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Rappaccini's Children

Rappaccini's Children: American Writers in a Calvinist World

William H. Shurr
Copyright Date: 1981
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Rappaccini's Children
    Book Description:

    Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" tells of a beautiful girl who has, from birth, absorbed the poison from the flowers of her father's garden. In this allegorical tale of the fallen Garden of Eden, William H. Shurr finds a metaphor for the fate of many American writers, for whom the heritage of calvinism has been the poisoned fruit of the Garden of the New World.

    For many American writers, the legacy of the Puritan Fathers has been a pervasive sense of sinfulness and guilt in a violent and unforgiving universe. In this new study Shurr examines how these writers have coped with this heritage.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6462-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    At the critical midpoint in his career, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote an allegory about calvinism in America. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” tells of a beautiful girl, Beatrice, who tends a botanical garden of poisonous flowers and who has absorbed their poisons from birth. Hawthorne solicits the reader’s serious meditations on his Allegory of the Garden. Among the allusions that abound in the story are more or less explicit references to Dante, Genesis, Ecclesiastes, Samuel, the Song of Solomon, the Gospels, Revelations, Ovid, Edward Johnson’sThe Wonder-Working Providence of Scion’s Saviour, Faust,Emerson’sNature,Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, Sir Thomas Browne, and possibly Jonathan...

    (pp. 19-33)

    It may seem that calvinism as an official theology has long been superseded in America. Enlightenment philosophers thought they had buried Calvin, but reinterment was consciously felt as a necessity a generation later by the Unitarians. Even modern historians tend to put suprisingly early dates to the demise of Calvin’s influence. A central problem that must be faced concerns the actual persistence of calvinism, its duration as a cultural determinant. I believe that the views presented in this book suggest its vitality long after its supposed demise. But for the moment some attention must be paid to those professional theologians...

    (pp. 34-46)

    Immanuel Kant claimed nothing less than a Copernican revolution in philosophy by placing much of what had been thought to be extra-mental reality within the mind.¹ The Americans, particularly the Transcendentalists, believed they were much influenced by him. But in the context of the argument here developed, their revolution was even more radical than his. Kant retained an older dualism, firmly adhering to the conviction that some aspects of being lay within the bounds of human knowledge while other aspects were beyond its grasp. This paralleled the older theological distinction between natural and supernatural. The distinction is particularly strong in...

    (pp. 47-61)

    Emerson’s break from the calvinist tradition was thorough. It should also be noticed that it was temporary, and that the issues upon which he made such startling pronouncements were largely drawn from the concerns already determined by the calvinist culture. But Emerson’s firm and early statements were alive and had the benefit of live practitioners. In fact, an American classic was being written under his immediate personal influence. The denial of any split between the natural and the supernatural, and the ability of purely secular language to describe sacred experiences—both are axioms of Emerson’s early thought. The denial becomes...

    (pp. 62-83)

    In the thought peculiar to Whitman and Emerson the soul is quite willing to take wings and soar to a vision of transphenomenal being. No Daedalus fears obtrude, nor any terror of the unknown. The universe is man’s by right of optimism. Knowing Nature as they insist they do, no alien nature can lurk there to terrify. The nature of Deity is Benevolence, and Death is easy access to him.

    This, however, is one artistic and intellectual view, in conscious rebellion against the tradition. There are other views of God and death that stand in opposition. Mark Twain reserved the...

    (pp. 84-100)

    Long ago, Matthiessen quoted T.S. Eliot’s observation that “Henry James’ work is a criticism of the America of his time.”¹ One way to read the corpus of James’s works is to follow a quite clear line of progression through his fictional re-creation of contemporary cultures. He may have worried as much as any writer over the weaknesses in the American system and contributed at least as much valid diagnosis. It was also Eliot who said that James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it. But it may be that James’s “idea” was so vast and all-encompassing...

    (pp. 101-119)

    It may be instructive to begin a chapter on the South with a false start. There is a tradition which from time to time has seemed on the brink of playing a major defining role in southern literature, but at present the influence must be assessed as minimal, almost nonexistent. The locale itself has been absorbed, as far as defining characteristics are concerned, into the stream of America generally. I refer here to the ancient culture of New Orleans, and the vigorous local mixture of French and Catholic that was strongly entrenched there.

    The New Orleans culture produced one true...

    (pp. 120-140)

    There has always been a major tragic figure in our culture—latent, frequently suggested, yet never fully developed as such. This is the figure of Christopher Columbus, who has puzzled American writers from Irving through Whitman to Hart Crane. Philip Freneau, the poet of the American Revolution, was one of those early struck by the possibilities of the subject. Freneau’s forte was the shorter poem, but even within this scope he found room to dramatize a few moments in Columbus’s life. In “Columbus to Ferdinand” he characterized him as a man of the high Renaissance, with strong passions firmly guided...

  12. 9 EPILOGUE
    (pp. 141-146)

    Calvinism is the dark side of our moon. Death is madness and despair; Ahab is not Prometheus as Christ, who cannot die, to whom the ways of things will eventually bend, but rather the satanic Prometheus, rebellious and doomed, impotent and infinitely sad. Napoleon once remarked, according to Emerson, that history is a fable to which we all agree. And in a very real sense, the past exists only as memory, as dream, as genetic input realized in the present moment. To a bewildering array of inanimate artifacts are added fear, hope, pride, imagination, ambition, to create the reality of...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 147-160)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 161-165)