This is a literary analysis through American history, maybe you’ll find it interesting!
Anxiety in America
Humanity as a species are filled with anxiety; our bodies are wired to react to stress and danger, but as civilization progressed – and continues to progress – that stress response became less necessary for survival. With basic needs taken care of, humans went from worrying about concrete issues like food, shelter, and predators, to more abstract issues like morality, freedom, and conflict of culture. As the world became more developed, culture developed, and with it came art. Art is a cultural representation of what is important to a group of people – that is why the earliest art historians have found is centered around hunting. As such, a common theme in art is whatever the culture is most anxious about in that period of history, and it can be useful to look at art to get a feel for what a given culture was most worried about. This can be done with American literature, and four works from the American literary canon show the shifting anxiety of Americans throughout the country’s history: Johnathon Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” and George RR Martin’s series of novels “Game of Thrones.”
In the later years of the British colonial period of American history, the first Great Awakening swept through the country, as some contemporary theologians pushed for its citizens to take a more personal stance towards Christianity; instead of letting preachers tell people what to believe, and how to practice their faith, people should read the bible and cultivate a personal relationship with God. While continuing to emphasize Calvinist principles like predestination, the Great Awakening’s focus on the individual’s relationship with God demonstrates the anxiety people felt about their fate in the afterlife. Given a tangible belief in predestination, people understandably feared for the fate of their souls, and Johnathon Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” addressed this fear by offering a slim hope of salvation. Using powerful imagery, Edwards suggests that “unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering,” with the implication that conversion – from a casual (for the time) Christian to a Christian who feels God’s love and presence actively in their life – could offer hope of salvation (Edwards). Throughout the sermon, Edwards paints a violent, concrete picture of the reality of hell, and associates it with more imagery of God’s active mercy in the lives of every human. It is a rhetorically sound argument for conversion, and perfectly reflects the Calvinist anxiety over the eternal fate of the soul.
The birth of any nation is bound to produce some significant anxiety in its citizens, and the infancy of America was no different. Particularly salient in this case is the role of nature and the frontier; for the European settlers, this was really the only place in the (known) world where there existed untamed wilderness, and with that came the fear of the unknown. This was a central theme in the American Gothic genre in general. Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland is one of the first American Gothics, and is a perfect example of this fear of the unknown. What makes it a masterpiece, however, is how it deals with a variety of other complex issues and anxieties, including politics, religion, and philosophy. Brown’s letter to President Thomas Jefferson indicates that the novel was intended, at least in part, as a warning, as a reminder of the issues Jefferson should be thinking about as he led the nation. In the Wieland, Brown deals with the conflict between religious thinking and Enlightenment thinking with the conflict Wieland and Pleyel, ultimately suggesting that logic is superior to religious fanaticism. Some read this as an indictment of Puritanism, but it is more of an endorsement of the European Enlightenment. Perhaps most significantly, Wieland personifies the anxiety of the foreigner. It is not insignificant that the antagonist of the novel, Carwin, is a foreigner, and appears to the insular group as a stranger. Although the characters embrace him, it backfires when they discover that Carwin had been manipulating them. This is a direct allegory to the plight of the United States at the time; as an emerging power, some of the established European nations threatened to use the United States as a puppet. The tensions that eventually caused the War of 1812 already existed when Brown published his novel, and George Washington had already professed his desire to keep the country out of global politics. As a newly established nation that had already seen one system of government fail, American citizens were suitably anxious about the future of the country and where it fit in the global political landscape. Brown’s Wieland is a masterpiece, encapsulating so much of the contemporary American citizen’s existence and anxieties in a short space.
Decades later, America faced an entirely different set of political and ethical challenges, and another writer responded to those challenges. Like Edwards’ before him, Henry David Thoreau’s writing is more of a response to the anxieties of the nation than a self-aware allegory like Wieland. Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” was written towards the end of the Mexican-American War, and three years prior to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. With its constituents divided, not just by state but within the states too, the federal government could not please every citizen. This was a particularly salient point in the case of the Missouri Compromise (repealed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1851), where the government tried to create a compromise that would appeal to both slave-holders and abolitionists alike, and Thoreau would have been aware of the arguments and conflict around that point. An abolitionist himself, Thoreau was against compromise, asking if there could “not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?” (Thoreau). Here he gives voice to the anxiety of thousands that perhaps compromise is not good enough in the case of slavery. In an earlier section of his essay, Thoreau questions if the government has the best interests of citizens in mind, clearly referencing the Mexican-American War. Again, he vocalizes the anxiety about the way the government is running. Although, Thoreau argues, democracy is the best form of government currently available, it is imperfect. Of course, “Resistance to Civil Government” is also about the power of individual thought, like Emerson’s writing, but it also gives voice to the anxieties of American citizens at the time over the way the government works. These anxieties were so powerful that they boiled over into a civil war barely a decade later.
Today, Americans are more anxious than ever, with technology and science giving us access to a plethora of information that can be worried over. With the threat of climate change hanging over everyone’s head, fear of the future is at an all-time high, and with the growing economic power of countries like China and India, and reports that American education is no longer the best in the world, Americans are also fearful over losing their spot atop the world’s hierarchy. George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series is so popular because Americans see their own plight in the citizens of Westeros. Martin follows the precedent set by Charles Brockden Brown in these books, using a “white-walker” invasion from the North as an allegory for climate change, and the “Iron Throne” as an allegory for world leadership. For years the citizens of Westeros have heard that “winter is coming,” but most of them chalked it up to myth. Now the threat is more concrete, but there are still some who refuse to believe the threat, much like climate change. The parallels are unmistakable. There are numerous factions fighting for control of the “Iron Throne,” each with a legitimate, if partial, claim. This is similar to the current world political climate, with China claiming economic superiority, America claiming military superiority, and the European Union claiming political superiority. George RR Martin follows a rich American literary tradition of either responding to or mirroring fiction the contemporary anxieties of American citizens.
Edwards, Brown, Thoreau, and Martin each understood thoroughly the state of the American psyche in their own times, and each wrote either reflections on or mirrors of that psyche, giving present day readers the ability to understand the historical American. Their work is art, a reflection of culture, and a huge facet of any culture is what anxieties and worries the people forming the culture face. Humans will always have things to stress about, and as long as there is stress, there will be reactions to that stress in the art we produce.