David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.
Why have so many Japanese people been fascinated with one of the most distinctively “American” writers, Mark Twain? Over the past hundred years, Mark Twain has influenced Japanese culture in a variety of ways. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe claimed that Huckleberry Finn was one of the “roots of his inspiration as a writer” and called Huck one of the heroes who means the most to him in world literature. However, it was often necessary for Japanese writers to “Japanize” Twain’s works in accordance with the cultural and political norms of contemporary Japanese society. For instance, Kuni Sasaki’s Huckleberry Monogatari (1921), the first Japanese translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, significantly bowdlerized Huckleberry for Japanese juvenile readers, following the period’s genteel conventions of juvenile literature. In Jiro Osaragi’s samurai novel Hanamaru Kotorimaru (1939), an adaptation of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, the elements of didacticism, rigid class hierarchy, and patriarchal relationships, all significant in contemporary imperial Japan, were particularly emphasized. During the American occupation after World War II, a number of Japanese juvenile translations of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn appeared. They not only idealized Tom and Huck as democratic American heroes, but also considerably tamed them out of concern that those untamed heroes might justify juvenile delinquency, which was common in the post-war moral confusion. In the sphere of Japanese popular culture, Twain is everywhere. Twain and the characters in his works frequently appear in popular science fiction, television commercials, musicals, repertory theaters, documentary films, and theme parks. An animated TV series depicting Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer achieved record-breaking popularity among Japanese children in the 1970s and 1980s. These popular cultural adaptations sometimes reflected the changing trend of Japanese juvenile television anime and the development of themes in late 20th-century Japanese society, such as the empowerment of women and increasing awareness of the necessity to represent blacks.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were fascinated by Asian philosophies and religions. The two American philosophers discovered “Asia” in their own Transcendentalist views of nature and human ethics. Beginning with the works of Frederic Carpenter and Arthur Christy in the 1930s, American scholars have undertaken comprehensive studies of the ways in which Oriental ideas and religions, such as Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Persian poetry, Confucianism, and Daoism, influenced American Transcendentalism. In this global age, Emerson and Thoreau, as transnational figures, have come to be given a great deal of attention.
Few scholars today realize that the works of Emerson and Thoreau were widely read by Japanese intellectuals during the Meiji and Taishō periods (1868–1926). The Japanese highly admired the spirit of independence and freedom advocated by the two Concordians. Although studies of their reception in Japan have been made, and many of their writings have been translated, the strength of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s influence on Japanese readers may not yet be fully understood.
Suzuki Daisetsu made a significant contribution to Western philosophical thought by bringing the teachings of Zen Buddhism to the attention of the Western world. He felt deep sympathy with Emerson’s and Thoreau’s views of nature. Influenced by Suzuki, some American and Japanese scholars have remarked on similarities between Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. Until now, scholars in the West have tended to assume that Zen Buddhism was the primary medium of Japanese interest in Emerson and Thoreau, partly because Zen Buddhism was in vogue during the middle decades of the 20th century. While it is true that both Emersonian and Thoreauvian philosophies and Zen Buddhism center on a spirit of seeking the spring of universal spirituality within the inner soul, Suzuki’s emphasis on that similarity may be one reason for the current difficulty in understanding the diversity and complexity of both Eastern and Western philosophies and religions.
Lisa Hinrichsen and Michael Pitts
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
Defined by cultural vibrancy and widespread poverty, and marked by a long and complex history of trade, migration, cultural exchange, and slavery, the literature of the U.S. South is born of the intricacies of a complex, polymorphous history and culture. The 19th century was a particularly tumultuous period, as the region experienced the rise and fall of chattel slavery through a loss in 1865 that left in its wake a devastated country, a generation of decimated white males, widespread poverty and physical destruction, the ruin of a agricultural economy that once offered the promise of cotton as “king,” and a legacy of explosive racial rage that would continue throughout the 20th century. Against these social, political, and economic changes, the dominant literatures that emerged reflected stratified life across color lines: a white pastoral tradition that celebrated the plantation and mourned for a past that never was, and a literature of slavery and resistance that envisioned a different future for African Americans.
Cloaking in romance their fervent beliefs in class stratification and enlightened upper-class rule, Confederate poets such as Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, and William Gilmore Simms positioned white mastery as the natural outcome of chivalry, while Joel Chandler Harris, John Pendleton Kennedy, and Thomas Nelson Page spun nostalgic fantasies of antebellum plantation life that reinforced myths about the continuing docility and inexpensiveness of the South’s black workforce. As blacks began to protest new forms of subjugation—the “Jim Crow” legislation that prohibited racial intermingling in public spaces, the recourse to lynching to terrorize African Americans—plantation fiction increasingly came to form an imagined defense against the new racial realities that would unfold over the course of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, black voices during the period offered a powerful alternative to white command, repudiating seductive myths of plantation life. The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington revealed a system infested with greed, inhumanity, deception, and cruelty. Slave writers George Moses Horton, Hannah Crafts, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and post-Civil War poets Albery A. Whitman, George M. McClellan, and Joseph S. Cotter, Sr. wrote skillfully about racial and nonracial topics in ways that powerfully demonstrated black agency and subjectivity against a white rule that sought to strip them of it, while the work of Charles Chesnutt, William Wells Brown, and other writers drew on black vernacular language and folklore.
Entangled and enmeshed by a color line that would soon be singled out by W. E. B. Du Bois as a resistant and virulent problem for the nation at large, white and black southerners, as the literature of the 19th century American South testifies, alternately struggled to evade and express the demands of racism's intimate psychological consequences and the polyvalent power of interconnected ideologies of class and gender formed in this era.