Beneath the American Renaissance : the subversive imagination in the age of Emerson and Melville /

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Main Author: Reynolds, David S., 1949-
Format: Book
Edition:1st ed.
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Review by Choice Review

This unique study of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson cannot be welcomed enough and is surely destined for the classic shelf in countless libraries. For the many readers who will be richly rewarded by the original readings of old favorites--Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, Walden, the tales of Poe--Reynolds (Rutgers University, Camden) delves beneath the American Renaissance by analyzing the process by which previously neglected popular modes and stereotypes were transferred into literary texts by the seven Renaissance greats and by discovering forgotten texts of raw power, energy, and complexity. Besides comparing the major literature of the American Renaissance with lesser-known works from popular culture, Reynolds, the author of a Twayne study on George Lippard (CH, Jan '83), also combines literary analysis with social history and discusses writings of various geographical regions and of both sexes. With 16 pages of illustrations, notes, and an index, this book should be required reading for every student and scholar of this singular moment in American culture. Libraries with 19th-century collections will find this work at once a vital tool and treasure. -G. S. Rosselot, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Poe's portraits of psychopathic murderers, Melville's studies of incest and deceit, Whitman's hymns to sexual passion and Hawthorne's allegories of social outcasts had roots in the popular writings of their daypenny newspapers, crime pamphlets, erotic fiction, sensational novels, Oriental and visionary tales. In a massive, dense study, Reynolds, who teaches at Rutgers, shows that 19th century American writers were not isolated elitists, as assumed. Emerson, for example, infused his essays with the color and imagery of torrid evangelical preaching; Emily Dickinson drew upon the ``literature of misery,'' feminist ficiton which projected an embittered female self; Melville grafted such genres as mystery fiction, yellow novels and Yankee humor. Astonishing in its scope and wealth of new connections, this sweeping study is a landmark in the reevaluation of 19th century American literature. Illustrations not seen by PW. (April) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book 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. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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