Introduction to American Romanticism by Ann Woodlief
(or the American Renaissance)
An Introduction by Dr. Ann Woodlief
For many years, this period and these writers were known as the American Renaissance, a coin termed by F.O. Matthiessen in his book of that name in 1941. This book set the parameters of how to read and connect these writers until relatively recently, when its limitations, especially in terms of defining the “canon” of literary giants and what made them (all male) “giants” have been recognized and challenged. However, the term is still useful to some degree. It is a misnomer, if one thinks of the period as a time of rebirth of some earlier literary greatness, as the European Renaissance, because there was nothing to be “reborn.” The great writers of this period, roughly 1840-1865 although more particularly 1850-1855, marked the first maturing of American letters. It was a Renaissance in the sense of a flowering, excitement over human possibilities, and a high regard for individual ego. It was definitely and even defiantly American, as these writers struggled to understand what “American” could possibly mean, especially in terms of a literature which was distinctively American and not British. Their inability to resolve this struggle–and it was even more a personal one than a nationalistic one, for it questioned their identity and place in society–did much to fire them creatively.
However, we will call this American romanticism, though it shares many characteristics with British romanticism. It flourished in the glow of Wordsworth’s poetic encounter with nature and himself in The Prelude, Coleridge’s literary theories about the reconciliation of opposites, the romantic posturings and irony of Byron, the lush imagery of Keats, and the transcendental lyricism of Shelley, even the Gothicism of Mary Shelley and the Bronte sisters. Growing from the rhetoric of salvation, guilt, and providential visions of Puritanism, the wilderness reaches of this continent, and the fiery rhetoric of freedom and equality, though, the American brand of romanticism developed its own character, especially as these writers tried self-consciously to be new and original.
The glory years were 1850-1855. What was it in American culture and British influences that led to the incredible flowering of masterpieces in this era: Emerson’s Representative Men, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, Melville’s Moby-Dick and Pierre, Thoreau’s Walden, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. After over 200 years on this continent, why was the time ripe? There is nothing comparable in so short a period in Europe. Is there any relationship between this literary outburst and the conflicts which would soon lead to war?
As is so often true, there are no good answers, but lots of good speculation. Cultural there was time for literature and art; the practical matters such as the essential of making a living and establishing political independence had been squared. There were American publishers and even more important, copyright laws protected writers from having their works printed, without their permission or pay, in England. There were readers, often women eager to expand their minds. It was actually possible to make a kind of living as a writer, although it was difficult and limited, making these writers agonize over the problem of “vocation.” There was also a strong national pride, self-conscious and anti-British.
Politically the time was ripe. The 18th century left a heritage of optimism about man’s possibilities and perfectability. The lofty ideals of democracy asserted the value of individuals, regardless of class, and education. Of course, these values primarily applied to white males. In fact, tensions were building which cried out for creative release. Inequality, not equality was the rule for many, especially women and slaves. The clash of these realities with the idealistic rhetoric led writers to take extremes, championing individualism yet also seeing the darker sides of a fragmenting society.
Economically America had never been wealthier. But the rising materialism and focus on business at the cost of the mind and the spirit was spawning reform movements all over America. Over 150 intentional communities–from the Shakers to Oneida to Brook Farm–were formed by people disillusioned by the materialistic values and inequities of American society. Yet there was enough affluence for people to develop and appreciate writing and reading, and a growing leisure class with cultural pretensions. There was one period of crisis–the Panic of 1837–but that only increased the drive toward material values.
Religion, always a basic concern for Americans, was also ready for romanticism and its kind of pantheistic religion. The stern dogmas of Calvinism had been replaced by rationalistic Unitarianism and Deism. However, they were so rational and so determined to avoid the emotional excesses of the Great Awakening that they seemed dry and cold, unable to satisfy deep spiritual yearnings. People, especially Emerson, were looking for new spiritual roots, personally involving and meaningful, but not traditional.
