When American Romanticism came to the forefront of United States literature during the 19th century, revolutionary ideas like individualism were being explored by different authors hoping to enlighten their readers with an alternative perspective on the current state of society.
For instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed in his groundbreaking work, “Self-Reliance,” that, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,-that is genius.”
And in so many words, Emerson, from that work, would soon pioneer the overarching concept that carried this period of literary renaissance: Non-conformity.
For some, non-conformity means having a rebellious attitude and outlook on society’s status quo, but for Emerson and other authors during that time, it represented the idea that one should listen to his or her inner voice rather than follow conventional ways.
So with Emerson paving the way with a unique, yet applicable message, many slaves, abolitionists, feminists and Native Americans took his advice to anchor their own push for equality. This rather new concept affected them not only in their communities, but also individually.
Soon after, a literary movement formed as several of Emerson’s contemporaries, including Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, also expressed these themes in their work.
When discussing the notion of non-conformity, Emerson believed that “character is higher than intellect” and that “imitation is suicide.” To him, ideals had more importance than intelligence, so if one did not hold that belief, then the value of life ultimately decreased.
According to Emerson’s philosophy, all human beings also needed to think for themselves and tune out the overbearing commands of society. Otherwise, those who did not formulate and adhere to their own beliefs were conforming to the structure of others and becoming “the parrot of other men’s thinking.”
But a better way to understand American Romanticism’s vision of non-conformity is to read what Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance,” in that “…conformity makes [human beings] not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.”
Inferring that non-conformity allows human beings to seek the truth rather than the dogmatic ideologies followed by contemporary society, Emerson offered the public a new way of thinking about government, politics and the nation’s overall infrastructure. But even in the 19th century, people were often corrupted by greed and material wealth.
American historian and political scientist Howard Zinn, for one, writes in his bestselling book A People’s History of the United States, “As Jackson took office in 1829, gold was discovered in Cherokee territory in Georgia. Thousands of whites invaded, destroyed Indian property, staked out claims.”
With the overtaking of many Native American communities, Emerson’s radical writings gave all groups of oppressed peoples the inspiration to act against injustice.
Thoreau, a disciple and friend of Emerson, followed a similar path of ideology, believing that “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him stop to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Yet Thoreau’s conception of non-conformity stressed the importance of actively eradicating injustice rather than turning the other cheek.
As he wrote in Resistance to Civil Government, “Let your life be a counter to friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
In Thoreau’s mind, the individual held more importance than any form of authority, especially government. For him, an individual’s moral character had much more importance than a multitude of material possessions.
This same line of reasoning can be seen earlier in Native American literature, when William Apess expressed related sentiments in An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man: “What folly it is to try to make the state of human society worse than it is.”
Much like Thoreau, Apess held the conviction that human beings need to not only think on their own but also need to help others who are victims of “the most selfish and ignorant.”
Thoreau and Apess demonstrated a common trend among American Romantics in believing that individuals must rebel against oppressive authority in order to have a chance of affecting the current system.
While Thoreau and Emerson conveyed their views on non-conformity through prose, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson expressed this same concept through poetry. In each of their poems, Whitman and Dickinson created images that allowed readers to extrapolate ideas for themselves.
In arguably his most celebrated poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman demonstrated a deep influence of Emerson’s philosophy, echoing his sentiments by writing, “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”
Whitman, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that one should listen to all sides of an argument but also sort out those beliefs that resonate fully within one’s own reason. If one follows his or her own reason, then he or she can come to an informed and unbiased decision without having to rely on the opinions of others.
Similarly, Dickinson’s poems spoke of non-conformity. In her own words, “Much Madness is divinest Sense-/ To a discerning Eye-/ Much Sense-the starkest Madness-/ ‘Tis the Majority.”
Dickinson portrayed “the Majority” as insane, inferring that through individualism, sanity can be found. In other words, those deemed insane by society are the ones who actually think rationally, according to Dickinson.
Whitman, in the meantime, also made a point of discussing how non-conformity remained an important part of his own life. Breaking away from traditional methods such as heroic couplets, he redefined poetry by writing in free verse.
Dickinson, in another regard, did not attend church, demonstrating an antagonistic view toward organized religion. That background evinced itself in several of her works, most notably in “I send Two Sunsets…” where she appears to view herself twice as good as God by writing, “His own was ampler-but as I / Was saying to a friend-/ Mind-is the more convenient…”
Dickinson’s poem about the sunset, to her, was more favorable than the actual sunset because her version was a human creation. After all, she believed in elevating the status of human beings above God.
But while these various authors all showed the positive aspects of subscribing to non-conformity, most of them did not address the negative consequences of implementing those kind of radical ideas.
In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Nathaniel Hawthorne showed the negative implications of non-conformity through his protagonist, Reverend Hooper. At the end of the story, Hooper proclaims, “‘Why do you tremble at me alone?…. Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful?'”
Between Hawthorne and the other American Romantic authors, two dichotomous perspectives were formed when discussing non-conformity – an idea they came to understand as one that could induce both a sense of freedom and suffering. And with those two views servicing much of American literature during the 19th century, non-conformity became the inspiration for concocting a literary movement that’s since paved the way for even more progressive and alternative thought.