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Friday, August 17, 2012

The Co-Existence of the Romantic and Realistic in American Literature.

The ever-growing lack of ideals which has characterised recent times in modern western civilisation has led to the universal conviction of the definite disappearance of Romanticism and all things related to it. In the literary field, the romantic period was especially splendorous in the United States, a growing nation with every social and geographical ingredient necessary to develop such a movement. American Romanticism proved more intricate and lasted comparatively more than that of Europe, thanks to the clashing energies of the Transcendentalists and Fatalists, which were in constant debate over the perfectibility of the human condition, the question of good and evil, and whether there was any hope at all for humanity in the coming future. The differing attitudes they bore towards human spiritual values and their radically opposed conceptions of the universe and God was the very essence of America's romantic antagonism, her struggle with herself and her contradictions. Afterwards, the painful experience of the Civil War, the cathartic historical events that followed in the latter decades of the 19th century, and the increasing turmoil surrounding the initial years of the 20th century would bring the Age of Victorianism -and, consequently, Romanticism- to an apparently definite end in the trenches of World War One.

However, from a less holistic point of view, a closer and more scrutinised comparison of the most emblematic literary works of the time, comprising the entire period ranging from Fatalism to Modernism, shows a clear persistence of romantic ideas and attitudes. Thus, we may find a common denominator, an inner nexus that connects, not only the movements of Realism and Naturalism, but also Modernism itself, with elements of the literary past which were essential characteristics of the romantic trend, preserving their original value and identity. In relation to this, Frank Norris points out, in his "Plea for Romantic Fiction", that we must first make one clear distinction; that of Romanticism as opposed to sentimentalism. We must bear in mind that the latter is as different from the former as Realism itself would be. Hence, true Romance is a more serious business and is not merely a conjurer's trick-box full of flimsy quackeries, tinsel and claptraps meant only to amuse, especially if relying exclusively upon deception. He defends its conception as an instrument with which one may go straight through the surface or cover of the apparent, and dive into something as deep and real as the "living heart of things" (Norris, 14).

Truly romantic elements can be found in samples of literary art supposedly contrary to any sort of idealistic or passionate proposal. The consideration of contemporary life in periods such as Realism and Naturalism may at first seem to concentrate only on the harsh, loveless and colourless features of pure and simple reality, but let us compare Romance and Realism: Romance would be the kind of fiction that takes cognisance of variations from what would be considered a type of conventional life in terms of the rebellious, non-conformist and transgressing, whereas Realism would be the kind of fiction that confines itself to that type of normal life and apparently has no intention except to observe and describe it in a fictional way. In this manner, Romance may deal with much more, since it is not limited or restricted, so therefore it can even talk of the sordid, the unlovely, and ultimately, it may absorb the limited functions of Realism. Where Realism only stultifies itself and supposedly stops merely at the surface of things, Romanticism definitely goes beyond. Although a typical romantic feature, the element of beauty would simply be considered as an accident, a mere outer physical trait, in the face of Realism. However, beauty may yet be an important ingredient within a realistic work of literature, whether it be physical or not. So, likewise, there may be an underlying presence of a typically romantic element in such a literary work of art. After all, all forms and expressions of art are intimately related to beauty, whether physical, spiritual or musical. Moreover, just so far as pure fantasy is discarded, all other romantic odds and ends are compatible with Realism, for true life is full of extremes, of exaggerations, of highly-spirited dispositions, of human endeavours and behaviours guided by sentiments, feelings of pride, joy, sadness and rage, and not just the bewilderment of people facing the coldness of an indifferent universe. The romantic self is unfailingly at large whenever issues of the human spirit are present, as they always are in life. As Frank Norris says, Romance consists of a wide world for exploring the depths of the human heart, the problems of life, and the dark, unsearched areas of the soul of humankind (Norris, 14).

