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From Freedom of Religion to Freedom of Thought: How "American" Literature Both Evolved and Stagnated Throughout the Centuries

An analytical essay of the evolution of American Literature's themes

By Lena FolkertPublished 8 months ago 9 min read
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From Freedom of Religion to Freedom of Thought: How "American" Literature Both Evolved and Stagnated Throughout the Centuries
Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

The following essay is a final analysis for my American Lit course in University. While American Literature is one of my least favorites, it is also a fascinating evolution throughout history, and is my inaugural submission to the newest history community (my least favorite subject). I have adapted this essay to be slightly more pleasant to read in digital format. It is a long read, but it received an A from my professor, so maybe there is something worthwhile within (;

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John Smith once spoke of the great contentment that could be found in a person or country’s laying a “foundation for [their] posterity” (Smith 66), and this ideal seemed framed around freedom. America, and its literature, was founded on the ideal of freedom.

For the Puritans and other early settlers of America, the core freedom that was sought was the freedom of religion and the right to live each day in the manner that one thought was right according to their spiritual beliefs.

Yet, evolving from and developing out of that initial search for freedom, were many more ideals and fundamental beliefs that influenced Americans and writers all over the world, and though the theme and tone of American literature has evolved throughout the centuries, influenced by the changing scene and culture, it has always remained firmly established upon that early foundation that was built by those early settlers of America.

As the early American literature was heavily focused on Christianity and life in the new world, there are fewer authors of the nineteenth century whose work is reminiscent of that time, but the Puritan influence can still be seen in many of these works as they use poetry to explore the existence of God, the nature of death and life, and the importance of the basic rights of all mankind—freedom.

Two of the writers who explored theological topics in their writings are William Cullen Bryant and Nathaniel Hawthorne. While Bryant’s poetry is not free from concerns and critiques on traditional Christian teachings, there is a consistent theme throughout his work that embraces the exploration of faith in God and how it influences the lives of the individual.

In “To a Waterfowl,” Bryant’s work is reminiscent of the faith-filled writings of Jonathan Edwards and Anne Bradstreet whose poetry reflected their own observations of nature and its relation to God.

Edwards’ “Personal Narrative” brings attention to his strengthened faith through his observations of nature, and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, especially “Contemplations,” is comparable to Bryant’s style, and within his poem, we can see the influence that religion had upon his writing as he explores the role that faith in God plays in the devoted flight of the bird who flies with faith and how it relates to the man who must walk by faith (Bryant 540).

In Hawthorne’s short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” we see an obvious connection to the Puritan influence as he explores the relationship between guilt and sin, and we can see how the religious beliefs of the early settlers had continued to expand and influence the writings of those in the more modern setting of the nineteenth century.

However, in both of these writers’ works we also see the evolution of the Christian influence in their writing as the focus shifts slightly toward a more inward devotion—how does the individual fit in with the world and with nature?

And this shift, while beginning a transformation away from the Puritan viewpoint and way of life, is still wholly tied to the concept of being free from the control of a church so that even as their writing and religion strayed further from the early settlers,’ the essence of American literature as a continuously reforming process was still true.

Though less obvious a connection to the Puritans as the religiously themed works Bryant and Hawthorne, the other writers of the nineteenth century were very clearly American in theme and tone. In the writings of Margaret Fuller, Francis Harper, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass, we find a theme that is entirely American as the desperate fight for equality and freedom is brought to a passionate surface.

The first American settlers sought freedom from their oppressors, and though that fight evolved throughout the decades and centuries from one group of people to another, the basic tenet of freedom has remained a foundational source of inspiration for writers throughout history, and it is echoed mightily in Jacobs’ words from “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” where we find the exclamation, “A human being sold in the free city of New York” (Jacobs 898)!

Truly, there is no denying that freedom and equality have always remained the very essence of American literature, and these nineteenth century writers were inspired in much the same way as those early American settlers, despite the constant irony and hypocrisy that was also rooted in the foundation.

Washington Irving’s writings, though very different in theme and tone from those of the likes of Fuller and Jacobs who wrote directly about freedom and equality, is no less American in style, and his works are unique among his contemporaries.

While all of these writers were influenced by the politics and culture of America’s past and present, Irving’s writing introduces a grand creativity and borrows from the culture that predated the early Puritan settlers.

While his writing is also influenced by the politics of his time, he elevates his writing by incorporating an appreciation for and oneness with nature, as well as providing a detailed description of the land that is reminiscent of the native Americans whose stories handed down through generations in their appreciation for nature, but also in the way that he establishes his characters as legend-like beings.

