rich and popular. Francis was a successful writer; he did not come from a rich family, but he had made money writing novels. Zelda, on the contrary, came from a very rich family. Throughout his life he struggled to get Zelda, and of course the story of Francis and Zelda reminds the one of Gatsby and Daisy, in the sense that Gatsby wasn’t born of a rich family, he came from the MidWest, the provincial area of the United States. Daisy on the contrary lived on the East Coast, the most fashionable and richest area. Everything Gatsby did in his life was to make as much money as possible to be able to catch Daisy’s attention.
Basically the story is the same, even if Francis made his money in a legal way, while Gatsby was a sort of gangster, and in any case he was in touch with criminals: probably he made money by bootlegging. We understand it from some words by Daisy’s husband.
The novel is set in the American 20’s, called The Jazz Age. In this period a law was passed which forbade the production, sale and consumation of alcoholics. This period is called Prohibition and it was a result of course of the ever-present Puritan heritage; it was a measure to stop the plague of alcoholism, and it was as usually something which mostly served to keep up appearances, but which wasn’t really efficient, in the sense that alcohol went on being produced and sold illegally. Probably Gatsby made money by selling alcohol illegally. In any case there’s an atmosphere of mistery surrounding him.
The 20’s in the United States were the years of the economic boom, also due to the fact that the USA had not suffered a great loss from the First World War because it was not fought at home but overseas. Not only hadn’t they suffered from the material damage of bombing, but their economy and their industry had flourished thanks to war supplies (forniture) and the plan of reconstruction in Europe. Was this prosperity a real one or an illusiory one? There was something wrong at a certain moment: the mass-production of goods became excessive and the market was no longer able to absorb it. Industries began to shut down (chiudere) and this period culminated in the Wall Street crash in 1929: it was the collpase of the American stock market (mercato azionario, Stock Exchange=borsa); in a few hours enormous fortunes literally disappeared, big capitalists and businessmen were ruined, some were reduced to begging in the streets or queuing for bread.
The period of the 30’s in America is called Great Depression, and is described by famous novelists like Steinbeck (“The Grapes of Wrath” , agricultural districts) and Dos Passos (cities). Steinbeck was more concerned with the effects of the Great Depression in the rural areas, while Dos Passos concentrated more on the urban realities.
President F. D. Roosevelt at a certain moment worked out a project for the economic recovery of the nation, called New Deal (Nuovo Corso), which means to make a fresh start, it’s a metaphor taken from card games meaning to redistribute cards, to start a new game. He tried to find solutions to employ the largest possible number of people, he put many people at work in the exploitation of natural resources, for example the building of dams (dighe), the control and upkeeping of forests and parks; he took writers and had them write tourist guides, as well as artists to decorate public buildings; one of the fields in which he employed many people was the one of public works. However it is commonly agreed that even if the New Deal certainly helped to recover the economy, however it would not have been enough if the Second World War hadn’t broken out, which gave a fresh impulse to American industry.
The kind of society described by Fitzgerald is the one of the 20’s, that are also called The Roaring Twenties, because of the atmosphere of optimism, the economic boom, the spread of new music, the general welfare (benessere). The society described by Fitgerald is totally the opposite of the one described by Steinbeck; in fact he described the life of those people who were so rich that they didn’t need to have a job: Tom for example didn’t work, he and Daisy and most of their friends while away the time (passano il tempo) moving from one place to another, playing polo games, meeting friends; money comes to them from their families. Only Nick and obviously Wilson have to work. Gatsby’s money came from an illegal activity. None of these people had a regular job, which certainly is in contrast with the Puritan spirit. Apparently Fitzgerald seems to describe this upper stratum of society, but in facts he criticizes it, and even if he belonged to this world, he was showing that these people, expecially those like Tom, had no ideals in their life, hadn’t any ethical values and were certainly in contrast with what used to be called the American Dream. He did not exalt American society, he wanted to show how the American dream, that is the ideals of the first settlers (freedom, prosperity, hard work), had degenerated, had been corrupted by materialism and hypocrisy.
During the Great Depression not only had many industries closed, but there was very little work also in the countryside. Steinbeck describes the mass-migration from the Middle West to California in search for a new job, for example fruit-picking.
Jazz had spread in the United States in the late 19th century, in New Orleans, and the Southern States. It was played in clubs, there were jazz-clubs. It was seen as a typical American kind of music, something which had nothing to do with the European heritage. Later it spread also in the big industrial cities of the North: it happened that during the 1st World War the Navy ordered jazz clubs in New Orleans to be shut down because many sailors used to spend their time there and, as often happens, they got drunk and were frequently involved in rows (risse); so many musicians migrated to the great metropolis of the North, and jazz clubs began to be opened there (for example New York, Chicago...). It was a type of music which appealed all the social classes and it became so widespread that it gave the name to this age, the 20’s. However “Jazz Age” refers more broadly speaking to the lifestyle of that period.