The romantic period was characterised by a series of elements which were common both in Europe and America; a strong nationalistic or local-coloured spirit, an extreme fascination regarding nature, an appraisal of human intuition as a force beyond the merely rational, and a taste for certain elements of the ancient past. Most of these are recurrent issues in human cultural history. Consequently, it is of no wonder that matters such as local identity, nature and intuitive perception should persist throughout literary movements conceptually opposed to Romanticism. Realism, and especially Naturalism, tend to deal with the problems of both Nature and human nature, whereas the value of the local and new are in constant contrast with those of the past until well beyond the dawning of Modernism. The clash between Victorianism and Modernism is the main reason for the existence of the latter. Moreover, authors like Hemingway still view Nature and intuitive knowledge as essential for the understanding of human behaviour in general, and the American predicament in particular. Additionally, the persistence of Romantic elements throughout the 19th century can be justified from an eclectic point of view as well, since many authors would not completely discard thematic and contextual resources proper to previous literary trends, whilst on other occasions their works would give way to influences of a more advanced type (Stern, 542). The co-existence of more than one cultural tendency or movement has generally been evident in the progressive evolution of literary art. Thus, James Fenimore Cooper was one of the first American authors in attempting to portray the language of the frontier woodsman by means of Natty Bumpoo's discourse, and although the Deerslayer's abrupt changes in register seem less than fortunate, the man also known as Hawkeye definitely speaks in the realistic manner of the pioneers. Long before Mark Twain allowed his characters to use realistic language, authors like Cooper, Melville and even Hawthorne had used realistic words and tones in the characterization of their protagonists. Q. D. Leavis points out that Melville himself was stimulated by Hawthorne's novelistic achievements in this field, and that they both expressed American insights and attitudes in situations and settings comprising American types of character. These typical circumstances exhibited such characters speaking an American idiom in order to analyse the American past which had produced their prose. For Hawthorne this meant going back to the early settlers to find out where the deplorable contemporary America of his time had originated. Leavis states that Fenimore Cooper had already been working on these lines, likewise examining the quality and values of the American experience evolving from its beginnings. He also establishes a linguistic parallelism between Melville and Mark Twain, stating that it was the uncultured frontiersmen, the pioneers of the Middle and Far West and the South-West who developed a thoroughly American idiom and vocabulary, spoken with such effect by Melville's whalemen and Mark Twain's southern characters. Mark Twain, who came from the frontier world, would have systematically adopted such regional dialects, exploiting their richness and humour, not only for the sake of his characters but also the narrator himself (Leavis, 14-15).

Apart from the essentially linguistic, there is yet the psychological complexity of certain characters created by Melville, whose depth of conscience must also be considered, for what can be said of the inner conflicts torturing Captain Ahab, Starbuck and other members of the Peaquod's crew in Moby Dick, the sailors in Billy Budd, or the disturbed protagonist of the story "Bartleby the Scrivener"? A similar perspective can be applied to the tormented existence of the souls portrayed in Hawthorne's short stories, as for example, "The Birth-mark", not to mention the extraordinary characterization of such personalities as that of Hester Prynne and the other townsfolk involved in The Scarlet Letter. According to Q. D. Leavis, the psychological conflict has much to do with the atmosphere surrounding the characters, whether it be the ever-present influence of Nature, or the human society at large -which is also a product of Nature, as the Social Darwinists take it. Hence, Melville's characters are those who confront and struggle with Nature, like his bold and disciplined whalemen and sailors, or his other heroic protagonists even on land, who resist, but are overcome by the financially-directed America that also defeated Melville as a writer in the commercial sense; such tragic characters include Billy Budd, Titan, Charlemont, and Bartleby (Leavis, 18). In this way, characters are subject to the effects caused by religion, laws, conflicts and even wars. But all these influences are common throughout the diverse literary movements that arose throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As Richard Chase puts it, Puritanism was a momentous backsliding in religion, comparable in intensity to the cultural reversion experienced on the frontier. The Manichean nature of Puritanism was so extreme that it concentrated more on the melodrama of struggle between good and evil, bringing about alienation and disorder, rather than on a more dogmatic view of religious values, based on redemption and reconciliation. There was more interest in the spiritual conflict at hand, centred in the individual himself and his psychological condition. Chase adds that once we suppose ourselves correct in tracing to this origin the prevalence in American literature of the symbols of light and dark, we may also suppose that this sensibility has been enhanced by the racial composition of our people and by the Civil War that was fought, even if more in legend than in fact, over the slaves (Chase, 11). According to this, horrifying experiences such as war, which must also be viewed objectively as historical events -however unpleasant they may be-, can nonetheless carry an epic significance, something present, although enveloped in a predominantly naturalistic fabric, in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, where the "glory of battle" and other falsely magnificent ideas intermingle with the psychological reality of the main character. Such ideas are plainly related to the romantic epic formula of the hero-figure, and the ambiguous ending of the novel only serves to contribute to their importance within it. In this sense, Chase also points out that, in a novel, experience has less to do with human beings as social creatures than as individuals. Heroes, villains, victims, legendary types, confronting other individuals or confronting mysterious or otherwise dire forces is what we meet in novels. He states that there are good novels and bad ones, those that have life and those that don't, being this the only relevant question for the novelist. The implication is that the novelist will also be the romancer if the life he is rendering extends into the realm of the romantic (Chase, 25).

