Recall that Romanticism was, in part, a response to the Age of Reason. (not a rejection of it, per se , but a challenge)
During the Age of Reason, the Founding Fathers believed that INSTITUTIONS were essential conduits of the rights of mankind, meaning that rights might exist theoretically in nature, but social, political and legal institutions are necessary to give them form .
In other words, men might indeed be “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” but the second half of that statement is equally important: “to secure these rights , Governments are instituted among Men”
The Romantics had a different view of natural rights. Emerson wrote (in his essay “Nature”):
“ Why should not we enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition; a religion by revelation to us , and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us. . .why should we grope among the dry bones of the past? The sun shines to-day also.”
This is a revolutionary idea. It not only bypasses the concept of government being necessary to secure rights, it proposes an entire American culture based on insight and revelation springing from a personal relationship with the universe.
So, Emerson and other American Romantics sought to create a uniquely American culture , free of influences from abroad or from the past (that is, historic past, as opposed to mythic ) and based on these beliefs.
Note that these cycles are similar to the cycles we discussed with regard to the ideas of the Age of Reason: the “course” in the Declaration of Independence, the rise and fall of societies, the elliptical path of planets, etc . Similar, but not identical.
First of all (to recap), the men of the Age of Reason believed that all societies go through the cycles of the “ saeculum ” (establishment of order, progression , decline , crisis , followed by the establishment of a new order ) .
Note how the Great Seal of the US is clearly based on geometric forms: straight lines, pyramids, circles (not to be confused with cycles, though they are connected). The phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum” means “New Order of the Ages” which symbolizes the United States replacing the British Empire in North America
So…Emerson and others agreed that the American Revolution had called for a “new order of the ages,” but once that was established, “progress” must take over.
This progress is found in the cycles of nature , old ideas constantly giving way to new ideas.
Richard Caton Woodville's Old '76 and Young '48 (note: this is a “genre painting” from 1849. Genre paintings told stories by depicting a single, important, dramatic moment . This particular painting is not about Romanticism replacing Rationalism – but its theme can be adapted to ours.)
And I behold once more My old familiar haunts; here the blue river, The same blue wonder that my infant eye Admired, sage doubting whence the traveler came,-- Whence brought his sunny bubbles ere he washed The fragrant flag-roots in my father's fields, And where thereafter in the world he went. Look, here he is, unaltered, save that now He hath broke his banks and flooded all the vales With his redundant waves. Here is the rock where, yet a simple child, I caught with bended pin my earliest fish, Much triumphing,--and these the fields Over whose flowers I chased the butterfly, A blooming hunter of a fairy fine. And hark! where overhead the ancient crows Hold their sour conversation in the sky:-- These are the same, but I am not the same, But wiser than I was, and wise enough Not to regret the changes, tho' they cost Me many a sigh. Oh, call not Nature dumb;
These trees and stones are audible to me, These idle flowers, that tremble in the wind, I understand their faery syllables, And all their sad significance. The wind, That rustles down the well-known forest road-- It hath a sound more eloquent than speech. The stream, the trees, the grass, the sighing wind, All of them utter sounds of 'monishment And grave parental love. They are not of our race, they seem to say, And yet have knowledge of our moral race, And somewhat of majestic sympathy, Something of pity for the puny clay, That holds and boasts the immeasurable mind. I feel as I were welcome to these trees After long months of weary wandering, Acknowledged by their hospitable boughs; They know me as their son, for side by side, They were coeval with my ancestors, Adorned with them my country's primitive times, And soon may give my dust their funeral shade. --June, 1827
What do we see here? Clearly, these poets praise Nature. Additionally, Emerson touches upon death, and Dickinson (in “Faith…Invention”) extols the power of science and technology.
In addition, Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is “the power of imagery blooming in isolation” was a recluse. Whether or not the cause for her seclusion was some emotional disorder, she clearly remained an individual uninvolved with society at large…hence, she may be the ultimate Nineteenth Century Romantic and/or Transcendentalist.
However, Emerson’s audience was mostly an educated elite, and Dickinson was largely unknown in her own lifetime
Many ordinary Americans shared Emerson’s beliefs about the role of American Culture, but in popular culture it would manifest itself in other, much simpler, ways.
Which brings us to Spiritualism and the Fox Sisters
Spiritualism as an attempt to create an American (Romantic) religion
(I’ll presume you remember the history of Spiritualism)
The Fox sisters inadvertently founded a “religion” because their childish game was interpreted by local adults who had come of age in the Romantic era and were influenced by the ideas of men like Emerson, though they probably poorly understood those ideas.
Note: Doesn’t this sound like Salem in 1692? An event being interpreted in a certain way because of the inherent beliefs of the adults in the community living during a particular period in time?
Perhaps the most powerful force behind the popularity of Spiritualism was not (to quote P.T. Barnum) that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but rather that it gave Americans an opportunity to finally fulfill the goal of American Romanticism. A religion which
Glorified the individual over the institution
Was connected to the cycles of nature
Was disconnected from traditional religions
Celebrated ingenuity and technology
How did séances and mediums and “communication with the dead” accomplish this?
