A Matter of Perspective: Purposeful Variation in Style and Viewpoint in the American Renaissance
Throughout history, America has often been depicted as a land of many freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of petition, thanks to the First Amendment. Slowly but surely, these notions of constitutional rights trickled down into the American literary movement, transforming it into a new arena for social commentary and discourse through presenting fresh new perspectives on pertinent issues. Keeping a few specific literary works born into the American Renaissance—such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Emily Dickinson’s poetry—in mind, understanding the liberal ideal of American society thus bursts forth in a vibrant array of opinions and perspectives. Even so, this phenomenon is not one without flaws of its own. Above all else, these authors are writing, either as themselves or their characters, through inarguably limited perspectives that are incapable of encapsulating all possible discrepancies and conflicts. Because of this, there is the ever-present risk of oversimplifying certain issues and creating confusion. Regardless, the many variations in literary form and style have opened doors to more potent modes of expression, leading to more impactful texts of better persuasive quality.
In Walden, Thoreau recounts his experiences of having spent approximately two years living by Walden Pond, seeking a self-sufficient, self-reliant life. All of such is presented as a first-person narrative, to which Thoreau responds in “Economy,” “I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives” (Thoreau 1986, 46). In this case, his limited scope stems from a pursuit of heartfelt, individualized truth, one that avoids the unfamiliar territory of “other men’s lives” and any attempt to render such authentically. It’s interesting to consider how Thoreau “require[s]” such an account from every writer, particularly through the lens of his later query, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (Thoreau 1986, 53). Perhaps, in Thoreau’s opinion, a writer’s responsibility lies within depicting their own perspective as genuinely as possible, thus allowing for others to comprehend their specific frame of mind. However, this creates a domain in which each writer’s viewpoints exist in literary spheres independent of one another, as well as running the risk of leaving many voices unheard.
Yet, in “The Ponds,” Thoreau seemingly contradicts his initial statement of focusing purely on his personal views and experiences, as he briefly transitions from a general narrative scope to a second-person perspective. To illustrate the beauty of Walden Pond, Thoreau describes a method of observation as though the reader were physically present, “As you look over the pond westward you are obliged to employ both your hands to defend your eyes against the reflected as well as the true sun, for they are equally bright; and if, between the two, you survey its surface critically, it is literally as smooth as glass” (Thoreau 1986, 234). This passage seems to operate on two different notions: one, in which Thoreau is allowing the reader to step into his shoes and immerse themselves by seeing through his eyes, thus aligning with his earlier statement about only being able to portray his experiences best; and the other—in which the converse is occurring—where Thoreau is actually striving to incorporate a different viewpoint of Walden Pond by projecting his vision onto a separate party, inadvertently creating an inconsistency in the narration. Though greatly effective in stimulating the reader’s senses and submerging them in the depicted scene, the duality of this moment is quite confusing.
Moving on to “The Ponds in Winter,” Thoreau acknowledges a difference in perspective quite differently, as it is now woven into the overarching narrative of Walden. He first tells of the frozen surface of the pond, how the reflective clarity that was previously present has now been obscured. Seasonal changes as such then call forth fishermen, who adhere to the laws of nature, rather than those of civilization; “wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped. … [They are] as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial” (Thoreau 1986, 331). The use of the adjective “wild” seems, at first, to convey negative connotations and judgement, as it distinctively draws a line between that and being civilized. But, as the passage continues, Thoreau subverts this belief by praising the fishermen for the good they bring to the towns they visit, how they offer reparations to places that would have otherwise fallen apart. Similarly, he describes them as “wise” and concludes that their intelligence parallels that of the townspeople. By doing so, Thoreau smoothly introduces his perspective without undermining those that may differ, thus minimizing the overbearing tone of his narrative voice. Quite an admirable move, in my opinion.
