The New England Group: in American Literature

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      The great mid-nineteenth century group of New England writers included Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, who were often called the Concord group, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Daniel Webster, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Holmes, and the historians, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman.

      The causes of this great literary awakening were in some measure akin to those which produced the Elizabethan age,—a "re-formation" of religious opinion and a renaissance, seen in a broader culture which did not neglect poetry, music, art, and the observation of beautiful things.

The New England Group
The New England Group

      The philosophy known as transcendentalism left its impress on much of the work of this age. The transcendentalists believed that human mind could "transcend" or pass beyond experience and form a conclusion which was not based on the world of sense. They were intense idealists and individualists, who despised imitation and repetition, who were full of the ecstasy of discoveries in a glorious new world, who entered into a new companionship with nature, and who voiced in ways as different as The Dial and Brook Farm their desire for an opportunity to live in all the faculties of the soul.

      The fact that the thought of the age was specially modified by the question of slavery is shown in Webster's orations, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the poetry of Whittier and Lowell, and to a less degree in the work of Emerson, Thoreau, and Longfellow.

      We have found that Emerson's aim, shown in his Essays and all his prose work, is the moral development of the individual, the acquisition of self-reliance, character, spirituality. Some of his nature poetry ranks with the best produced in America. Thoreau, the poet-naturalist, shows how to find enchantment in the world of nature. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the great romance writers of the world, has given the Puritan almost as great a place in literature as in history. In his short stories and romances, this great artist paints little except the trial and moral development of human souls in a world where the Ten Commandments are supreme.

      Longfellow taught the English-speaking world to love simple poetry. He mastered the difficult art of making the commonplace seem attractive and of speaking to the great common heart. His ability to tell in verse stories like Evangeline and Hiawatha remains unsurpassed among our singers. Whittier was the great antislavery poet of the North. Like Longfellow, he spoke simply but more intensely to that overwhelming majority whose lives stand most in need of poetry. His Snow-Bound makes us feel the moral greatness of simple New England life. The versatile Lowell has written exquisite nature poetry in his lyrics and Vision of Sir Launfal and The Biglow Papers. He has produced America's best humorous verse in The Biglow Papers and A Fable for Critics. He is a great critic, and his prose criticism in Among My Books and the related volumes is stimulating and interesting. His political prose, of which the best specimen is Democracy, is remarkable for its high ideals. Holmes is especially distinguished for his humor in such poems as The Deacon's Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay and for the pleasant philosophy and humor in such artistic prose as The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. He is the only member of this group who often wrote merely to entertain, but his Chambered Nautilus shows that he also had a more serious aim.

      When we come to the historians, we find that Prescott wrote of the romantic achievements of Spain in the days of her glory; Motley, of the struggles of the Dutch Republic to keep religious and civil liberty from disappearing from this earth; Parkman, of the contest of the English against the French and Indians to decide whether the institutions and literature of North America should be French or English.

      This New England literature is most remarkable for its moral quality, its gospel of self-reliance, its high ideals, its call to the soul to build itself more stately mansions.


      Most of the work of the great New England group of writers was done during the Victorian age—a time prolific of famous English authors. The greatest of the English writers were THOMAS CARLYLE (1795-1881), whose Sartor Resartus and Heroes and Hero Worship proved a stimulus to Emerson and to many other Americans; LORD MACAULAY (1800-1859), whose Essays and History of England, remarkable for their clearness and interest, affected either directly or indirectly the prose style of numberless writers in the second half of the nineteenth century; JOHN RUSKIN (1819-1900), the apostle of the beautiful and of more ideal social relations; MATTHEW ARNOLD (1822-1888), the great analytical critic; CHARLES DICKENS (1812-1870), whose novels of the lower class of English life are remarkable for vigor, optimism, humor, the power to caricature, and to charm the masses; WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY (1811-1863), whose novels, like Vanity Fair, remain unsurpassed for keen satiric analysis of the upper classes; and GEORGE ELIOT (1819-1880), whose realistic stories of middle class life show a new art in tracing the growth and development of character instead of merely presenting it with the fixity of a portrait. To this list should be added CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882), whose Origin of Species (1859) affected so much of the thought of the second half of the nineteenth century.

      The two greatest poets of this time were ALFRED TENNYSON (1809-1892) and ROBERT BROWNING (1812-1889). Browning's greatest poetry aims to show the complex development of human souls, to make us understand that:—

 "He fixed thee 'mid this dance  Of plastic circumstance."  [Footnote: Rabbi Ben Ezra.]

      His influence on the American poets of this group was very slight. Whittier's comment on Browning's Men and Women is amusing:—

  "I have only dipped into it, here and there, but it is not exactly comfortable reading. It seemed to me like a galvanic battery in full play—its spasmodic utterances and intense passion make me feel as if I had been taking a bath among electric eels."

      Tennyson through his artistic workmanship and poetry of nature exerted more influence. His Arthurian legends, especially Sir Galahad (1842), seem to have suggested Lowell's Vision of Sir Launfal (1848). The New England poets in general looked back to Burns, Wordsworth, Keats, and other members of the romantic school of poets. Lowell was a great admirer of Keats, and in early life, like Whittier, was an imitator of Burns.

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