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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 see God as inexplicably included in the acts of deep space, whereas the transcendentalists believe God is connected to humanity through nature and intuition. The outlook on Puritan composing is that their style tends to be plain and reflective. Transcendentalist writing shows how nature and feelings are victorious over reasoning and rationality.
In contrast to the plain style of Puritan writing, Jonathan Edwards frequently strikes his audience with powerful words in his literature. He exhibits this style in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” however still reveals the lowliness of people in relation to God’s power, another Puritan quality. In transcendentalist writing, the spiritual and ideal worlds are revealed through the physical realities of the natural world.
An author who uses transcendental techniques is Ralph Waldo Emerson. The work composed by Emerson showing Transcendentalism is called “Nature.” The name itself portrays the piece as transcendental, but Emerson uses the forest and its parts as symbols of the spiritual world. In comparison, both the Puritans and the Transcendentalists focus on their own perceptions of the world and human presence.
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.”
Edwards’ preaching called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” repeats the reality that God has more power than male. Wickedness and sin, as Edwards explains, leads man closer and more detailed into the depths of hell. Humanity is weak and helpless if God is provoked. “There is no desire of power in God to cast wicked men into hell anytime. Guy’s hands can not be strong when God rises up,” (Jonathan Edwards). Edwards utilizes the phrase “Men’s hands can not be strong when God rises” to obviously make his point.
His intention is to say that God and his powers should not be taken lightly. No matter how strong the will of man, God has the final say in it all. There is, however, a twist to his intention. Edwards directs the wrath of God mainly upon those who sin and that “He [God] is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it,” (Jonathan Edwards). By using the word “wicked,” Edwards hints at how man acts in order to provoke God. Sin leads towards mankind’s wickedness, therefore angering God. His wrath may come in different ways. Instead of throwing the inhabitants of Earth directly into the fiery depths of hell, He will let mankind destroy itself and withhold His retribution.
“The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher…the floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the meantime is constantly increasing, and you are everyday treasuring up more wrath,” (Jonathan Edwards).
Obviously, Edwards uses the water held behind a dam as a symbol. The dam represents God’s “hand,” and the water is His wrath. Comparing this, Edwards tries to explain that the longer the water is held back, the more force it will have when the dam will no longer support it; the longer God puts off judgment of man’s sin, the more powerful His punishment. The sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a great example of the Puritan belief of society. A man is ether part of the elect, basically chosen to go to heaven, or of the damned that are sent to hell at God’s force.
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.
On the softer side of God’s presence, Transcendentalism takes place. Their view is that intuition and nature as a whole is more powerful than intellect. In Emerson’s “Nature,” there is a strong sense of God being present through the wilderness and the natural way of life.
“All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man,” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
What Emerson is trying to get through to his audience is that God works in a process for the good of mankind. When he tells about how the wind, sun, rain, and plant, and how each work together in a cycle to support nature, he is comparing their jobs to God “nourishing” man. Emerson is also trying to say that without nature and its course, man would not survive. The Transcendentalists believe that the physical facts of the natural world are a doorway to the spiritual and ideal world; an apparent example is that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” (Emerson, Chapter: Nature). Emerson considers God to be present within physical properties of nature, in this case, color. The use of the word “always” suggests that God and the spiritual world are visible through nature to man no matter the condition. Conversely, do these relations of God and nature apply in any way to man? When a man is described as “a particle of God,” (Emerson, Ch: Nature), he is a piece of God and the spiritual world. There is a connection between man and nature because of God’s visibility through the environment. Ideally, the Transcendentalists show that man is not only a part of God, but also in nature.
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.
People living in the Puritan and Transcendental periods of time believed that God was connected to humanity and the life surrounding it; also, God had the power to reveal himself to mankind and even take control, making Puritanism and Transcendentalism equivalent. Texts like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and “Nature” are good examples of Puritan and Transcendental writing because they exemplify the characteristics and beliefs of each era. Elements in transcendentalism are knowledge and spiritual existence in nature, whereas Puritanism consists of discipline and God revealed through the inner self of man. Whether it be for “God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment,” (Edwards), or “divine charity [to] nourish man,” (Emerson), God was presented as a power both to reprimand and nurture civilization.
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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