Melville, on the other hand, very much sought to toy with the literary form throughout Moby Dick, adding a new layer to his methods of presenting differing perspectives. On Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” for example, the entire chapter is arranged like a play, complete with dialogue, stage directions, and a closing soliloquy. On the night of a brewing storm, the many sailors aboard the Pequod decide that young Pip must entertain them by dancing and playing his tambourine. Upon seeing this motley crew of men bullying the little African-American boy into performing for them, the old manx sailor makes the following observation: “I wonder whether those jolly lads bethink them of what they are dancing over. I’ll dance over your grave, I will … Dance on, lads, you’re young; I was once” (Melville 2008, 154). This final statement took on a remorseful tone for me, as it not only highlighted the dramatic difference in perspective—especially when thinking about the ocean as a mass “grave”—between the young men seeking instant gratification and the older man who had since borne the consequences of his actions, but also in the idea that youth warrants ignorance and recklessness. The crew didn’t know any better because they had never been taught otherwise and, thus, could not have done anything else; in the most theatrically ironic way possible, poor Pip was but collateral damage.
Chapters 41, “Moby Dick,” and 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” must be discussed in conjunction in order to compare Ahab’s and Ishmael’s perceptions of the whale. In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael does not shy away from illustrating the full extent of Ahab’s hatred towards the eponymous mammal, after an encounter that cost Ahab his leg: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick” (Melville 2008, 165). Whereas Ahab’s detestation towards the whale came as a product of his pursuit of vengeance, Ishmael felt there was something inherently unnerving about its whiteness: “yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood” (Melville 2008, 169). Further explanations of this viewpoint are detailed through use of footnotes, which, to me, is reminiscent of an academic report or scientific journal, bringing in something quite objectively psychological and clinical in contrast to Ahab’s subjective perspective.
Progressing to Chapter 78, “Cistern and Buckets,” the chapter is narrated using the third-person perspective, as though the reader were directly witnessing everything on the ship. When Tashtego suddenly tumbles into the sperm whale’s head, the narration is briefly interrupted as Ishmael exclaims in shock, “on a sudden, as the eightieth or ninetieth bucket came suckingly up—my God! poor Tashtego—like the twin reciprocating bucket in a veritable well, dropped head-foremost down into this great Tun of Heidelburgh, and with a horrible oily gurgling, went clean out of sight!” (Melville 2008, 306). This ascribes a human quality to the narrative voice, capable of responding to events with emotion, rather than remaining detached and unfeeling. In addition to this, Ishmael later commends Queequeg for having successfully rescued Tashtego: “And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished” (Melville 2008, 308). Ishmael’s comparison of the typically feminine realm of domesticity with the typically masculine realm of physicality was admittedly compelling. But, the perspective of the rescue as a birth—or rebirth—for Tashtego both fascinates and horrifies me, as it seems to romanticize the events of this traumatic incident and overly-idealize its effects.
Journeying to an earlier chapter of the book, Chapter 74, “The Sperm Whale’s Head – Contrasted View,” the narrative style is evocative of a formal presentation or, perhaps, a sermon. There is a philosophical quality to Ishmael’s observation that “it is quite impossible for [man], attentively, and completely, to examine any two things—however large or however small—at one and the same instant of time” (Melville 2008, 297). With this, Ishmael invites his audience to wonder if a creature with an eye on either side of its head possesses the mental capacity to process “two distinct prospects” (Melville 2008, 297), two separate visions of the world. To allow the reader to comprehend the physically imposing nature of the whale, Ishmael then says, “Let us now with whatever levers and steam-engines we have at hand, cant over the sperm whale’s head … then, ascending by a ladder to the summit, have a peep down the mouth; and … with a lantern we might descend into the great Kentucky Mammoth Cave of his stomach” (Melville 2008, 298). Like the panning of a video camera in film, Ishmael outlines the systematic process of exploring the full breadth and depth of the whale’s corpse, fully steeping the reader in his question of whether such a gargantuan creature could be truly intelligent.
