Essay: American Romantic Temperament: A Blend

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¶ … American Romantic temperament:

A blend of Transcendentalist optimism and anti-Transcendentalist despair

The American Romantic movement arose as an outgrowth of European Romanticism. However, it began to take on a character of its own over the course of the 19th century. European and American Romanticism were characterized by an idealism of nature and pastoral life; the celebration of the irrational over the rational; faith in individualism and a belief in a dimension of reality that could be understand only on emotional rather than logical terms. There were many subsets of the American Romantic Movement, however -- some emphasized the veneration of nature to a greater degree in a very positive and optimistic fashion like many of the Transcendentalists, while others took a far darker view of natural human emotions. American Romantics differed in the extent to which they embraced many of the tropes of European Romanticism, such as its fascination with the medieval, myth, and the past. Some saw these tropes as innate to the human soul, while others wanted to create a uniquely 'American' understanding of what it meant to be a Romantic.

Nathaniel Hawthorne set some of his famous works in Puritan New England, but the structure and tone of his prose is clearly affected by the European as well as the American Romantic movement. In his short story "The Birthmark," Hawthorne unfolds a fable that is set vaguely in Europe during the "latter part of the last century" (Hawthorne, "The Birthmark"). The main character Aylmer becomes obsessed with the fact that his wife Georgina has a birthmark, which he is determined to remove. On one hand, this might be assumed to be a rather straightforward narrative about man's obsession with female perfection, but early on in the story Hawthorne makes clear that Aylmer's fixation on the birthmark has profound symbolic importance. "We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man's ultimate control over Nature. He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion" (Hawthorne, "The Birthmark"). Aylmer is a scientist first, a lover second and he is supremely confident in his ability to use his knowledge to change the world.

Aylmer in many ways recalls Victor Frankenstein, a protagonist of European Romantic fiction, who learned that nature cannot be cheated with rationality. Despite Aylmer's attempts to create a potion to make his wife perfect, he only successfully creates a poison that destroys Georgina herself as well as the birthmark. Georgina's existence, like all beings in nature, is dependent upon her imperfections as well as her perfections. Aylmer's rationalistic attitude kills her in the end, stressing the Romantic belief in the need for irrationality and the appreciation of untouched and unspoiled nature that does not conform to the symmetrical demands of industrialization. "As the last crimson tint of the birthmark -- that sole token of human imperfection -- faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight" (Hawthorne, "The Birthmark").

Hawthorne thus takes a dark view of human aspirations to change nature and to seek human perfection through rationalism. This is in stark contrast to the Transcendentalist essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who stressed the visceral nature of the American character and urged, in his essay "The American Scholar," for American intellectuals to connect their ideas to the 'natural' aspects of human life, rather than to mire themselves solely in books and European learning. "Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, -- in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. This is the way to learn grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language… [END OF PREVIEW]

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