The American Genius

“I become a transparent eyeball; / I am nothing; / I see all; / the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; / I am part of parcel of God” (Emerson, Nature). Conventional? Probably not. Aberrant? Probably so. This was the start of the American Genius. Traditions have ruled for thousands of years and will still rule to the end of time, but there was a time in American history where normalcy was defied, and a revelation that normalcy could not be defined. People started doing their own thing, doing what they thought was right, even disobeying laws, a phenomenon known as Civil Disobedience. Authors were the main runners, and they led this pack to a new America.

“Here is not merely a nation by a teeming nation of nations” (Whitman, 626). With a conglomerate of people and an aggregate of various traditions, which ones were supposed to be followed? Everybody had his or her own opinions of what America should look like and in what direction America should be going. During the early eighteen hundreds, there was the emergence of a group of people, who are now referred to as Transcendentalists. They changed American literature, American thinking, and the American man.

Transcendentalism was a philosophical concept, which influenced many people, among them many writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Parmenides and Plato first developed this belief of a higher reality other than through sensual experience, and their ideas were eventually passed to German Idealists such as Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and their followers. Then it finally crossed the seas and found its way to a group of people in New England, who flourished this idea. Transcendentalism involved a rejection of the strict Puritan religious traditions that were the heritage of New England. They believed in movements of education, abolitionism, and feminism, and they believed in the union of man and nature. It is safe to say they were the first American Geniuses.

Transcendentalist writers expressed close feelings toward their natural surroundings, and they saw a direct connection, between the universe (macrocosm) and the individual soul (microcosm). “Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes” (Emerson, Nature). Emerson tries to pull the reader into a world where the self is just a fragment of all that is around. There is this revolving world around “man” that reaches to infinity, but man does not stand alone. Emerson views man as being everything, for he says, “Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is a priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier” (Emerson, 260). What ultimately happens is that Man gets caught up in himself and stops thinking about the world, and Emerson believes this is the root of all that kills.

The American Genius must take from various sources, be resourceful and find the best to shape and form his or her own ideas. The works by Emerson and Thoreau were not like the works that had come before them. They focused on the individual’s attempt to live simply and in harmony with nature, and this is portrayed through works such as Emerson’s “Nature” (1836), “Self-Reliance” (1841), and Thoreau’s “Walden” (1854). In one of Emerson’s poems, he brings together a mountain and a squirrel, personifies both, and puts life and character into them. They both feel they are the center of the world, until they realize that they are not everything, but that they can each contribute their own part. “Talents differ; all is well and wisely put; / If I cannot carry forests on my back, / Neither can you crack a nut” (Emerson, Fable). This connection between elements of nature is apparent in any of Emerson’s works. Once at a speech given at Harvard, Emerson said, “When he has learned to worship the soul, and to see that the natural philosophy that now is, is only the first gropings of its gigantic hand, he shall look forward to an ever expanding knowledge as to a becoming creator” (Emerson, 261). It is clear that Emerson knows that man can accomplish a lot, but that is not possible until man puts aside his selfishness and sees what’s around him. This expansion of knowledge that he believed in could not just come from intuition, but from experience and from sensing and feeling.

Emily Dickinson was not a Transcendentalist because she did not have a connection with nature as the other authors did. But she was a genius nonetheless in her own definition of the word. She was an influence maybe not in her time, but definitely now. I would have to consider her the transition between Transcendentalism and Realism, for her writings contained an element of both, but at the same time, contained neither. She tried to describe her union with nature, but this was rather difficult for her because she held an apprehensive view toward it. “Nature the gentlest mother is, / Impatient of no child, / The feeblest of the waywardest. / Her admonition mild” (Dickinson, 685, 1978). Emerson would not have described nature as gentle; he would have described it as it was with “snow puddles,” “clouded skies,” and “bare grounds” (Emerson, Nature). Dickinson tries to tame her nature, or domesticate it with children, and gentleness, and mildness. She held onto her Transcendentalist ideals and the writings that influenced her, but for her, it was not enough.

Another side of her is shown through some of her other poetry. A sense of anti-altruism comes forth and almost sets the stage for later writings. Dickinson writes, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights! / Were I with thee / Wild Nights should be / Our luxury” (Dickinson, 600, 1986). It is clear her focus has been turned to herself and has been turned inside instead of outside. She focuses on pleasure, luxury, and is almost hedonistic in her portrayal of what she is looking for. Dickinson clearly states that this is about me, and it’s all about me. In another poem, she writes, “I died for Beauty – but was scarce / Adjusted in the Tomb / When One who died for Truth, was lain / In an adjoining Room—” (Dickinson, 601, 1986). This is another example of man for himself. Man is no longer looking outwardly and seeing what man can do for the world at large. It’s time for man to look inside and see why man is who he is, and why he does what he does. Dickinson ultimately is exploring herself through her poems, therefore shifting focus to human nature, and shifting away from nature nature.