In this way and in his way of creating a whole new type of writing and character, Irving successfully became one of the forebearers for creating a whole new type of “American” Literature.

Similar to Irving’s challenge of the traditional Puritan-like style of writing, Emerson and Thoreau also challenged the traditional “American” writing, combining Romantic and Transcendental influences and styles.

While their writing is seemingly free from the traditional outspoken commentary on Christianity and freedom, it is also very “American” in its emphasis on adaptation and reformation of thought, and in their efforts to highlight a better way of thinking and acting within society and oneself, they epitomize the “American” writer as one of change and higher thought, as well as focusing on what stirs within our own hearts and souls as right and wrong.

While on the surface this concept seems so foreign to the Puritan’s ideas of right and wrong, moral and immoral, but is not the idea of being free to choose the way that one worships and lives by faith the most basic of reason for their exodus from England in the first place?

In this manner, they were very much tied to those early Puritan writers, but they also form a connection to the early Native Americans who also taught to do what was intuitively right by being mindful of one’s place in the world and inside oneself.

This belief is very well evidenced in Thoreau’s words from Walden when he states, “the greater part of what my neighbors call good, I believe in my soul to be bad […]” (Thoreau 924). In their pursuit of intellectual freedom and reform, both Thoreau and Emerson were very much "American” in their writing as well.

Two authors from the nineteenth century who stand out among their contemporaries in form and function of their writing are Poe and Melville. While both of these outstanding writers proved to be fundamental in the evolution and development of modern fiction, their styles are very different both from their contemporaries and from each other.

Additionally, it is not immediately clear how their writings stand out as “American” literature. Poe was essentially one of the fathers of the horror genre, and Melville’s work was broad in nature and style, but still, these two writers epitomize American Literature.

Though freedom does not initially seem to be a prominent theme throughout their writings, they both wrote free of the confines of the traditional, and they both elevated their writing and their themes to encompass and explore the human psyche and spirit.

Both Poe and Melville were Romantic writers who utilized gothic elements in their writing, and both of them were anti-Transcendentalism, setting them apart from writers like Emerson and Thoreau. Yet, there is still an undeniable presence of free-thinking within their writing as they explored the human condition, and this is a very “American” theme.

Additionally, both Poe and Melville wrote fairly modern settings, describing every day American people and settings and establishing a connection to the American man and woman. They incorporate people who give up everything to chase after what they desire or feel they deserve or should have, and this is very much part of that “American Dream” that has been a constant undercurrent throughout American history in writing.

The title character in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener expresses his freedom of thought and right to make his own decisions even to his own detriment and death, and as he continues to “prefer not to,” he represents the level of freedom that was achieved in America as a man was able to finally refuse even to his employer.

Though this is a reflection of an extreme in every sense, it does highlight that freedom to be one’s own person that has always existed within American literature and life. Furthermore, both Melville and Poe write about and explore the consequences to characters who push the envelope of morality, and it is in their exploration of these consequences that they also explore the concepts of right and wrong that was so important to their predecessors.

Perhaps it is because of the more modern landscape of their stories that the authors of the nineteenth century seem to be finally representative of the “American” Literature that we are accustomed to, but the influence of the “American Dream” that John Smith once spoke about is also present within their works as they describe men and women chasing after freedom in all its manifestations. From women wanting to be equal to their male counterparts, to the abolishment of slavery, and finally, the ability to think and act in the way that one deems best for himself and society, all of these writers were constantly exploring and chasing after that “American Dream” of freedom.

Furthermore, these writers begin to describe the American landscape and day-to-day activities of the American people in such a way that we are finally able to relate to them, understand them, and envision them no longer as colonists or invaders, but as they had finally become—Americans.

That dream that Smith had had come true, and the foundation of freedom, or pursuit of such, had continued throughout the generations of Americans (Smith 66).

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Works Cited

Levine, Robert S., general editor. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter Ninth Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2017.

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© Lena Folkert, 2022

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About the Creator

Lena Folkert

Alaskan Grown Freelance Writer 🤍 Lover of Prose

Former Deckhand & Barista 🤍 Always a Pleaser & Eggshell-Walker

Lifelong Animal Lover & Whisperer 🤍 Ever the Student & Seeker

Traveler 🤍 Dreamer 🤍 Wanderer

Happily Lost 🤍 Luckily in Love

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydred8 months ago

    I have skim-read this and will revisit it properly, but this is full of interesting points and I will recommend, later hopefully, time permitting

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