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American Writers and Their Works: Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman

Out of all the great authors and poets we have studied this semester I have chosen the three that I personally enjoyed reading the most; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. These three Writers stand out above the rest for each has contributed substantially to bringing forth a newly earned respect for American Writers of Literature. Up until this point in time most literature had come from European writers. Hawthorne, Poe and Whitman brought not only great works of art to our newly formed nation, but also to the world in general.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, the descendent of a long line of Puritan ancestors, including John Hathorne, a presiding magistrate in the Salem witch trials. After his father was lost at sea when he was only four, his mother became overly protective and pushed him toward more isolated pursuits. Hawthorne’s childhood left him overly shy and bookish, and molded his life as a writer. Hawthorne is one of the most modern of writers who rounds off the puritan cycle in American writing

Hawthorne turned to writing after his graduation from Bowdoin College. His first novel, Fanshawe, was unsuccessful and Hawthorne himself disavowed it as amateurish. However, he wrote several successful short stories, including “My Kinsman, Major Molyneaux,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial” and “Young Goodman Brown. ” However, insufficient earnings as a writer forced Hawthorne to enter a career as a Boston Custom House measurer in 1839. After three years Hawthorne was dismissed from his job with the Salem Custom House.

By 1842 his writing amassed Hawthorne a sufficient income for him to marry Sophia Peabody and move to The Manse in Concord, which was at that time the center of the Transcendental movement. Hawthorne returned to Salem in 1845, where he was appointed surveyor of the Boston Custom House by President James Polk, but was dismissed from this post when Zachary Taylor became president. Hawthorne then devoted himself to his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. He zealously worked on the novel with a determination he had not known before.

His intense suffering infused the novel with imaginative energy, leading him to describe it as the “hell-fired story. ” On February 3, 1850, Hawthorne read the final pages to his wife. He wrote, “It broke her heart and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success. ” The Scarlet Letter was an immediate success and allowed Hawthorne to devote himself to his writing. He left Salem for a temporary residence in Lenox, a small town the Berkshires, where he completed the romance The House of the Seven Gables in 1851.

While in Lenox, Hawthorne became acquainted with Herman Melville and became a major proponent of Melville’s work, but their friendship became strained. Hawthorne’s subsequent novels, The Blithedale Romance, based on his years of communal living at Brook Farm, and the romance The Marble Faun, were both considered disappointments. Hawthorne supported himself through another political post, the consulship in Liverpool, which he was given for writing a campaign biography for Franklin Pierce.

Hawthorne passed away on May 19, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire after a long period of illness in which he suffered severe bouts of dementia.. Emerson described his life with the words “painful solitude. ” Hawthorne maintained a strong friendship with Franklin Pierce, but otherwise had few intimates and little engagement with any sort of social life. His works remain notable for their treatment of guilt and the complexities of moral choices. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, many of the characters suffer from the tolls of sin, but none as horribly as Hester’s daughter Pearl.

She alone suffers from sin that is not her own, but rather that of her mother. From the day she is conceived, Pearl is portrayed as an offspring of vice. She is brought introduced to the discerning, pitiless domain of the Puritan religion from inside a jail, a place where no light can touch the depths of her mother’s sin. The austere Puritan ways punish Hester through banishment from the community and the church, simultaneously punishing Pearl in the process. This isolation leads to an unspoken detachment and animosity between her and the other Puritan children.

Thus we see how Pearl is conceived through sin, and how she suffers when her mother and the community situate this deed upon her like the scarlet letter on her mother’s bosom. Hester Prynn impresses her feelings of guilt onto Pearl, whom she sees as a reminder of her sin, especially since as an infant Pearl is acutely aware of the scarlet letter A on her mother’s chest. When still in her crib, Pearl reached up and grasped the letter, causing “Hester Prynne [to] clutch the fatal tokenso infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl’s baby-hand” (Hawthorne 66).

Hester feels implicitly guilty whenever she sees Pearl, a feeling she reflects onto her innocent child. She is therefore constantly questioning Pearl’s existence and purpose with questions: asking God, “what is this being which I have brought into the world! ” or inquiring to Pearl, “Child, what art thou? ” In this manner, Hester forces the child to become detached from society. Pearl becomes no more than a manifestation based entirely upon Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s original sin. She is described as “the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life! “(70).

