LITERARY DEMOCRACY: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America by Larzer Ziff

LITERARY DEMOCRACY: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America

Email this review


The American Renaissance as an act of national self-definition: a trenchant reading of the major texts from the panic of 1837 till the start of the Civil War. Here, of course, Ziff (Puritanism in America, The American 1890s) is going over some intensely cultivated territory: Van Wyck Brooks' Flowering of New England memorably captured the appearance and atmosphere of this period, and F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance provided superb critical analyses of Poe, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and others. But, unlike Brooks, Ziff chronicles the ways in which the ""cultural anxieties"" of New England (and elsewhere) were woven into the ""form and texture of literature."" And, unlike Matthiessen, he investigates the ""social origins of great writing."" He argues, for example, that the pervasive unreality of Poe's creations derives from his belief that ""the American artist, preeminently isolated both from an unimaginative society and from a literary tradition, should be preeminently concerned with his own inner depths."" For the conservative democrat Nathaniel Hawthorne, on the other hand, the American artist must see to it that each generation acknowledges its roots in the past, as he himself did with his historically based ""romances."" Contrary to Poe again, Thoreau championed the ""ultimate identity"" between Americans and their environment; thus, the radical otherness of the American landscape demanded an art all its own. Ziff treats Whitman as the incarnation of Emerson's prophecy that a distinctly American genius would arise ""when the entire society somehow managed to sublimate itself into a hero or bard."" Finally, Melville's fictions reveal, among other things, the haunted alienation of life in the quintessential modern democracy. Ziff's closely reasoned book is not for the casual student, but readers who know the material will find this a rich and illuminating survey.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Viking