The nineteenth century: Romanticism
This is the first part of the paper which summary of the course reading, an introduction to romanticism.
There are important characteristics of romanticism and some of the critical development that shaped romanticism literature.
An important aspect of the transition from the old thinking to the new thinking and thus literature in the romanticism era. For example, the period was characterized by focusing on particular rather than universal, nation or group of people rather than human kind and individual fulfillment rather than community stability.
Other aspects and thoughts such as individualism, abolishment of slavery in the United States, scientific discoveries, industrial revolution, commerce and nature also influenced romanticism literature.
John Muir and romanticism
This is the second part of the paper.
It looks at some of the aspects of John Muir writings that were influence by romanticism.
Although he did not live in the romanticism era, his writing on nature and the importance of conserving the environment as well as environment ethics were are comparable to romanticism.
The use of romantic language and discussions that trigger strong emotions are some of the characteristics of Muir’s literary work similar to romanticism literature.
Muir developed a romantic ethical model related to nature.
Sublime was central to romanticism, it formed the foundation of his environmental ethics attributed to Muir.
Thenineteenth century Romanticism: Summary
Theromanticism period is characterized by remarkable changes in theworld civilization in reference to dominant assumptions, sensibilityand intellectuality which emerged towards the end of the 18thcentury. However, romanticism involves numerous cultural and socialmanifestations that can not be generalized. Despite this, the periodwas characterized by focusing on particular rather than universal,nation or group of people rather than human kind and individualfulfillment rather than community stability. The paradigm shifts havefar reaching philosophical and literacy impacts. For example,although there is some connection and continuity when literature inthe early and late 19thcentury are considered, there are remarkable changes. One of theseremarkable change is the philosophical view that even young childrenhave insight and wisdom, contrary to the previously believe thatwisdom was associated with old age. However, many philosopher andthinkers “valued experience as a vital path to knowledge”.(Reading, 485). Important events that shaped the romanticism age arethe French Revolution and the American Revolution, which broughtabout a strong conviction that man, has innate rights. Theserevolutions were “derived from new ideas about the sacredness ofthe individual” which brought about new ideas about humanity(Reading, 486). This led to a radical change in all socialinstitutions including politics and governance. Thinkers as well ascommon men in the society started thinking beyond mankind. This wasevident all manner of art and literature, including politicaltheories, sermons in the church and other humanistic literatures. Asmore and more thinkers talked and wrote about human rights in thesociety, women rights advocates also emerged. Thus, as the Americanwas celebrating a new nation, the French had similar celebration ofliberty, equality and fraternity.
However,it is important to note that the new ideas did not constitutepolitical thoughts and philosophies only. For example, during thesame historical period, Adam Smith one of the greatest theorists ineconomy wrote thewealth of nations,where he proposed the laissez faire economic theory. His theory wasbased on other thoughts that had emerged in the romanticism period.There also emerged literatures and arts which activated emotions suchas TheSorrows of Young Wertherand theman of feeling,published in the 1770s. Capturing human feeling in literaturereplaced the previous themes which emphasized on the passion. Thus,romantic love and relations between opposite sex became an importanttheme in both poetry and drama. Other forms of attention attractedattention of writers and readers. Readers were more interested withboth pleasurable and painful emotions in romanticism literature. Atthe end the 18thcentury, the romantic emotions were overshadowed by the flourishingcommerce and scientific inventions. The emergence of a new middleclass with new moral philosophies as well as the positive andnegative impacts of the money centered economy had huge impacts inthe society. New scientific discoveries and development started todominate the literary world. For example, the publishing of theorigin of speciesby Charles Darwin was the climax of religious confusion brought aboutby scientific discoveries and developments. This is because itcontradicted the biblical account of the origin of species andhumanity. This was followed by another revolutionary political andeconomic literature by Karl Marx. As the civil war raged in theUnited States, majority of literatures and political thoughts in theUnited States related to morality and ethics of slavery as well ashuman rights and its significance or relation to capitalism. Anotherimportant literary work that emerged during the period emphasized theimportance of personal experience. As a result, slave narrativesemerged as important literature which was used as to propagateabolitionist propaganda in the United States. This has historicsignificance in the history of literature due to the emergence ofAfrican American writers.