Due to Hester’s guilty view of her daughter, she is unable see the gracious innocence in her child. Hester’s views toward Pearl change from merely questioning Pearl’s existence to perceiving Pearl as a demon sent to make her suffer. Hawthorne remarks that at times Hester is, “feeling that her penance might best be wrought out by this unutterable pain”(67). Hester even tries to deny that this “imp” is her child, “Thou art not my child! Thou art no Pearl of mine! “(73; 67) It is small wonder that Pearl, who has been raised around sin, becomes little more than a reflection of her environment.

Her own sin leads Hester to believe that Pearl is an instrument of the devil, when in reality she is merely a curious child who cherishes her free nature and wants to be loved by her mother. Because of her own profound sin, Hester is always peering into Pearl’s burnt ochre eyes to try to discover some evil inside her daughter. “Day after day, she looked fearfully into the child’s ever expanding natures dreading to detect some dark and wild peculiarity, that should correspond with the guiltiness to which she owed her being” (61).

Hester ultimately ends up fearing Pearl because of her inability to overcome her own guilty conscience, and thus fails to command the respect a mother needs from a child. Lacking any form of maternal guidance, Pearl pretty much does what she pleases; her creativity leads her to make up her own entertainment. Pearl’s lack of friends forces her to imagine the forest as her plaything. However, she is clearly upset about her banishment and resents the people in the town, whom she views as enemies.

Hester feels guilty because she truly believes in her heart that it is her sin causing Pearl to become aware of harsh realities of the world. Pearl responds to this harshness by defending her mother, sticking up for Hester against the Puritan children when they start to hurl mud at her. What stands out is Pearl’s love for her mother, and the way she spurns these “virtuous youths” who condemn her without even knowing the reason. Pearl is a very vivacious child whose love for her mother is deep even though she does not always show it.

By the end of the story, when Hester is finally able to release her sin, Pearl is no longer a creation of a clandestine passion but the daughter of a minister and a ravishing young woman. She is only from that moment onward able to live her life without the weight of her mother’s vice. In fact, Hawthorne points out that she is viewed as normal because of the burden lifted from her soul: “they [Pearl’s tears] were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow. ” Pearl is an offspring of sin whose life revolves around the affair between her mother and Reverend Dimmesdale.

Due to her mother’s intense guilt during her upbringing, she is not able to become more than a mirror image of her surroundings; like a chameleon, she is a part of everything around her, and the changes that occur externally affect her internally. Pearl stands out as a radiant child implicated in the sin between her parents. It is only once the sin is publicly revealed that she is liberated by the truth. Edgar Allen Poe was one of the most brilliant and original writers in American literature.

Orphaned in 1811, he was raised by Mr. and Mrs. John Allan of Richmond, VA. He attended the University of Virginia and West Point briefly but was forced to leave both because of infractions. Poe was an editor, critic, and short-story writer for magazines and newspapers in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City. His compelling short stories, such as The Masque of the Red Death and The Fall of the House of Usher, create a universe that is beautiful and grotesque, real and fantastic. Poe is also considered the father of the modern detective story, e. g. , The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841).

His poems (including The Bells, The Raven, and Annabel Lee) are rich with musical phrases and sensuous images. Poe was an intelligent and witty critic who often theorized about the art of writing, as in his essay The Poetic Principle. His most important works include The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), and The Raven and Other Poems (1845). A complex and tormented figure, Poe died of alcoholism. “The Raven” is without a doubt the work for which Poe is best known.

Through this poem, Poe has taken his favorite theme, that of the untimely death of a beautiful woman, and made that theme universally understandable and fascinating, earning himself literary immortality in the process. There is no doubt that “The Raven” takes direct influence from Poe’s life experiences. Poe was a moody bookworm, and Virginia Poe’s health had been declining since 1842. Poe’s friend, R. H. Horne, wrote of “The Raven,” “the poet intends to represent a very painful condition of mind, as of an imagination that was liable to topple over into some delirium or an abyss of melancholy, from the continuity of one unvaried emotion.

Poe’s life was varied in experience, but as Horne’s letter said of Poe’s poetry, static in outlook, and his life’s entire tone is perfectly encapsulated in “The Raven. ” Poe, like the persona, sought “balm in Gilead,” but was, according to Hammond, “doomed to be frustrated in his quest for a perfect emotional response. ” Through “The Raven,” Poe makes his personal, introverted hell strangely mesmerizing and attractive to all, and as a result, “The Raven” is more well known than any of Poe’s other poems, and even more well known than some of his greatest short stories.

