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American Allegory to 1900

Published inCambridge Companion to Allegory, Editors Copeland, R. & Struck, P., p. 229-240
PublisherCambridge : Cambridge University Press
Publication date2010

Throughout its history in the Old World and the New, allegory has functioned in two dominant forms: as a style of writing or rhetoric but also as a way of reading, a hermeneutic. Literary allegory in America is bound up with philosophy to the point that Olaf Hansen, in his book on late nineteenth-century allegory, sees it as a substitute for America's failure to develop a distinctive school of philosophy. But the transformations of American religion, as Puritan orthodoxy gave way to a diversity of churches and the emergence of a weak New England Unitarianism, also provide a forceful context for the development of both American allegorical hermeneutics and allegorical rhetoric. The major American writers of the mid-nineteenth century, designated in F. O. Matthiessen's 1941 book American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman), owed much to the colonial New England legacy of allegorical expression, particularly their desire to discover rhetorical means by which the word and the thing might become one. The course of this rhetorical discovery took them back to Puritan models of allegory and symbolism, and specifically to the typological style of rhetoric and interpretation that united object and referent, making God's word a material or, to borrow Emerson's parlance, “natural” fact. Together with typological rhetoric, the Puritan strain of Protestant theology, brought to the New World in the early seventeenth century by those who dissented from what they saw as the Anglican compromise of the Reformation's revolutionary potential, had a formative influence on the nature and practice of American allegorical expression. In Matthiessen's estimation, and the writer's own reflections on their work, this great renaissance happened when it did because of the emergence of Romanticism in Europe and the development of a native American form of Romantic thought, Transcendentalism. The Romantic emphasis upon nature at the expense of civilization, on the individual rather than society, appealed to intellectuals in the new American Republic who were painfully self-conscious about the lack of history, culture, and “civilization” in the New World. What the United States had in abundance was raw, unformed nature and the residue of a revolutionary ideology concerning the primacy of the common man, his self-reliance, and democratic commitment to independence. This was also a period of increasing materialism in American society as the economy expanded and industrialization took hold. Increasingly, American religion was perceived as becoming more secular as the older Puritan doctrine was supplanted by a diluted form of Unitarian Calvinism, especially in the period following and in reaction to the excesses of the Great Awakening. The cultural scene was then set for the emergence of a distinctive American style of literary allegory.

  • Allegory
  • Hermeneutics
  • Rhetoric
  • Bible
  • Puritanism
  • Romanticism
  • New England Transcendentalism
  • American Literature
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Mary Rowlandson
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Herman Melville
Citation (ISO format)
MADSEN, Deborah Lea. American Allegory to 1900. In: Cambridge Companion to Allegory. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2010. p. 229–240. doi: 10.1017/ccol9780521862295.017
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