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American literature is characterized by several genres of literature which represent many different phases in American history and culture. Among these are Puritanism and Transcendentalism. These two movements share certain characteristics while they oppose each other for other reasons.
The Puritans were a group of individuals that were very strict, radical Protestants that gathered as a type of religion after the Reformation in England. They came to American for the freedom to practice this type of religion. Writers of the Puritan era served to glorify God and teach people how to live a godly life.
These ideals are reflected in Anne Bradstreet’s, “Upon the Burning of our House” in which the narrator still praises God even after a devastating tragedy. In addition, Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan minister, notes the angry nature of God to his congregation who he feels is straying in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Even Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer from the 1800s, and Arthur Miller, a writer from the 1900s, focus on this period of time in their works, The Scarlet Letter, and The Crucible, respectively.
These works point out need to strictly adhere to the groups principles and to live under its scrutiny, or bear the bitter consequences. Hester Prynne must wear a large, red letter ‘A’ on her chest to show her sin of adultery in the first novel while innocent townspeople are accused of witchcraft on the testimony of a jealous teenage girl in The Crucible. Obedience and humility were definitely characteristics of this type of literature.
The Transcendentalist writers of the next century also believed in the importance of a higher power. However, unlike the Puritans, the higher power was not a rote belief in the doctrines of God. The rise of Transcendentalism came from the church, the Unitarian church, but not from an angry god but a quieter, kinder “indwelling God and the significance of intuitive thought” (Campbell).
This higher power was a more ambiguous higher reality than one could find in simple experience. It was a heightened level of knowledge and philosophical understanding than could be achieved by reason alone. The Transcendentalists sought to go beyond simple, everyday experience to find a higher level of truth. Whereas the Puritans would dictate what that truth were to be, according to the Bible, the Transcendentalists were willing to accept several interpretations of this truth.
Some noted writers of the American Transcendentalist period of literature were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s essay on “Nature” showed the reverence for the natural world and its importance. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” stressed the importance of being true to oneself and beliefs and not being bullied by the established institutions or church.
Puritanism and Transcendentalism are both belief systems which arise from a spiritual background. The writers of these groups mirror their beliefs. While Puritanism focuses on dogmatic adherence to the orthodox religion of the times, Transcendentalism is a kindler, gentler philosophy that focuses on the elevating of the individual to the soul and spirit of a greater truth.
Campbell, Donna M. “American Transcendentalism.” Literary Movements. May 21, 2007 December 13, 2007 <http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/amtrans.htm>.
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