The spirit of Americanism was highly important to the American writer in the 19th century. Each author discusses aspects of the essential American—whether it be a democratic nature, an individualistic approach, or a connection to the outside world—and applies these ideas to the thematic elements of his or her writing in hopes that the reader will pick up and apply these ideas. The concepts of masculinity and femininity are no exception to the discussion of the ideal American spirit and authors held their own ideas as to what made an individual the quintessential man or woman. Washington Irving and Emily Dickinson enter into this discussion to show how certain traits make up strong male and female personas, displaying these characteristics through much different means while both dismissing the opposite gender’s ideals.
Washington Irving and Rip Van Winkle Natural Masculinity
Irving creates a strong connection between nature and Rip Van Winkle, suggesting that it is this connection with the outside world that makes him a man. He uses nature to get away from the real world, especially his nagging, controlling wife. This is shown after Rip escapes an especially harsh tirade from Dame Van Winkle and races into the forest:
“Poor Rip was at last reduced almost to despair; and his only alternative to escape from the labour of the farm and the clamour of his wife, was to take gun in hand, and stroll away into the woods. Here he would sometimes seat himself at the foot of a tree, and share the contents of his wallet with Wolf, with whom he sympathized as a fellow sufferer in persecution” (957)
All Rip needs to be happy is a natural setting, his gun and his dog. Irving sets him up as the prototypical man: the man who does not need society, much less a woman, to find confidence in himself. By retreating into the woods and leaving his wife behind, he shows that women don’t belong in the wilderness. Nature belongs to man and must be kept from women, suggesting that nature is the essence of masculinity. Man inherently has this connection to natural elements and thus, develops a greater connection to this world and becomes the ultimate male. This connection sets women as inferior because “What courage can withstand the ever-during and all-besetting terrors of a woman’s tongue?” (956). Only nature can completely separate man from his miserable shared life with his spouse, and this is absolutely essential to his sanity and his sense of manhood. Nature defines a man’s connection to his masculinity according to Irving and sets up man as superior and women as inferior, suggesting woman as unnatural.
Emily Dickinson and her Natural Authority
Where Irving sets up this ideal of man inherently have this close connection to nature, Emily Dickinson completely refutes this idea and states the opposite, suggesting that women are the ones who develop a relationship with their natural setting and use it to assert their position over men. Her poem, “656,” exemplifies this idea and asserts women’s authority. Her main point is developed around the idea that woman is her own person—that no man can control her actions as is commonly believed. She states that, “But no Man moved Me – till the Tide / Went past my simple Shoe – / And past my Apron – and my Belt / And past my Boddice – too-,” suggesting that normal conventions of male dominance cannot control her sense of self (9-12). But she does so in a natural setting in which man represents the tide, a notoriously strong element of nature. Instead of letting the tide consume her and exert its power over her, she displays her ability to stand before it. The metaphorical tide becomes intimidated “ […] And bowing – with a Mighty look – / At me – The Sea withdrew –“ (23-24). Here, Dickinson completely flips man’s notion that he is the only natural being, showing that she can conquer this apparent naturalness in men and thus, has the stronger connections.
Both these authors use nature to discuss their beliefs in terms of masculinity and femininity, completely refuting the other’s beliefs but ironically, using the same device to do so. They both believe that it is their connection with nature that brings them a closer connection with their gender. It is nature that brings them power and authority over the other sex. It is nature that gives them their sense of self.