From the Platonic ur-antiformalism, the reaction to which gave shape and purpose to classical and early modern literary theory, to the agon between form and history that dominated 20th-century literary criticism and pedagogy, the concept of form and the methodologies of its study (formalism) have at once grounded and challenged our understanding of literature. Is form an ornament or supplement to literature’s essential content, a component of literature’s meaning and function, or the very defining essence of the literary? Does form inhere in the macro-structures of literary mode and genre, the micro-structures of figure, style, and prosody, or the unique shape of the individual text? Does form stand apart and insulated from the vicissitudes of history and the pressures of ideology, is it the object (or agent) of historical and ideological determination, or does it provide us a vantage from which to understand and perhaps resist them? These questions and the variety of answers they have generated have shaped and continue to shape both the practice of literary studies and its status as an academic discipline.
David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.