Review- Reynolds, “Beneath the American Renaissance”

David Reynolds, “Beneath the American Renaissance: the Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville” (1988) – This is a pretty interesting book about the well-trod territory of the American Renaissance writers, here defined by a big seven: Melville, Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. Rather than isolated geniuses acting out against the strictures of a conventional god-fearing culture, Reynolds argues convincingly that the American Renaissance writers drew strongly from the popular culture at the time. In particular, he claims, they drew from the “subversive imagination.” This was the late eighties, when “subversive” was a word to swear by in criticism, though it seemed more about subverting literary expectations than anything social or political.

The subversive imagination encompassed new, more emotive methods of preaching, more radical reform movements, and an array of more-or-less scandalous popular literatures from bloody war stories to “city-mysteries” quasi-exposés to outright literary pornography. Reynolds is at his strongest excavating the pop literature of the nineteenth century and such figures as radical writer George Lippard (who apparently wrote the mother of all American city-mysteries about Philadelphia, a work I’d like to look at) and the sailor’s preacher Edward Taylor. The book shows that the major writers were all influenced by this popular culture of grotesquerie, sensationalism, and irrationality to one degree or another (he’s stronger on this with Whitman, Melville, and Poe than with Dickinson and Thoreau, say).

He also argues they transcended the merely subversive to become truly literary. Instead of the hit-you-over-the-head ironies of pastors behaving poorly, you have the introspection of “The Scarlet Letter”; Whitman transfiguring the prurient literature of the day in “Leaves of Grass”; Melville transforming adventure stories into high art and Poe doing the same with sensationalist gothic crime stories, etc etc. Reynolds’ idea seems to that you wash the genre stink off, slap on some capital-T Themes, and you’ve got yourself genuine literature.

On the one hand, I’m an admirer of much of the American Renaissance (Melville, Poe, and Hawthorne- I’ve got little use for Emerson or Thoreau). On the other, this sounds like the kind of artistic hierarchy that leads to praising dullards and shortchanging hardworking genre artists. It also tends to be politically enervating- Reynolds sees Whitman’s and Emerson’s posturing as far more literary, hence worthy, than taking firm sides on something like abolitionism. And Dickinson is to a certain degree shoehorned in with some unsolicited advice for feminist scholarship. Still, agree with it or not, it is the sort of big, toothsome read I enjoy on a topic that interests me. ****’

Review- Reynolds, “Beneath the American Renaissance”

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