The Raven takes place on a cold, dark evening in December. A man is attempting to find some solace from the remembrance of his lost love, Lenore, by reading volumes of “forgotten lore. ” As he is nearly overcome by slumber, a knock comes at his door. Having first believed the knock to be only a result of his dreaming, he finally opens the door apologetically, but is greeted only by darkness. A thrill of half-wonder, half-fear overcomes the speaker, and as he peers into the deep darkness, he can only say the word “Lenore. ” Upon closing the door, another knock is immediately heard from the chamber’s window.

The narrator throws open the shutter and window, and in steps a large, beautiful raven, which immediately posts itself on the bust of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, above the entrance of the room. Amused by the animal, the speaker asks it its name, to which the bird replies “Nevermore. ” Believing “Nevermore” to be the raven’s name, the narrator’s curiosity is piqued, but the speaker believes the name to have little relevancy to his question, for he had never before heard of any man or beast called by that name.

Although the bird is peaceful, the narrator mutters to himself that it, like all other blessings of his life, will soon leave him. Again the bird replies “Nevermore. ” Intrigued, the speaker pulls a chair up directly before the bird to more readily direct his attention on the wondrous beast, and to figure out the meaning of the bird’s single monotonous reply. While in contemplation in the chair, the speaker’s mind turns to Lenore, and how her frame will never again bless the chair in which he now reposes.

Suddenly overcome with grief, the persona believes that the raven is a godsend, intended to deliver him from his anguish, but again comes the bird’s laconic reply. The speaker then viciously rebukes the bird, calling it now to be a “thing of evil,” and asks it whether there is “balm in Gilead,” a biblical reference to respite in a land riven with suffering. Again, the word “nevermore” is the only answer. Shouting maniacally now, demanding that the bird take its leave, the narrator attempts to dispatch the bird back to the “Plutonian shore” of Hell from whence it came.

The bird, “the emblem of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance,” replies again “nevermore,” and sits there on the bust of Pallas to this day, ever a torment to the speaker’s soul, and a reminder of his lost love. Walt Whitman was considered by many to be the greatest of all American poets. He celebrated the freedom and dignity of the individual and sang the praises of democracy and the brotherhood of man. His Leaves of Grass, unconventional in both content and technique, is probably the most influential volume of poems in the history of American literature.

Whitman left school in 1830, worked as a printer’s devil and later as a compositor. In 183839 he taught school on Long Island and edited the Long Islander newspaper. By 1841 he had become a full-time journalist, editing successively several papers and writing prose and verse for New York and Brooklyn journals. His active interest in politics during this period led to the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a Democratic party paper; he lost this job, however, because of his vehement advocacy of abolition and the free-soil movement.

After a brief trip to New Orleans in 1848, Whitman returned to Brooklyn, continued as a journalist, and later worked as a carpenter. In 1855 Whitman published at his own expense a volume of 12 poems, Leaves of Grass, which he had begun working on probably as early as 1847. Prefaced by a statement of his theories of poetry, the volume included the poem later known as Song of Myself, in which the author proclaims himself the symbolic representative of common people. Although the book was a commercial failure, critical reviewers recognized the appearance of a bold new voice in poetry.

Two larger editions appeared in 1856 and 1860, and they had equally little public success. Leaves of Grass was criticized because of Whitman’s exaltation of the body and sexual love and also because of its innovation in verse formthat it, the use of free verse in long rhythmical lines with a natural, organic structure. Emerson was one of the few intellectuals to praise Whitman’s work, writing him a famous congratulatory letter. Whitman continued to enlarge and revise further editions of Leaves of Grass; the last edition prepared under his supervision appeared in 1892. Whitman was a complex person.

He saw himself as the full-blooded, rough-and-ready spokesman for a young democracy, and he cultivated a bearded, shaggy appearance. Indeed, Whitman’s early biographers John Burroughs and R. M. Bucke were so affected by the robust I of Whitman’s poems and by the poet himself that they depicted him as a rowdy, sensual man, a great lover of women, and the father of several illegitimate children. Most of this was false. In reality Whitman was a quiet, gentle, circumspect man, robust in youth but sickly in middle age, who sired no children and is generally acknowledged to have been homosexual.