Bearing in mind the eclectic nature of American Literature and its manifold possibilities of interpretation, the predominance of a certain tendency over another may as well work in different directions. Therefore, it may be considered that human sentiments should be situated above the value of crude realities, in contrast to the view of the excessively idealistic as a negative quality. As examples of such a case, we could take into account the positive romantic content of two very significant American novels which do not historically belong to the age of Romanticism: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. In the first one, we are compelled to acknowledge a search for freedom underlying the entire plot, and the very end of the novel itself still keeps this ideal intact, since Huck's main goal is to head towards "the territory" of the West. Twain also emphasises on the values of friendship and loyalty, by means of the camaraderie that guides the relationship between Huck and Jim. But the novel's greatest connection with Romanticism is its defence of intuitive knowledge beyond the barriers of reason, logic, or even legal precepts. Huck does not turn Jim over to the authorities and decides to become an outlaw and "go to hell" before betraying his friend. This is clearly an instinctive use of knowledge based on human feeling and intimately related to the ideas of the Transcendentalists, as regards discarding, or even despising, the rules of society when these do not favour an individual's natural right to procure his freedom. On the other hand, The Great Gatsby, a modernist novel, is also a work with a definite romantic touch in spite of the narrator's attitude, which may be of a more sceptical type. The plot, although in a definitely tragic fashion, yet retains the romantic ideal of making a dream come true, something which the main character practically achieves or is certainly about to, although his plans are thwarted by fate, ultimately failing in his attempt only due to the fact that he is killed by mistake. The novel may portray a romantic failure, but the spirit of Romanticism is nonetheless present and serves as the main ingredient of the novel's purpose. In this manner, the romantic ideal persists, although the human being, the individual himself, is destroyed, an ever-lasting principle that we can surely apply to the evolution of human history up to the present day. Ernest Hemingway made it clear that a man could be destroyed, but never defeated. Believing in idealistic concepts is something characteristically human; let us believe that human idealism may sometimes be defeated, but as long as there are idealistic human beings, such ideals shall never be destroyed.

Works Cited:

- Chase, Richard. (1957); The American Novel and its Tradition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.

- Leavis, Q. D., in Singh, G., editor. (1985); Collected Essays: The American Novel and Reflections on the European Novel. Cambridge University Press.

- Norris, Frank. (1901); "A Plea for Romantic Fiction," Boston Evening Transcript, December 18, 1901, p. 14

-Stern, M. R. and Gross, S. L.; eds. (1968); American Literature Survey: Nation and Region. 1860-1900. The Viking Press, New York.

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