The great American writers were almost unknown in Europe, in particular in Italy, because of Fascism and other regimes: what came from overseas was forbidden; even English words were banned from every-day vocabulary and replaced with Italian ones. Obviously this was an obstacle to the spread of American literature. In spite of this there were some intellectuals who started to show an interest in American writers and started to read and translate their works, to the point that some works by these Italian writers clearly remind of the works of American novelists that they had translated. For example “Il Partigiano Jonny” by Beppe Fenoglio clearly reminds of a novel by Hemingway. Apart from Beppe Fenoglio, the first Italian writers who translated American works were Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini. Both Pavese and Vittorini were left-wing (di sinistra) intellectuals, which motivates the fact that they started to translate those writers who had described the life of the working classes, both in the cities and in the countryside, so they started to translate Steinbeck, Dos Passos, etc... or they translated a writer like Hemingway, who had dealt with the tragic experience of war.
In a first moment they didn’t seem to show a great interest for Fitgerald, because on the surface Fitgerald was one who spoke about rich people’s life. The fortune of Fitzgerald in Italy didn’t start before the 50’s. It was a student of Cesare Pavese, Fernanda Pivano, who still writes in newspapers, who translated Fitzgerald’s works into Italian.
On a less superficial level it was understood that Fitzgerald wanted to describe the corruption of the ideals of the American dream, not to celebrate the glamorous lifestyle of the Jazz Age.
Fitgerald belonged to a group of writers which was defined the “Lost Generation”. It was a definition which was given by an intellectual woman called Gertrude Stein, who took the definition from one of Hemingway’s novels: she was an intellectual, experimental writer who held a literary salon in Paris, where many famous writers used to meet; among them there were Fitzgerald and Hemingway (they lived in America just part of their lives). This group of writers was called “The Lost Generation” because they were disillusioned and cinical: they were disillusioned by American society, by the American dream, and shared a rejection of the materialistic values of American society, and were roaming Europe and the world in search for something to believe in.
The First World War swept away the influences of Europe and New England, that had dominated since colonial times, and created a new generation of intellectuals. The 20’s were an extremely creative period in literature because of the radical changes in the way people behaved and thought. The new manners were a sort of reaction against the strict Puritan morality of the previous century and they were evident especially among young people with their roaring cars and the new daring (trasgressivo) dances like Charleston. In spite of Prohibition, parties and cocktails became smart, and women began to wear their hair and dresses short (“flappers”=maschiette): they wanted to be a challenge to tradition, they smoked and drank, too.
Fitzgerald and Zelda were extremely rich and smart, and they lived a very expensive life. In spite of the fact they were so rich, at a certain point they began to decline, and he had to go to Hollywood to write filmscripts. At the same time Francis and Zelda started to have serious problems with alcohol; she also had problems of mental instability, and in the end she definitely got mentally insane and she ended up in a mental-hospital, where she died in a fire (1947). Also Francis ended up miserably (1940).
The metaphor of “the green light”...
AESTHETICISM (2nd half of 19th cent.)
Wilde (pag 221-222 Resource) was one of the greatest writers in the English language. He wrote a series of comedies (Comedy of Manners); as a novelist he is remembered for “The Picture of Dorian Gray”; he wrote also a tragedy, called “Salomè”, which caused a scandal because it is very morbid. Wilde also wrote beautiful short stories, in which he showed his ability in the use of language: he used a kind of prose which reminds of the one of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, a very sensual and poetic one, otherwise called language of sense impressions; it is a kind of language which wants to evoke sensual perceptions, not only the ones given by sight but also those related to all the other senses (smell, touch, hearing, taste). The aim of this type of style was to provide the reader a complete perception of a certain atmosphere. He used a large number of adjectives and the verbs tend to be verbs of state, which creates a static atmosphere.
Decadentism → houses were full of very rare and refined objects. In “The Picture of Dorian Gray” we have a chapter dedicated to the description of Dorian’s house.
The movement called “Aestheticism” in England has been seen as a reaction to Middle Class materialism, vulgarity and bad taste as well as to the moral hypocrisy. People like Oscar Wilde wanted to show the reaction to the Middle-Classes by elevating themselves above the Middle Classes in their style of life and way of thought. This motivates their very refined way of dressing to the limit of eccentricity, their taste for beautiful and rare objects (against Utilitarianism), as well as their unconventional style of life, which wanted to challenge openly Middle-Class false respectability.
French poets like Baudelaire wanted to challenge Middle-Class society, but they did so by taking the opposite direction: they lived a life of degradation.
The search for beauty, was the aim of the life of an aesthete, with the aim of providing sensations.
“Life is like a river which runs incessantly towards death and as a consequence you must make the most of every moment of a life, which is a moment itself.”

Reaction to Middle Class respectability: ===> isolation in an artificial world.

Walter Pater (pag. 232 Echoes) was the English philosopher who fixed the laws of Aestheticism.