Whitman had an incalculable effect on later poets, inspiring them to experiment in prosody as well as in subject matter. From 1862 to 1865 Whitman worked as a volunteer hospital nurse in Washington. His poetry of the Civil War, Drum-Taps (1865), reissued with Sequel to Drum Taps (186566), included his two poems about Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, considered one of the finest elegies in the English language, and the much-recited O Captain! My Captain! For a while Whitman served as a clerk in the Dept. the Interior, but he was discharged because Leaves of Grass was considered an immoral book. In 1873 Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke and afterward lived in a semi-invalid state. His prose collection Democratic Vistas had appeared in 1871, and his last long poem, Passage to India, was published in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass. From 1884 until his death he lived in Camden, N. J. , where he continued to write and to revise his earlier work. His last book, November Boughs, appeared in 1888.

Whether we consider the extreme form of Whitman’s project — founding a homoerotic world order — or his more modest goal, of bringing freedom and sexuality into literary discourse, we note the primacy of transgression in his writings. Whitman’s use of repetition, cadences, and versification based on the King James translation of the Bible ironically underscores his transgression, or “trespassing” 19th-century norms of poetic form, while his references to heterosex, homosex, and onanism trespass the 19th-century cultural and social mores which excluded explicit sexuality from literary and cultural discourse.

By using the King James Bible to talk about sex and homosexual love, he employs polite society’s most cherished text to push the boundaries of polite society itself. As Whitman ardently states in the opening section of “Song of Myself”: Creeds and schools in abeyance, Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten, I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard, Nature without check with original energy. (Whitman, 188)

The notion that sexuality is unavoidably linked to nature, creation, and “original [creative] energy” and therefore cannot be suppressed in any poetic celebration or commonplace discussion of humanity is asserted again and again in the “Song of Myself” and “Children of Adam” sections of Leaves of Grass. With lines like “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world” Whitman declares the predominance of sex in human existence and simultaneously transgresses sex’s taboo status in 19th-century America.

Walt Whitmans “Leaves of Grass” was a continuing endeavor, growing from the original volume of 12 works first published in 1855 to an edition of over 300 works at the time of his death in 1892. The collection is considered one of the world’s major literary works and stands as a revolutionary development in poetry: Walt’s free verse and rhythmic innovations stand in marked contrast to the rigid rhyming and structural patterns formerly considered so essential to poetic expression. Whitman’s expressive art was complex and multifaceted.

There are really several aspects to Walt and his work can be interpreted on many levels: democrat, egalitarian, patriot, metaphysicist, nature poet, lover, free spirit and exponent of the spiritual values of self-realization through the recognition of life’s real priorities, moderation, balance and tolerance. The subject material of “Leaves of Grass” is all inclusive and wide ranging, from the particular to the universal, from the intimate to the cosmic. Walt sings a “Song of Myself”, but really speaks for the human race and universal harmony through his own experiences.

In “Drum Taps”, Whitman’s reaction to the nation’s traumatic Civil War, he speaks of the ultimate pointlessness and futility of war in the poem “Reconciliation”: “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead”. In “Sea Drift” Whitman rises to perhaps his most transcendent and touching moments, for here the subject matter includes the universal theme of love and separation. In the opening poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, the mighty ocean is the instrument of parting, and a gull’s loss of its mate reflects a tragedy of life: first love and first loss played out on a cosmic scale.

In “Passage to India”, a sailing voyage becomes a metaphor for the journey of the soul through time and place: “O we can wait no longer! We too take ship, O soul! ” In “Song of the Open Road” we get a clear picture of Whitman’s sense of values: “Henceforth I ask not good-fortune; Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Strong and content, I travel the open road. ” The recurrent theme of self-realization was central to Whitmans sense of purpose.

His spiritual perception of lifes real priorities: the natural world and human relationships, as opposed to man-made obsessions, strongly parallels the mystical philosophy of the Kabbalah and Buddhist teachings, among others. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman are among the first of the great American Writers who have forged the way for others. In theme and in style, their writings look ahead to Henry James, William Falkner, and Robert Penn Warren. Because of their hard work and talent with words, American writers have gained respect around the world.

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