Individualism and the sectional crisis: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and their responses to slavery and racism
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The starting point of the present dissertation is that the American Renaissance was a cultural product of the contradictory antebellum national situation: America's rapid territorial and economic expansion and the consequent sectional crisis. Indeed, the remarkable speed of national development paradoxically but significantly undermined America's original national fabric, which was based on repeated compromises over slavery and racism among the states. With regard to this turbulent change of the nation and the ensuing crisis, four Northern white male writers of the American Renaissance--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville--respectively responded by appropriating the newly emerging national ideology of individualism, which began to prevail over the country as a daily philosophy of democracy in the Jacksonian age. Whereas the national ideology of individualism uncritically embraced capitalism and imperialism and consequently exacerbated the antebellum tyrannies of slavery and racism, however, the four authors used it as a frame of reference to understand critically the country's development and its predicament. Their common belief was that the individual's choice or decision could be a fundamental moral solution to the intensifying national crisis. In this sense, I argue that the four Northern white male writers of the American Renaissance formulated romantic individualism and authorship during the antebellum period. However, the increasingly oppressive antebellum tyrannies of slavery and racism demanded a drastic redefinition of these writers' romantic conceptualization of individualism and authorship. Consequently, during the escalating national crisis, the romantic transcendentalist Emerson converted to the reform movement of abolitionism; the rebellious Thoreau's romantic ambition for a civic enterprise eventually ended in his self-isolation from society, as revealed by Walden ; the politically ambitious Hawthorne's magnificent national drama, which had been based on the individual's compromise over contradictions in the community, finally disintegrated; and the uncompromising Melville's tenacious attempts at authorial rebellion against the national tyrannies of racism and slavery were ruthlessly suppressed by the nearly impregnable moral blindness of antebellum America. The present dissertation traces this arduous process of reformulation, which the four antebellum authors' romantic individualism and authorship ineluctably underwent, through their literary works, specifically with regard to the two chief disintegrators of antebellum society: slavery and racism. Indeed, these four strong individuals' sincere struggle under the two structural tyrannies of antebellum America blossomed into their works, which in turn formed a significant part of the American Renaissance. Therefore, by examining their literary praxis, the present dissertation endeavors to explore the degree to which their respective brands of individualism served to resolve the national issues of slavery and racism and also seeks further to illuminate the contours of American democracy that each of them envisioned. In this manner, I attempt to assess the social significance of the Northern white male writers of the American Renaissance at the critical juncture of the antebellum era. Keywords. American Renaissance, individualism, American democracy, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, slavery, racism, sectional crisis, compromise, romantic individualism, authorship, antebellum America.