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A DEMOCRATIC CULTURE. In Search of Native Grounds by the middle of 19th century, American culture was clearly an offspring rather than an imitation of European culture of American novelists before 1830, only James Fenimore Cooper made successful use of the national heritage.

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a democratic culture
  • In Search of Native Grounds
    • by the middle of 19th century, American culture was clearly an offspring rather than an imitation of European culture
    • of American novelists before 1830, only James Fenimore Cooper made successful use of the national heritage
most American novelists imitated British writers, though none approached the level of their British counterparts
  • New York emerged as America's literary capital and Washington Irving as its leading light
  • American painting reached a level comparable to that of Europe, where many of the best American painters still trained
  • American painters such as West, Copley, Peale, and Stuart excelled as portraitists
  • American painting was less obviously imitative of European styles than was American literature
The Romantic View of Life
    • romantic movement was a reaction against Age of Reason
    • romantics valued emotion and intuition over pure reason, and they stressed individualism, optimism, patriotism, and ingeniousness
    • romanticism fit mood of 19th-century America
    • transcendentalism, a mystical, intuitive way of looking at life that aspired to go beyond the world of the senses, represented the fullest expression of romanticism
transcendentalists regarded nature as the essence of divinity; thus, humans were divine because they were part of nature
  • above all, transcendentalists valued the individual and the aspiration to stretch beyond human capacities
Emerson and Thoreau
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading transcendentalist thinker, urged Americans to put aside their devotion to things European and seek inspiration in immediate surroundings
    • although he favored change and believed in progress, the new industrial society of New England disturbed him profoundly
    • however, he was not temperamentally disposed to join crusades for reform
he was too idealistic to accept compromises most reformers must make to achieve their ends
  • Emerson valued self-reliance and disliked powerful governments
  • like Emerson, Henry David Thoreau objected to society’s restrictions on the individual
  • Thoreau spent two years living alone in a cabin at Walden Pond to prove that an individual need not depend on society
to protest Mexican War, which he believed immoral because it advanced the cause of slavery, Thoreau refused to pay state poll tax
  • for this action, he was arrested and spent a night in jail
  • his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” explained his view on the proper relation of the individual to the state
Edgar Allan Poe
    • Poe epitomized the romantic image of the tortured genius
    • haunted by alcohol, melancholia, hallucinations, and debt, he was nevertheless a master short story writer and poet, a penetrating critic, and an excellent magazine editor
Nathaniel Hawthorne
    • Hawthorne rejected the egoism and optimism of transcendentalism
    • he was fascinated by New England’s Puritan past and its continuing influence
    • his best known works, including The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, concerned individuals and their struggle with sin, guilt, and the pride and isolation that often afflict those who place too much reliance on their own judgment
Herman Melville
    • like Hawthorne, Melville could not accept the transcendentalists’ optimism
    • he considered their vague talk about striving and their faith in the goodness of humanity complacent nonsense
    • in his most famous work, Moby Dick, Melville dealt powerfully with the problems of good and evil, courage and cowardice, faith, stubbornness, and pride
Walt Whitman
    • the most romantic and distinctively American writer of his age, Whitman believed that a poet could best express himself by relying uncritically on his natural inclinations
    • his greatest work, Leaves of Grass, often shocked or confused his readers with its commonplace subject matter and its coarse language
The Wider Literary Renaissance
    • pre-Civil War literary renaissance also included New Englanders Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell
    • Southern literature was even more markedly romantic than that of New England, as demonstrated by novelists John Pendleton Kennedy and William Gilmore Simms
    • several historians achieved prominence during this period, including George Bancroft and Francis Parkman
Domestic Tastes
    • Charles Bulfinch’s “Federal” style of architecture flourished in the North
    • wood-turning machinery contributed to the popularity of the “Gothic” style
    • “Greek” and “Italian” styles also flourished, the former particularly in the South
    • new technology allowed the mass production of textiles with complicated designs, including wallpaper, rugs, and hangings
combined with the use of machine methods in the production of furniture, new textiles had a profound impact on furniture in American homes
  • more affluent Americans decorated their homes with the works of American genre painters, “luminists,” and members of the Hudson River School
  • beginning in the 1850s, the lithographs of Currier and Ives brought a fairly crude but charming form of art to a still wider audience
Education for Democracy
    • common school movement, led by Henry Barnard and Horace Mann, urged creation of state-administered schools taught by professional teachers
    • movement was based on an unquenchable faith in the improvability of the human race through education and a belief that democracy required an educated citizenry
    • by the 1850s, every state outside the South provided free elementary schools and supported institutions to train teachers
historians have identified several reasons for the success of the common school movement
  • common schools helped to “Americanize” immigrant children, and they brought Americans of different economic circumstances and ethnic backgrounds into early and mutually beneficial contact with one another
  • they also instilled good employee values
Reading and the Dissemination of Culture
    • as the population grew and became more concentrated, and as middle class values permeated American society, particularly in the North, popular concern for “culture” increased
    • industrialization made it possible to satisfy this new demand
    • improved printing techniques reduced the cost of books, magazines, and newspapers
    • moralistic and sentimental “domestic” novels reached their peak of popularity in the 1850s
Americans devoured reams of religious literature
  • self-improvement books were popular as well
  • philanthropists established libraries and public lectures
  • mutual improvement societies known as lyceums founded libraries, sponsored lectures, and lobbied for better education
The State of the Colleges
    • the cost of private colleges meant that relatively few students could afford them; since students were hard to come by, discipline and academic standards were lax
    • the college curriculum focused on the classics rather than on practical or scientific studies until the 1840s
    • Harvard and Yale established schools of science; Harvard allowed students to choose some of their courses, and instituted grades
colleges in the South and West began to offer mechanical and agricultural subjects
  • Oberlin College admitted women in 1837, and the Georgia Female College opened in 1839
  • white males constituted the overwhelming majority of students, but only 2 percent of white males went to college
Civic Cultures
    • cities and towns sought to become local and regional centers of learning, art, and culture
    • in the East, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia vied for primacy
    • in the West, Cincinnati, Lexington, and Pittsburgh sought to become regional centers of culture
    • members of the professions were generally accepted as the arbiters of taste in cultural matters
Scientific Stirrings
    • few Americans pursued science on more than a part-time basis, and few American scientists achieved international recognition in the half century after the Revolution
    • Tocqueville attributed this to Americans’ distrust of theory and abstract knowledge
    • nevertheless, Americans accounted for some advances; national and state governments sponsored geological and coastal surveys; and the Smithsonian Institution was founded
American Humor
    • the juxtaposition of high ideals and low reality formed the basis for much American humor
    • James Russell Lowell’s Bigelow Papers turned “Down East” humor to more telling satirical effect
    • Seba Smith’s character, Major Jack Downing, and Johnson J. Hooper’s creation, Simon Suggs, provided satirical lenses through which to examine Jacksonian America