BENEATH THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville by David S. Reynolds
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BENEATH THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A monumental revisionist study of 19th-century American literature that challenges both popular critical conceptions of Emerson, Whitman, Poe, et al., as well as fashionable schools of literary analysis. Reynolds (Whitman Studies/Rutgers; Faith in Fiction, 1981; George Lippard, 1982) overturns the scholarly line--pioneered in 1941 by F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance--which holds that America's literary golden age was comprised of a few isolated geniuses working against the social and political grain of the times. Instead, Reynolds argues, the 19th century's great writers were master assimilationists whose greatness lay in their ""willed reconstruction and intensification of a varied range of popular images."" Taking almost literally Hawthorne's remark that ""A work of genius is but the newspaper of a century,"" Reynolds shows through meticulous, broad-ranging research that the great books of 1800-1860 America were artistic fusions of various ephemeral literature of the times: penny newspapers, magazines, reform pamphlets, and pulp novels. These sources forged what Reynolds calls ""the Subversive Imagination,"" a ""bizarre, nightmarish, and often politically radical"" sensibility that simultaneously commented upon and textually re-created ""deep ambiguities"" in the century's moral attitudes towards, for example, Christianity, slavery, women, and class. From this thesis, Reynolds devises fresh claims for the American giants: Emerson's sublime rhetoric was the generic secularization of post-1800 America; Hester Prynne is an emblem of a ""new political consciousness"" towards women; Leaves of Grass is a ""kind of poetic penny paper"" transfiguring the sordid details of American life; Emily Dickinson is seen as the apex of a literary movement that Reynolds identities as ""the American Women's Renaissance."" Between them, he concludes, these writers delineated (without resolving) the paradoxes of American life, ultimately affirming their own art and artistry as the most meaningful means of social engagement. Reynolds' self-dubbed ""reconstructive"" methodology is an open challenge to Deriddaean-inspired critics whose claims for textual autonomy Reynolds' socioliterary readings are meant to shatter. And on balance, his case is convincing, if not foolproof, and brilliantly coherent. A tremendous work of scholarship.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf