The United States may have declared its political freedom in 1776, but cultural, linguistic, and literary independence didn't come for another 60 years. The American Renaissance, as this richest of periods in American literature has since been called, occurred between the economic crash of 1837 and the Civil War. The best-known of the literary liberators were Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Poe.
In his fourth and newest book, Larzer Ziff, proessor of English at Johns Hopkins University, runs a trowel through this fertile ground to make a unique contribution to the criticism of the period. ". . . my history constantly moves between the world observed and the creative processes of the writers who inhabited it, justifying description of the former by exhibiting its subtle effects on the latter," he writes in his preface. In the subsequent pages he carries out this undertaking with freshness and piercing insight.
The book begins and ends, appropriately, with Melville, perhaps the greatest novelist to have emerged on this side of the Atlantic. Ziff explains Melville's peculiar and formidable challenge: to portray the soul of democracy, the dignity of the common man, without succumbing to the fleeting expectations of popular demand. James Fenimore Cooper had faced the same challenge, but Cooper didn't find the new form needed to meet it. As Ziff shows, Melville met the challenge.
Ultimately Melville's experimentation would lead to the ambiguity of "The Confidence Man," which Ziff discusses at length. In that book Melville created "a fiction of shifting forms; . . . actuality in it floats up from the hidden depts as a series of shifting masks that might, in their unceasing changes, be all the meaning there is, or might be so connected that an ultimate oneness could be inferred in purposeful operation behind all seeming change."
Ziff is a brilliant cultural historian and mythic explicator, but his supreme power lies in his ability to make clear how and why Emerson and Thoreau transformed the English language into something uniquely American. In Thoreau's hands language underwent a "radical return to the natural physical base," Ziff observers. For the Concord sage "language is not human in the sense of human differentiated from other forms of life -- man, the rational animal. It is an utterance determined by the same force that drives through the tree to make it utter leaves."
Aside from the more major figures of the Renaissance, Ziff also casts his penetrating gaze on Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, George Washington Harris, and the now unknown novelist who probably outsold Hawthorne and the others of his time, George Lippard. A fascinating chapter devoted to Lippard examines the interplay between the reality of urban Philadelphia and the melodramatic social realism of his work.
Ziff's prose is not only lucid and fluid, but at times even inspiring. His profound study belongs on the shelves of serious students of American literature.