Beneath The American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Aug 15, 2012 - History - 625 pages
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Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson.
In this ground-breaking work, the seven great writers of the American Renaissance are studied together in their literary and social contexts—with a particular view to showing how they assimilated and transformed into literary art the themes and images of popular culture.
Their classic works—among them Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, Walden, the tales of Poe—are given strikingly original readings in the rich, often startling, context of long-neglected popular writings of the time. Reynolds especially brings to our attention a whole lost world of sensational literature: pamphlet novels that purveyed hair-raising adventure, reverend rakes, and mythic sea-monsters; gory crime books derived from real-life case histories; reform writings that dwelled on the grisly and perverse results of vice; novels, openly sold on the street, that combined intense violence with explicit eroticism. He shows how this wildly energized popular literature reflected the fantasies and aggressions of Americans in a period of rapid social change—and how it echoes throughout major American works: in the ambiguities of Melville and Hawthorne, in Poe’s portrayal of psychopathic killers, in Whitman’s open expression of sexuality.
Reynolds finds strong traces of such popular types as the fallen woman, the sensual woman, and the feminist criminal recombined in the multifaceted heroines of Hawthorne. He shows how the experimental style and explosive imagery of the sophisticated women’s rights novels of the 1850s and the feminist “literature of misery” of the 1850s and 1860s set the stage for Emily Dickinson’s work—he sees in her poems closer ties to the popular culture than have previously been revealed.
He demonstrates as well how common concerns with issues of religion, slavery, and workers’ (as well as women’s) rights resonate in the major writings.
Throughout, Reynolds uses what he calls “reconstructive criticism” to reveal the social roots of literary texts and to make clear the ways in which cultural images that were crude and formless in their original state were reconstructed and put to the uses of art by the American masters. The result is a landmark study of the richest period in American literary history and a notable contribution to the theory and practice of literary criticism.

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Beneath the American Renaissance: the subversive imagination in the age of Emerson and Melville

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Using the products of popular culture between 1820 and 1855 more comprehensively than do other Renaissance scholars, Reynolds tries to fix our "classic'' texts (e.g., Moby Dick ) as culminating ... Read full review

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User Review  - kurvanas - LibraryThing

One of my favorite books of literary criticism. A great introduction to the concept and reality of literary genesis. Read full review

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About the author (2012)

DAVID S. REYNOLDS, literary scholar and professor of American literature, was born and raised in Rhode Island. He received his B.A. from Amherst College and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently Henry Rutgers Research Fellow and Director of Whitman Studies at Rutgers University, Camden, and previously has been on the faculties of Northwestern University, Barnard College, and New York University. He is the author of Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America (1981) and George Lippard (1982), and the editor of an anthology, George Lippard, Prophet of Protest: Writings of an American Radical, 1822-1854 (1986). He has published numerous articles and reviews on American literature and culture.

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