Dickinson, Hawthorne, and Melville
Throughout our history, we have repeatedly tried to exploit the environment (i.e. nature) in order to perfect our lives. We not only manipulated the materialistic and economic aspect of our world, but we have also struggled to use the moral and the spiritual in making progress within ourselves. Instead of relying on ourselves to accomplish this purpose, we have unfortunately sought help from society's traditional institutions. These institutions, in turn, have tired to manipulate us for their own good, resulting in more harm than help. During the nineteenth century, authors such as Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne recognized this and have tried to stop it through their writings. To this end, they have adopted Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that people choose to deny the power of reason, or their own mind. He believed that until people choose to see the "light" of reason, they will remain morally dead. With the achievement of reason, external institutions will remain useless and they will understand that the spirit they so vehemently desired is indeed within them and will without a doubt eliminate their moral darkness. Therefore, Emerson affirmed that the only eternal law is that of experience and that "the one thing in the world of value is the active soul-the soul, free, sovereign, active." This essay will discuss how these authors (Melville, Hawthorne, and Dickinson) composed writings that mimicked Emerson's view of life to accentuate individualism against subjugation.
To begin, Melville believed that "we are all sons, grandsons, or nephews or great-nephews of those who go before us. No one is his own sire." Thus, his writings both mimic Emerson's views and repel it. For example, Emerson believed that "society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members." While this might be true, Melville depicts an individual has no power in his/her society. To illustrate this, in Billy Budd, the sense of moral commitment over riding professional responsibility is almost none existent. After Billy kills Claggart for spreading blasphemous information about him, he is sentenced to hang. Although Captain Vere understands that the punishment for death is death, he justifies the court's decision of hanging Billy by saying that because of "military necessity so heavy a compulsion is laid." In actuality, before the court even meets, Captain Vere has decided that Billy must hang and in turn he uses his powers to manipulate the court's decision. Thus, justice is denied for someone in order to appease naval law. Captain Vere overlooked his moral obligations of not interfering and, instead, help his professional responsibility higher. Melville believed in this. He believed that the evil in people disguised as hypocrisy has found a comfortable niche for it in the world in humans' hearts. Interestingly, evil is not left unpunished, as we see in Billy Budd, Captian Vere, who killed Budd to prevent a mutiny, had his ship attacked and he dying anyway. Budd remained first and foremost, though hidden, in his mind.
Furthermore, many of Melville's stories have echoed Emerson's views on life. For instance, his "Benito Cerino" implements Emerson's view that individualism is sorely needed as long as slavery is in existence, entrapping everyone. Delano in the beginning of the story does not see himself as part of slavery. However, he ultimately figures this out when he becomes "less talkative, oppressed, against his own will" at the sight of Don Benito's padlock and key. Later, the horror of slavery incarcerated in evil becomes evident with Babo's revolt. After years of being enslaved, the slaves start to rebel against the others. Even though Delano attempts to help racial inequalities, the irony of the possibility that the situation could present itself again lends itself to more inequity. Therefore, through the institutions of the 19th century of the navy and of slavery, Melville clearly shows the inescapable shattering cost to humans' morals and souls.
Like Melville, Emily Dickonson is not in total agreement with Emerson's transcendentalist views. I believe her poems lack the ebullience of Emerson's writings. However, like Emerson, her poems exhibit the significance of disqualifying society's "dos and don'ts" (i.e. traditional rules) and, instead, confirming the importance of an individual's soul and morals. One can see that Dickinson has lived by these views not only in her poems, but also in her life. For example, she was an educated woman. As such, she refused to be inferior in a male-dominated society. Like Emerson, she believed that "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." For instance, in her poem, "Much Madness is divinest Sense--," she explains how the rule of the majority can become a form of tyranny in her image of "handled with a chain." One can see how true this image was in recent history. When the Grand Old Party wanted Bill Clinton out of office, they used their majority rule to repress the minority's rights, in turn, becoming tyrants. She also strongly believed that "the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." Although this image might be realistically difficult, it is none the less true.
Moreover, in her poem "The Soul selects her own Society," Dickinson shows us that no matter what, she will never do what society expects from her as long as it is not in agreement with what she wants. She shows us that she has selected her own place of seclusion, "The Soul selects her own society" and by no means will a "divine majority" extract that freedom of seclusion from her even if "an Emperor be kneeling upon her Mat." She will "shut the door...Present no more...close the Valves of her attention-Like Stone." Nothing can stir Dickinson's secluded lifestyle due to her strength of character and inner spirit. In fact, her seclusion and knowing that she is safe with a strong spirit keeps her sane. She believed that without her seclusion, she will inevitably go mad. She shows us this concept in her poem "I felt a funeral, in my brain." Dickinson describes how madness takes over her body when "Mourners to and fro/Kept treading-treading-till it seemed/That Sense was breaking through." The mourners represent society invading her seclusion. As they invade, her sense of reason breaks through, meaning it leaves her until a "Plank of Reason" breaks during her burial. As such, we know that Dickinson, to survive, needs her individuality. This was what Emerson preached in "Self-Reliance." He preached that the only way to find value in life was through one's soul.
Finally, Hawthorne's writings support Emerson's view of opposing the use of scientific technology or religious institutions for self-improvement; however, unlike Emerson, he places the duty not on nature but rather the individual himself. Like Emerson, Hawthorne feels that "intellectual science has been observed to beget invariably a doubt of the existence of matter." He disliked technology, thinking it weakens the individual by preventing him from maintaining control of his own life. For instance, in "Rappaccini's Daughter," because the father attempts to use his knowledge of science to create a supernatural being who can overpower all others, he embodies evil. By isolating his daughter and only introducing her to science, she forgets her inner strength, her inner individuality and is, therefore, rendered weak. Moreover, providing Beatrice with what Rappuccini calls "marvelous gifts," when "she would fain have been loved, not feared," has made his daughter utterly miserable. To rid herself of this helplessness, Beatrice willingly decides to sacrifice her artificial life by uttering, "I will drink-but do thou await the result." She clearly wants her father to realize that he has destroyed her life. Thus, by having Beatrice commit suicide, Hawthorne reveals the horrifying, restrictive effects of ignoring morality to misuse science for delicate, human experimentation.
In conclusion, all three authors, Dickinson, Melville, and Hawthorne use Emerson's ideas of individuality in their respective writings. They stressed the importance of the individual over he hypocrisy of society. Although Emerson's views were optimistic, Dickinson, Melville, and Hawthorne have pessimistic sociological views. Melville believed that as an individual, one had no power in one's society. Dickinson disqualified society and reiterated the importance of individualism. She thought that if individualism was not in existence, people would die of insanity. Finally, Hawthorne believed that to attain individualism, one needed to cast off any association to technology and science. Thus, due to Emerson's writings and views, Dickinson, Melville, and Hawthorne attempted to change the 19th century's view of one's life and one's soul.
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