So, in the 1800’s, death and mourning became an “American” institution . In other words, death and its “rituals” became part of the American scene. In the process of fulfilling Emerson’s vision, Americans developed ways of dealing with death that forever remain part of our culture.
Though they have taken various forms over the years, there are essential qualities in our mourning behaviors that are uniquely American and whose roots are to be found in the Romantic tradition . Some of these customs are musical…
“ Parlor” music was popular in the 1800’s. It was called this because, at family gatherings and parties, most middle-class people had a piano in the parlor where they would play and sing the latest songs.
Sad songs, like “The Fatal Wedding” were very popular and taken very seriously.
The song is about a poor abandoned woman with a sickly child who stops at a wedding. She recognizes the groom as the husband who abandoned her. She stops the wedding, and as she does, her baby dies. The parents of the bride are so grateful, however, that they take her in. After the shame of being exposed, the groom commits suicide.
All the words to “Fatal Wedding” can be found in the document “Come Home.” Some of the lyrics are on the next slide, which also contains the melody.
The Fatal Wedding by Gussie L. Davis The wedding bells were ringing on a moonlit winter's night The church was decorated, all within was gay and bright. A woman with a baby came and saw the lights aglow, She thought of how those same bells chimed for her three years ago. I'd like to be admitted, sir, she told the sexton old Just for the sake of baby to protect him from the cold. He told her that the wedding was only for the rich and grand, And with the eager watching crowd, outside she'd have to stand. While the wedding bells were ringing, While the bride and groom were there, Marching up the aisle together, While the organ pealed an air; And tales of fond affection, Vowing never more to part, Just another fatal wedding, Just another broken heart.
( Pearl Jam ) Oh where, oh where can my baby be? The Lord took her away from me She's gone to Heaven so I got to be good So I can see my baby when I leave this world We were out on a date in my daddy's car We hadn't driven very far There in the road, straight ahead A car was stalled, the engine was dead I couldn't stop, so I swerved to the right I'll never forget the sound that night The screaming tires, the busting glass The painful scream that I heard last Oh where, oh where can my baby be? The Lord took her away from me She's gone to Heaven, so I got to be good So I can see my baby when I leave this world When I woke up the rain as pouring down There were people standing all around Something warm flowing through my eyes But somehow I found my baby that night I lifted her head, she looked at me and said Hold me darling just a little while I held her close, I kissed her our last kiss I found the love that I knew I had missed Well, now she's gone even though I hold her tight I lost my love, my life, that night
While the musical style from “Parlor Songs” to “Pop” (or “Alternative” to use the general term applied to Pearl Jam) is vastly different, little else seems to have changed in sentimental “death” songs like “The Fatal Wedding” and “Last Kiss.”
Therefore, it is likely that some of the other elements of the American Romantic view of death are still part of today’s culture.
Private forms of grief today probably don’t reflect American Romantic qualities, because they are most likely personal and not subject to fashions or trends as they were in the 1800’s.
However, in the past decade there has been a noticeable trend in Public forms of grief – namely, those temporary public memorials erected at the site of tragic events: Columbine High, the Oklahoma Courthouse, and Ground Zero, to name just a few.
What is perhaps most striking about these recent public displays of grief following major tragedies is the inclusion (sometimes temporarily) of a “wall of grief”
On these walls, memorials, often involving photos and poetry are posted, each like a shrine to one or more individuals.
The trend began perhaps with the Vietnam Memorial. The design (at first very controversial) was originally meant to be a “gash in the ground,” symbolic of the pain caused by the war. However, within a short time, the public gradually turned it into an “interactive” memorial.
Visitors started leaving personal tributes and mementos, and in so doing, public grief became not only acceptable for the first time in decades, but to some extent expected . The Wall became a place where we (perhaps) could return to our American Romantic roots.
9-11 tribute Columbine Oklahoma City And so, the WALL – wherever it may be – legitimizes and facilitates the act of publicly displaying grief.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this photo is that the chain link fence has been added outside the entrance to the Official Oklahoma City Memorial …the memorial itself may not be sufficient for public grieving.
Read some criticisms of this recent trend by opening the following documents:
Tears of a Crowd
Public Grief Rant
Note: “Tears of a Crowd” refers to recent British displays of grief, which are larger and, unlike the American “wall,” result in huge mounds of flowers and stuffed animals. (It is likely that these British displays were influenced by ours.)
American Mourning Rituals are rooted in the American Romantic Movement of the 19 th century; they are not only uniquely American, they sprang from a view of Nature as benevolent, from a love of newness and from a belief that the individual superceded the group. Explain this set of beliefs and why they manifested themselves in the mourning rituals of the 19 th century.
THEN, speculate on why we have developed the current form of public grief. Does it reflect some version of the American Romantic ideal? If so, what ideals? And how are they manifested. If not, why not? And what does all this tell us about Americans in the 21 st century?
Your essay must contain references to the material provided in this presentation.
There is a copy of this prompt on the Moodle page (“Mourning Essay Prompt”) as well as the rubric I will use to grade it. Essay due no later than January 9 th .