American literature took another turn with Emily Dickinson being the bridge around the late 19th century with the emergence of Realism. Stephen Crane was the trendsetter for he influenced so many writers that came after him, just like Transcendentalism had changed the writers of their time. With Realism, there would be no more of the natural world, and everything would be focused on the person in the story. Crane’s stories focused more on honest action instead of descriptions upon descriptions of trees, mountains, and rivers. He tells a story of what happened by using crude and straightforward language. Crane writes in the story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “Potter and his bride walked sheepishly and with speed. Sometimes they laughed together shamefacedly and low” (Crane, 864). Immediately, the reader can see what is going on. It is something we can relate to, living in the 21st century. We know what they are doing and Crane does a good job of telling us that. His writing closely resembles ours in the fact that the person of the story is the center of the universe at that instant, and everything else that happens just happens to revolve around that person. In movies, books, even songs, there is one person or a small group of people who are everything at that point in time and space.

Crane uses a literary device, very common now, that was not used a lot before his time, and that would be dialogue. The people of his stories talked to each other and they communicated. His writing was not jogged up with fancy descriptions, but more with interactions between people. “Collins, of A Company, said: ‘I wisht I had a drink. I bet there’s water in that there ol’ well yonder!’ ‘Yes; but how you goin’ to git it?’” (Crane, 846). He uses language we understand by portraying the accent that was even used during that time period. Mark Twain is known for putting people with their respective accents to truly show how they talked and how they lived. “‘Blame de pint! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de real pint is down furder – it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one er two chillen: is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; he can’t ‘ford it. He know how to value ‘em. But you take a man dat’s got ‘bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. I chile er two, mo’er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fetch him!’” (Twain, 96). This is an excerpt from Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a prime example of how he shows how people actually talked. The language was not fancy, only truthful and honest.

Crane also began to portray how people lived by using status of life details. His descriptions about people not only talked about the person but also gave an overview of the time period, and the life of the people during that time period, which was his. “The bride was not pretty, nor was she very young. She wore a dress of blue cashmere, with small reservations of velvet here and there, and with steel buttons abounding” (Crane, 860). Crane describes her dress, which in turn describes her being poor, but having enough to be happy. He himself lived a poor life, many times not having enough to eat, therefore he could portray in his stories the condition of the characters’ lives.

We can relate to his stories by far with the most emotion. We can still experience vicariously what he wanted us to through his writings because he described the situations so concretely and realistically. His honesty in the portrayal of the characters is what we know best. Realism set the stage for so much that came after Crane. Great works written now still use dialogue, with action, and added suspense. Crane started this trend not thinking it would get him anywhere because his writings were too radical for his time. By saying he was an American Genius is correct, but he wasn’t the same type of genius as Emerson, Thoreau, or even Dickinson. He was more similar to Melville who came just a little before he did, and Twain who came later. The American Genius is supposed to inspire and change the view of the world at large. To say this is about the emergence of the American Genius is wrong, because it gives a sense of not yet reaching the zenith. This is about the change in the American Genius, how through time they have emerged to form of a group of American Geniuses. As a literary society, we are heading for a downfall because of television and the Internet. I cannot name one true classic that was published last year, because all I see are the Danielle Steel’s, the V.C. Andrew’s, and the John Grisham’s. Maybe we ought to revert back to nature, take another look at ourselves, and start over.

Works Cited and Consulted List

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Crane, Stephen. “A Mystery of Heroism.” Major Writers of America. Ed. J.C. Levenson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1966. 845-849.

Crane, Stephen. “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” Major Writers of America. Ed. J.C. Levenson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1966. 860-865.

“Crane, Stephen.” The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th Edition. Ed. Margaret Drabble. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 238.

“Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth.” The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th Edition. Ed. Margaret Drabble. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 273-274.

Dickinson, Emily. “I Died for Beauty – But was Scarce.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. Robert DiYanni. New York: Random House, 1986. 601.

Dickinson, Emily. “Nature the Gentlest Mother Is.” Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 3rd Edition. Laurence Perrine. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1978. 685.

Dickinson, Emily. “Wild Nights – Wild Nights.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. Robert DiYanni. New York: Random House, 1986. 600.

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar: An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, August 31, 1937.” Major Writers of America. Ed. J.C. Levenson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1996. 259-267.

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Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” The American Reader. American Literature Handout, Nov. 5, 1999. 67-72.

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Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Berkley: Mark Twain Project of The Bancroft Library, 1985. 96.

Whitman, Walt. “Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass.” Major Writers of America. Ed. J.C. Levenson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1966. 626-627.