1850-1877: The Arts: Overview
1850-1877: The Arts: Overview
An American Renaissance. The 1850s were a watershed decade for American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) are widely acknowledged as the first true masterpieces of the American novel. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) received similar acclaim as a classic of American nonfiction, while Walt Whitman’s long poem Song of Myself, published in his Leaves of Grass (1855), is still regarded by many as the great epic celebration of American democracy. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) profoundly influenced the nation’s attitude toward slavery.
New American Art. American artists were also coming into their own. Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt—known as luminists for their emphasis on atmosphere and light—were turning away from the Old World romanticism of their predecessors, the Hudson River School, in favor of a new realism based on a nearly scientific attention to detail.
Music and Drama. To a lesser extent American musicians and playwrights were beginning to make their mark in the 1850s. Stephen Foster was writing his extraordinarily popular songs, including the enduring favorite “Old Folks at Home” (1852). At the same time Americans were taking an interest in the folk music that lies at the roots of American jazz, blues, country and western music, and rock and roll. While in most cases Americans still seemed to prefer plays from abroad, the most popular play of the era was George Aiken’s stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which opened in 1852. It was still playing to packed houses nationwide in 1880.
American Voice, American Vision. What all these works had in common was their American-ness. Earlier American writers and artists had employed New World subjects and themes but had presented them through imitations of Old World styles. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman spoke of America with American voices, saw the nation with American eyes, and created distinctly American literary forms. Though her great contribution to American letters is marred by old-fashioned melodrama, Stowe infused Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the manners and speech of a region. She was in fact an early contributor to the genre of local-color fiction that became popular after the Civil War, portraying New England life in Oldtown Folks (1869). Foster’s songs share the attention to regional dialect as well as the nostalgic tone apparent in much local-color writing. In the 1850s Church traveled to Maine while Bierstadt spent time in the West. Into the 1870s they—and fellow luminist Thomas Moran, who first saw the West in the early 1870s—celebrated the unspoiled beauty of the American wilderness, painting panoramic landscapes that conveyed their sense of the endless possibilities of American life. Their artistic vision has sometimes been compared to the Transcendentalists’ belief in the existence of a perfect higher truth that may be glimpsed through intuition, the mind’s “inner eye.”
Disillusionment. Yet American optimism was already waning. Debates over slavery became increasingly heated as the 1850s progressed and the nation headed toward war. One great Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the prophet of America’s literary declaration of independence, was writing less and less. While Thoreau and Whitman professed allegiance to his Transcendental optimism, their views were tempered by current events. By the time he published Drum-Taps in 1865, Whitman, who had been profoundly influenced by the suffering he saw as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, was taking a more somber view of his nation’s destiny. Hawthorne and Melville had never shared the Transcendentalists’ optimism. What Melville admired and identified with in the writings of his friend and mentor Hawthorne was a “great power of blackness” that owed its strength “to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin.” Both men saw human existence as essentially tragic, and as war tore the nation apart, their vision began to predominate.
Regionalism. By the end of the war grand visions of American destiny had gone out of fashion. The most popular works of fiction were novels and short stories that focused on a particular region, not on the nation as a unified whole, as Whitman, for one, had done in Song of Myself. Local-color fiction was often infused with a sentimental longing for a rural past that had been lost forever with rapid industrialization that had accompanied the war or for the southern way of life that the war had destroyed. In place of Whitman’s heroic American were smaller-than-life characters who were sometimes treated with condescending humor, as in the western local-color fiction of Bret Harte or Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). A similar trend could be detected in art. While the luminists were still active and had an admiring audience, public taste began shifting toward the romanticized genre painting, which—like local-color fiction—was often infused with sentimentality and nostalgia for the past.
The Rise of Realism. At the same time, however, a new literary movement was arising in America. Though they did not reach the heights of their artistry until the 1880s and after, three major American realists produced novels in the 1870s that displayed the promise of future greatness. These books included The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, The American (1877) by Henry James, and Their Wedding Journey (1872) by William Dean Howells. These writers offered no visions of American heroism. Instead they looked at life as it was really lived, and in portraying the American character they found much to criticize as well as much to admire. In art Winslow Homer, who had started out as a war illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, was beginning to paint in a style that Henry James called in 1875 a “perfect realism” that sometimes produced “damnably ugly” results. Homer’s realism, and that of his contemporary Thomas Eakins, shocked many viewers in the 1870s, but by the 1880s it was clear that, in art as well as fiction, realism was the style of the future.
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