Connected to this was the rise and professionalization of science, which seemed to many to conflict with religion. Many felt a psychic dislocation, that the bottom had dropped out of their world since traditional values and conventional reality were just not enough for them. They tried to impose meaning individually, for institutions and dogmas seemed to possess little truth. Philosophically, they reacted against the materialistic educational theories of Locke and rationalism. They found Truth more a matter of intuition and imagination than logic and reason. They rejected the mechanistic view of the universe so dear to Franklin and Deists and opted for a more organic view, seeing the world more as dynamic and living.
Aesthetically, the romantics were also in a state of revolt, primarily against the restraints of classicism and formalism. Form, particularly traditional literary forms, mattered much less than inspiration, enthusiasm, and emotion. Good literature should have heart, not rules, although it is never so simple as that.
There were specifically American components to the romanticism of our authors. They were particularly aware of nature, especially its wild aspects, and were beginning to comprehend that it was being lost as fast as they were appreciating it. The physical frontiers were being conquered in this time of “manifest destiny” and there was little wilderness to explore (and exploit). They turned to artistic, metaphysical, and intellectual frontiers to recapture the ecstasy of exploration and discovery.
Reaction was a major, but not the only, mode for these romantics. They confronted the distinctively American pressures for conformity and definitions of success in terms of money. They spoke out, to some degree, against slavery, promoting the ideals of Jacksonian democracy, that “any man can do anything” (if he’s white and educated). They sought to creative a distinctive American literary voice; it was time for the cultural revolution to follow the political one. They felt compelled to declare cultural and individual independence from Europe, even though they had little idea of what form that could take.
Matthiessen set the canon of American Renaissance writers: Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman. Indeed, for years any other works lived in their imposing shadows. Yet this was a fairly tight group. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville all knew each other well, were even friends and neighbors, as was Margaret Fuller. They knew well the works of Poe (who died in 1849); he in turn wrote about Emerson. Whitman claimed that Emerson brought his “simmering, simmering, simmering” to a creative boil. Dickinson was devoted to Emerson’s works, though she rarely agreed. It is hard to understand any writer in this period without seeing numerous ties and influences, although they would each, except for Whitman, assert their own individual vision and art and deny the most obvious influences. They were, after all, romantic individualists!
Matthiessen had trouble going beyond his own white male perspective, and in recent years, the value of lesser-known writers has been recognized as well as the mass of popular writers (many were women) that they were responding and reacting to. David S. Reynolds tells that story well in Beneath the American Renaissance. However, we have only one semester to study this period. Our focus must necessarily be on those “masterworks,” with glancing attention to other works. We cannot recreate the historical/social/economic/political context to which these writers responded and reacted as they explored the tensions and contradictions of their time and place, especially as they were enacted in themselves. But we must constantly be aware that they did not write in a vacuum, by any means. They especially wrote in response and reaction to each other, and that we can and will explore.
To make it easier to make connections between these writers, as we must do to understand any one of them and their works, the course is organized not according to author but according to certain romantic themes and ideas which each kept exploring. These are certainly not the only points of comparative contact, but they are useful and important ones. Perhaps we will risk some confusion here and certainly we will have to neglect some biographical context as we “mix and match” writers. But we will be able to focus on those ideas which united (and even divided) them that makes us able to call them all “romantics.” After we have read a work, we will “revive” it in discussions of later topics, taking the different perspective, for there must a certain arbitrariness in “assigning” a work to only one theme. Great and complex works must not be limited like that! So rather than progressing through time and historical/biographical contexts, we will keep circling recursively (as Emerson says we must), seeing how the different works and writers explore the major aspects of romantic thought and art.
Our base is necessarily Emerson, the literary giant of his time in America, for better or worse. Though his writing is often difficult to read, it was, in fact, the match that lit all of the creative fires of his time. He put his pen on all of the sensitive spots in the American creative psyche; Whitman was not the only one to “boil.”
Dr. Ann Woodlief was a professor of American literature at Virginia Commonwealth University for 30 years. Many thanks to her for graciously granting us permission to reproduce this article. It was originally posted on her website:
To learn more about American romantic writers, you may also visit her excellent website about the Transcendentalism movement which involved many of these writers:
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.