Both XVIII-century and Victorian novels tipically had a didactic aim. The Aesthetes did not believe in the didactic aim of art, they said that a work of art mustn’t have a moral teaching as its aim; the only way of a work of art is to represent, to express beauty. This theory is called “Art for art’s sake”.
“There aren’t moral or immoral books; books are well written or badly written, and that’s all.” (Oscar Wilde).
Dorian Gray
The story begins with a conversation between two friends: the amoral, pleasure-seeking aristocrat Sir Henry Wotton and the painter Basil Hallward Henry is impressed by the beauty of the sitter of a Basil’s portrait and wants to know him. The sitter is Dorian Gray an aristocratic and beautiful young man. Basil doesn’t want to introduce Henry to Dorian because he fears Henry’s influence over the young man, but one day they meet and there is an immediate attraction between them. Gradually Henry becomes more influencial than Basil over Dorian. Basil gives the portrait to Dorian who confesses he would give his soul to remain forever beautiful and young. Dorian falls in love with Sibyl Vane, a young actress, and asks her to marry him. After a Sibil’s bad performance, he breaks his engagement with her and she commits suicide. When Dorian discovers it, he sees a first imperfection in the portrait and decides to hide it in an unused room. Henry gives to Dorian a book: A Rebours by Huysman. Dorian gradually becomes more notorious, starts a new life based on pleasure, perdition, corruption, opium and influences many young men and women (a lot of them commit suicide). After 18 years from Sibyl’s death Dorian shows the portrait to Basil, then kills him. During a night in the underworlds of the city he meets a mariner, Sybil’s brother, who wants to kill him. Dorian can save himself because his appearance isn’t changed in 18 years, but he feels persecuted by this man, who, later, is accidentally killed during a shooting party (battuta di caccia) in Dorian’s country mansion. Dorian decides to change his life but he is unable to do it, so decides to destroy the portrait. After a scream Dorian’s servants enter in the room and see the intact portrait and an old wrinkled died man on the floor. He is Dorian Gray (they can know him thanks to his rings)
American Renaissance
Hawthorne and Melville used a very new kind of language; in particular with the latter (especially in Moby Dick) we have the explosion of American speech, very different from British one.
Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
The description of Hester is very positive: she is an ambivalent figure. H. sympathizes for her because he thought that adultery wasn’t a crime, but only a way to follow natural instinct.
In the end there’s a sort of morality: everything comes back in a social order; Hester isn’t able to escape the conventions of society.
Sensitivity to nature motivates a certain quality of his prose: he wanted to imitate the coming and going of the waves.
Hawthorne wrote also Birthmark (beautiful woman with a mark on his face) is about the search for perfection and Wakefield, about a man who spies his wife.
Melville – Moby Dick
Pequod is an example of democracy and integration: no difference between sailors.
White is generally associated with purity; in this case the whale is both wonderful, pure and terrible.
The Great Gatsby
Very attractive title chosen by the editor. 1st title: under the red the white and the blue : Gatsby as the America.
It is set during the jazz age- the boom- the era of wonderful nonsense.
Basic level → love story
→ social critic of hypocrisy
→ Gatsby as an embodiment of America and the corruption of A.D.
Realism had the final word.
Nick→ narrator and character; we know about Gatsby from his words;
Gatsby→ drinks so little, extraordinary gift for hope→ so his optimism is his greatness
Gatsby and Fitzgerald → money only as an instrument.
’20 people were victims of the mass production and they lost their humanity.
Gatsby→ Jimmy Gatz unattractive and no sophisticated, Gatsby sounds more English.
Gatsby appears only in the third chapter and does it in a very dramatic way. He seems to be a magician (he disappears); the magic is in smile (the great Gatsby)
Gatsby’s props are, the audience is only made up by daisy house (not home) – cars – parties – clothes → the desire effects.
Tom → Mr nobody from nowhere (Gatsby)
→ou –topos →utopia; Gatsby is an utopic character
He is searching for something that money can’t buy, but he believes in the impossible: to repeat the past.
American mentality → to go to the future, Gatsby go to the wrong direction, he wants to go back to the past.
TWENTIES mostly urban, with no freedom.
F.S.F. didn’t like money but he needed money to buy happiness. He believed in the ethic of work, the fact of being rich corrupted, the determination for excellence.
Money determined the social structure:
1st level → very rich who don’t have to work (Tom (family), Gatsby (new rich))
2nd level → some money but have to work (Nick)
3rd level → people who work hard and have no money (Tom Wilson)
Garage is a social indicator :
-horses (Tom)
-new rich cars (Gatsby) conspicuous consumption
-work (Wilson)
Language → very poetic prose
Jazz -dancing
-nervous simulation
Jefferson → a president who had spoken about ideals: USA as an agrarian country; isolated and peaceful country, a free-thinking nation.
JUNGLE BOOK → a family who works abattoir in Chicago. Desperate conditions (degradation and alcoholism)
The government life of poverty, degradation, criminality and alcoholism. Growing power of AD that conditions people’s opinion, force people to buy products.
War – materialism – AD – very little personal freedom
New rich had to show their money.