Accordingto dominant view of the time, imagination rather than reasoninfluenced literary works. Imagination refers to the power ofconsciousness and creates images who truth have not been tested.However, some people viewed imaginative literature as the only meansthrough which talented thinkers could communicate and discuss thetruth. As a result, creative imaginative literature became morevaluable due to their originality. The artistic imagination and theresultant literary work earned some of the thinkers in the 19thcentury the respect of being genius. Genius was reserved forindividuals who have exhibited extra ordinary qualities when comparedto others people which were exhibited through literary work. However,some writers expressed anxiety about the specialness of genius in thesociety. Nonetheless, newness was a critical measure of the value ofliterary work. Natural and nature laws also had a huge influence onromanticism thoughts. The totality of nature formed the foundation ofsome of the most important writing in the era.
JohnMuir and romanticism
AlthoughJohn Muir did not live in the romanticism era, his writing, passionsand enthusiasm were largely influenced by romanticism. As a result,his writings have attracted a lot of attention in the present world,as well as in the past. His unique and exciting nature writing genreand literature is one of its kinds. Literary scholars have arguedthat John Muir writings were influenced by transcendentalphilosophies and majority of his ideas and thoughts can be associatedwith earlier philosophers and thinkers such as Thoreau and Emerson.Although he had a passionate zeal for nature, his works also involvedreligious rhetoric, which was common in the romanticism eraliterature. However, his resilient plead to “preserve thewilderness and to explore the knowledge and meaning that lie withinwilderness” featured predominantly in his writings. Some scholarshave classified John Muir as a regional writer whose work mainlyconcentrated on the wonders of the American west nature. However,there are several themes that can be observed in John Muir nonfiction work (McKusick, 2010).
Oneof the aspects of John Muir writings makes his comparable toromanticism is the adopting of romantic language and theconsideration of transcendental philosophies as well as romanticphilosophies. For example, he applied Thoreau philosophies in thedescription and advocacy for nature in the American west. He arguedthat in the America west, the “opportunities for solitude andreflection for an economically simple life and for a Thoreauvian,ascetic exploration of the inner self”. The passion and enthusiasmof John Muir writing was mainly triggered by political and commercialactivities and interests that threatened the natural environment.In the words of WilliamWordsworthin composedupon Westminster Bridge,there is nothing “more fair” than the sight of nature and itsbeauty.To attract the attention of his audience and initiate scholarlydiscussion, he expressed a romantic view of the wilderness with avehement appeal to preserve the environment. This romanticismapproach enabled his writing to influence the decision makers or ragetheir denunciation (Hall, 2004).
A critical analysis of John Muir writings suggest that he wasinfluenced by transcendentalist literature as well as Britishromantic literature and writers. It has been argued that in additionto being motivated by western American wilderness and nature, hisliterary roots are romantic naturalism and romanticism due to thehuge similarities between his work and British romanticismliterature. His favorite thinker and writer was Thoreau, although hewas well conversant with Emerson philosophies and literature. Despitea failed attempt to meet Emerson in Yosemite, they were in constantcommunication where Emerson acted as his mentor in writing by sendinghim copies of transcendental literature, which he studies keenly andthus influenced his writing. It is important to note that althoughromanticism literature and transcendental literature are different,they are related in many ways. Most importantly, both conceptsemerged during the same historical period. However, transcendentalwas introduced by Immanuel Kant, who introduced nature, individualismand divinity to the romanticism art, whose main these were aestheticexperiences (Miller, 2007).