Contrary to the aforementioned male authors, Dickinson’s poetry was focused on the notions of irony and duality. Stylistically, her use of dashes and capitalization overturns the “standard” poetic structure and allows her to relish in a poetic form that is uniquely her own. In Poem 905, the speaker presents the reader with an invitation, “Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music” (Dickinson 1999, 391), in a direct conveyance of the brutal act of mutilation. There is an ambiguity to the stanza’s tone, perhaps intended to be a challenge or satirical remark. The lark—a poetic motif—is contrasted against the modern scientific movement, whose achievements often mask the atrocities of its pursuits, “Gush after Gush [of blood], reserved for you – … Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?” (Dickinson 1999, 391). Ultimately, this perverse search for truth all but eviscerates the source and subject of that curiosity, leading only to loss and regret. The conclusion of this poem serves as a harsh critique of science as a practice, forever devoted towards demanding an explanation for everything; some successes are hence made bittersweet, when one insists on destroying a thing of art and natural beauty for the sake of understanding it. It’s difficult for me to fully agree with Dickinson’s perspective, as it appears quite ignorant of the wealth of benefits modern science has given us, over-simplifying the debate at hand.
The narrator of Poem 706, on the other hand, seems to realize that her current predicament was of her own doing. For instance, the established “You” and “I” are consistently separated by dashes and line breaks in every stanza but the first and tenth, allowing the form of the poem to mirror the message being conveyed. I was struck by the ninth stanza, in particular, which goes as follows (Dickinson 1999, 315):
“Because You saturated sight -And I had no more eyesFor sordid excellenceAs Paradise.”
Firstly, only three words are capitalized in this stanza: “You,” “I,” and “Paradise,” which I interpreted as an indication of the ideal outcome the speaker so desperately yearned for. Though she could not directly address it, she could at least make reference of it. Moreover, the phrase “no more eyes” seemed to me like a moment of self-inflicted blame, in which the speaker felt she’d possessed a blindness that transcended the physical ability of sight, a perceived weakness that reflected her decision to deny herself of this happiness. The tragic quality of this poem originates from the lovers’ dual conflict of being unable to remain together and being unable to remain apart, showcasing two perspectives on the same volatile emotion.
Finally, in Poem 764, the speaker makes use of their first-person narration to become a personified loaded gun. Unlike the two prior poems, this one cements itself in the perspective of a traditionally masculine object, a weapon of mass desecration. The speaker revels in their ability to kill and inability to die, relishing in the pleasure of being the master of two dichotomous planes of existence. Even so, in the last stanza, the speaker dictates that (Dickinson 1999, 342):
“Though I than He – may longer liveHe longer must – than I -For I have but the power to kill,Without – the power to die -”
The capitalization of the word “He” elevates the status of the gun’s master to a God-like figure and emphasizing his role of influence. The confusing sentence structure and arrangement of this stanza correspond to the complex nature of the characters’ relationship, in which the master must strive to live as long as possible in order for the gun to continue fulfilling its purpose. To some degree, this is a highly co-dependent relationship. At the same time, it is not one without power—both to kill and to die—invoking the perspective that death is not a form of surrender but a capability, an act that carries strength. It frightens me to consider the implications of this poem after recent events in this country, but the relevance of its subject matter astounds me.
Indeed, the facet of American Renaissance literature that aims to achieve the liberal ideal of society by offering up differing perspectives acts as a double-edged sword, albeit one that is still fairly effective. With literary works like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, to Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the notions of beauty, self-reliance, and individuality still thoroughly permeate the world of American literary nationalism. Through various stylistic and thematic variations, the fragmentation of perspectives is thus made simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Whether attempting to temporarily depart from civilized society, or vengefully pursuing a giant white whale, or reframing elements of one’s life in more poetic terms, the American Renaissance marked an era in which the world of literature became an open forum for social discussion and debate. Consequently, this shift motivated people to pursue an authentic representation of human perspective, generating spheres of dialogue that still persist to this day.
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