Between 1784 and 1865, America experienced unprecedented expansion and division. It was after winning the independence from Britain in the wars of revolution. The nation gradually expanded to the west. However, whereas the country was growing in power and stature, it began to divide into the south and north. In the North, the economy was predominantly industrial and relied on slavery. Americans in the other parts were opposed to slavery and made an effort to restrict its spread. The American culture at that moment showed confidence, hunger and adventure. Whereas explorers and pioneers from Western countries were going around the globe sightseeing and settling on other land, the Americans were breaking ground in the social, artistic and science realms.
Eli Whitney found the cotton gin in 1793. Samuel Morse pioneered telegraph in 1844 while Elias Howe discovered “sewing jenny” in 1846. In the mid 1830, railroad between Baltimore and Ohio became operational and was followed by Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. American laborers laid more than 30,000 miles of track. Amidst these tremendous developments, the American society began to experience dramatic changes. Characters such as Horace Mann, Catharine Beecher, prison reformer Dorothea Dix, abolitionist Fredrick Douglas, William Lloyd and John Brown and others pioneered this change. Americans were reading more than any other person on earth. Important developments in art made the world see the emergence of America as a giant in the field of arts. By 1830, the city of New York had more than 47 newspapers. Artists such as Hiram powers, Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt became household names. This would lay the foundation for writers such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Blithedale Romance
Blithedale Romance is a delicate balancing act between facts and daydreams. The story is written from Hawthorne’s personal experience rather than from pure imagination. In his notebooks, he gives an account of people he meets at Brook Farm and how they shape his views and form the basis of the story. These personal contacts add flavor to his depiction of the characters in his story, thus heightening interest in the way he handles the material in fiction form. The book is full of symbolisms. The most dominant being the veil or the mask. Through the use of the veil, Hawthorne seems to reinforce the point that people of all kinds tend to wear some mask. His symbols are clinically, systematically organized and bear different meaning at different levels in the book. His description is poignant and with penetrating observations. Such clear observations and deep insight in a simple love relationship can only happen through a writer who understands the complexities and failings of human nature. Likewise, through the whole book, Hawthorne’s unveils to his readers the paradox of brotherly love versus self love. This omnipresent observation on life and human existence creates an atmosphere that is ordinary and abstracted.
On the concept of individuality, Hawthorne’s utopia “Community” at Blithedale seems to swallow the main character sense of individuality. In chapter eight, he uses a ‘Modern Acadia,’ to show that his Utopic society had seldom stayed or met or reasoned together. Yet, it was expected to hold together for long. According to him, people with different individuality are not the easiest to bind up as one (63). He talks about how everyone in his society has unique qualities from others and how these varying qualities pose a challenge to bringing people together. However, in chapter six and chapter seven, Coverdale observes that unless he is renewed through a process of withdrawing towards the inner circle for the self communion, in chapter six and seven of the book, a character called Coverdale undergoes metamorphosis of his individuality. He is influenced at the Blithedale to the point of accepting that every person has a strong sense of uniqueness and individuality and worries that he or she might disrupt the development of a utopia or socialist community. After being in the farm, he feels like his individualism has disappeared, and he adopts hermitage as a place of refuge away from socialist brotherhood. Pages 89-99 along the lines of this classic loss of identity by Coverdale, Zenobia, the veiled lady conceals her identity by adopting a secret name. Another example of concealing identity revolves around Hollingsworth. His charitable project causes him to withdraw from the community.
Miles Coverdale name suggests a cover up. He seems to use “cover” to avoid interactions with others. This to some extent creates an illusion of power, but the truth is, he is powerless and at the mercies of others. She believes Z is earthy, natural, sensual, brilliant, demanding and loving. However, Berlant sees her complex person who represents feminist’s qualities and materialistic world. Moodie Hollingsworth is a prototypical American whose energy is spent trying to convert the heathen and redeem the fallen. His charitable project is a mask for the will to power. Priscilla is a symbol of passive femininity. She is vulnerable, manipulated, pure and innocent. She seems to be at the mercies of men. Her femininity triumphs while that of Zenobia fails. She seems stronger than she appears. It seems that the writer uses this character to show how vainness in Zenobia pretence. According to the book, self compromises give personal will and freedom. However, it also offers some elements of ethical benefits of doing well by others. Similarly, individualism gives self determination, but it is complicated by obsessive pursuits of personal gains and selfishness. Materialism culture is associated to greed. Obsessive pursuit of materials and happiness and measuring life in terms of what materials have to offer is vain form the core to the core.