Generally,John Muir work has many characteristic of romanticism literature.This includes the strong emotions educed in the literature as well ashow significant events are exemplified. In additional to the power ofnature and divinity emphasized by transcendentalism, John Muirliterature also focuses on strong force that motivates individualsuch as allegiance and patriotism. Political and economic interestsare associated with intellectual and society growth. The inspirationsof human interests are beyond human perspective and outside theindividual reasoning and traditions. John Muir used these romanticismreasoning and thoughts to argue against individualistic and communityinterests that threatened the divinity and power of nature. In hiswriting, John Muir incorporated some of the aspects of romanticismsuch as blending his ideas with religious rhetoric while linking theimportance of nature and environmentalism. His achievements as awriter as well as an environment advocate can be attributed to hisability to creatively introduce romanticism in the relationshipbetween nature and humans (Fay, 2002).
Inaddition to making him look like romanticism author, the romanticmodel of environmental advocacy writing adopted by John Muir has ahuge significance on how his audience and the entire society viewedthe environment. During the romanticism period, “the physicalrealities of the natural world, in its varied abundance, became amatter of absorbing interest for poets and novelists” (Reading490). Together with other environment crusaders, he was able tointroduce the romanticism idea of how the wilderness and nature canbe a source of human inspiration. He also linked conservation ofnature to divine work in an attempt to convince the audience thatthere was a need to conserve the wilderness. However, he introducedhis own romantic ethical model related to nature. For example, he wasconsidered with “the working of machines, the abstract notions ofChristianity, the social expectations of manly conquest, thearbitrary chronology of civilization, the dominion of man, thecommoditization of nature” (Hall, 2004). It is evident that gavetribute and emphasized the romanticism ethics and used them to arguehis preservationist appeal, which is considered to be the foundationof the modern environmental ethics and environmentalism. Theromanticism environmental ethics the John Muir advocated for thenature formed the basis of modern environmental ethics which has alsoborrowed largely from romanticism philosophies and thoughts(McKusick, 2010).
Anotheraspect that was dominant in John Muir writing that can be used torelate his work to romanticism as been the idea of sublime. It was aprominent topic in major romanticism era writings and philosophicalwork, and has been depended on in the development of environmentalphilosophies and ethics by Muir. In addition to being central toromanticism, it formed the foundation of his environmental ethics.The Americans developed a relatively unique interpretation of thesublime, compared to European romanticism interpretation. In Europeanliterature, sublime is associated with German Romanticism, mainly thework of Immanuel Kant. It was viewed as a force that impacted onhumanity due to emotional reaction as a result of nature’sgreatness. Inhis poem “Darkness”,Lord Byron, a renowned romanticism writer, talked about a morningthat “came and went, and came and brought no day. And men forgottheir passions…”According to European romanticism thinkers, sublime was a spiritualand pious experience where one was overwhelmed by the power of natureand his own insignificance. However, the American romanticismthinkers have a different view of sublime. The American versionreferred to powerful and positive force that reminded humans abouttheir mortality and limitations when compared to the power of nature.Based on this romanticism concept, John Muir wrote about the need torecognize the power, value and beauty of nature where introducedAmerican thinking in order to fit in the unique American culture andethics (Pfau & Gleckner, 2008).
Despitethe unique American romanticism view of sublime, compared to Europeanromanticism, it influence on the cultural view on nature and thus,environmental writers such as John Muir used these views to furthertheir conservation ideologies and promote environmental ethics. Forexample, he used the romanticism view of sublime to initiateemotional response in favor of the environment. He also used it topromote the aesthetic value of the wilderness and evoke beliefs andnorms related to nature. It is important to note that Muir’s workachieved a significant aspect of environment conservation, creating asense of magnificence of the natural landscape and the use ofromanticism understanding of the force of nature enabled him torealize the power and presence of nature in their human lives. Thus,due to the over reliance and reference to both American and Europeanromanticism thoughts and philosophies, John Muir has been viewed as aromanticism writer (Hall, 2004).
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McKusick,J. (2010). Greenwriting: romanticism and ecology,Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Miller,S. (2007). JohnMuirin historical perspective,New York: Peter Lang.
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Wordsworth,William. Composedupon Westminster Bridge,September 3, 1802.