Washington Irving’s incorporates his political and nationalistic views into this writing. He depicts his strong influences through worldly and personal experiences. In this attire of Rip Van Wrinkle, Irving’s act as a storyteller and a historian deeply examining the changes the America society has undergone after the revolution. Although he admires the fact that America has gained its independence and it was at peace from Britain, he feels dejected by the influence the changes were having on the society. Great anxieties were taking over and the generations seem to lose their past. Through his main character Winkle, Irving’s expresses his negative and positive thoughts on America democracy. He views the changes from his republican viewpoint. Although he confesses to admiring English society, he sees the American society and the British society being threatened by the disorder. Individualism had begun to take away the meaning and the balance of the family. Dame Van Winkle wanted too much from Rip. Rip, on the other hand, did not want to interact with his family. The actions of the two individuals cause unhappiness. Selfishness comes into play and the idea of family and unity in the society becomes a strange concept. Through Rip, Irving’s is trying to portray endemic selfishness that had begun to take root in the American society. He had lost track of the world, he fails to adapt to the way of his generations, and he refers to people as rotten (Irving 44). Irving seems dejected by how people were rejecting their past.
Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
This essay was published in 1841. The essay has three sections: self reliance, the value of self reliance and self reliance and the society as a whole. He promotes self reliance as a virtue, ideal and contrasts it with different modes of conformity and dependence. He presupposes that the mind does not like conformity. He seems to give latitude to the idea of self worth value, self contained genius and a strong disapproval of the world. He argues that in each person there is a genius. People should believe what is true for them is true for all. He cites Plato, Moses and Milton as excellent examples of individuals who trusted in themselves. He decries the effects of society on individuals. He suggests that when the society influences individuals, it compromises their character and values. To him, a man must not adhere blindly to the views and opinions of others. Instead, he should believe in his own intuition whether it tells him he is in conflict with others or not. He concludes his work by emphasizing the value of self worth. He underscores the need for an individual to trust themselves without getting bogged down by the expectation of society. In a nutshell, the book advocates for individualism and holds strong contempt for communalism.
Individuality vs. Community: Foundations of American Culture
Pursuing common good is often a difficult path to take in a pluralistic society. People have different views of what the common good constitutes. Given these differences, it is common for some people to urge, it is impossible for a country to agree on what social systems, conditions or ideas to adopt. In such a situation, efforts to work towards a common good can only exclude others, which amount to a violation of their rights. People may feel forced to support some programs they deem as violating their freedom and may lead to paternalism, oppression and tyranny. Further, the benefits accrued from general good care for everyone. Sometimes, free riders may take advantage while failing to do their part in aiding pursuit for common good. As such, some people may hesitate to do their part, knowing that as long as others will, they can access the benefits while maintaining their consumption. This implies that if many people choose to be free riders, the common good, which depends on their support, get ruined. American culture places high value on individual right and freedoms and allows people to do their own things. Society is viewed as a separate entity from individuals who are free to pursue their happiness and dreams. In this individualistic society, it is difficult to convince people sacrifice their freedom, personal goals and self interest and work towards common good.
The American culture reinforces an individual who thinks that he should be left alone to pursue his or her personal ends. America is a country faced by two clear choices: follow the path where people selfishly protects their own benefits or chose a route where people forgo their pleasures for common good. America is faced by crisis in the health care system, crime, poverty, environmental pollution, and dwindling access to work. These issues have their root out of lack of togetherness and commitment to the common good coupled with malignant pursuit of personal interest. Common good envisages a situation or country where organizations, social systems and environment function to the good of all. A system, which allows affordable healthcare for all, access to fair and just legal system, security and peace for all are critical components of a society that cares for everybody. As the three writers suggest, the common good does not occur in a vacuum. It requires cooperative efforts of many people to maintain social conditions that benefit all.
In conclusion, appeals to the common good should not be dismissed. They urge the society to reflect on broader questions concerning the king of community they want to become. They also challenge people to view themselves as small parts of a whole. In turn, people are able to respect and value the rights and freedoms of others in order to pursue their plans and to recognize the goals they share in common.