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American Romanticism

American Romanticism

Romanticism was a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement that first began in Europe late in the 18th century. American Romanticism developed toward the end of the Romantic movement in Europe. It spanned from about 1830 to the end of the Civil War when another movement, the age of Realism, developed. American Romanticism is a frame of thought that places value on the individual above the group, the subjective response and instinct over objective thought, and emotion over logic. American Romanticism was the first real literary movement in the new nation and served to help define a society.

American Romanticism: Definition

American Romanticism is a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement from the 1830s to around 1865 in America. This was a time of rapid expansion in the United States, a nation still new and finding its way. American Romanticism celebrated individualism, the exploration of emotions, and finding truth and nature as a spiritual connection. It also placed an emphasis on imagination and creativity and consisted of writers who yearned to define a uniquely American national identity separate from Europe.

American Romantic literature was adventuresome and had elements of improbability. In 1830, the citizens of early America were anxious to find a sense of self that expressed uniquely American ideals separate from European values. The American Romantic movement challenged rational thinking in favor of emotion, creativity, and imagination. The many short stories, novels, and poems produced often featured in vivid detail the undeveloped American landscape or the industrialized society.

Romanticism began as a rebellion against Neoclassicism before it. Neoclassicists drew inspiration from past ancient texts, literary works, and forms. Central to Neoclassicism were order, clarity, and structure. Romanticism sought to relinquish those foundations in order to establish something entirely new. American Romanticism began in the 1830s as the age of European Romanticism was coming to a close.

American Romanticism a romantic landscape painting from the mid-1800s StudySmarterAmerican Romantic art and literature often featured detailed depictions of the American frontier. Wikimedia.

Characteristics of American Romanticism

While much of the American Romantic movement was influenced by the slightly earlier European Romantic movement, the core traits of American writing diverged from the European Romantics. The characteristics of American Romanticism focus on the individual, a celebration of nature, and the imagination.

Focus on the Individual

American Romanticism believed in the importance of the individual over society. As the American landscape expanded, people moved to the country to forge a living for themselves. The American population also changed and became more diverse with a rise in immigration. These two drastic changes led early Americans to search for a deeper sense of self. With so many social groups melding together to form a unified nation, the need to define a national identity was at the forefront of much of the literature from the American Romantic era.

Much of American Romantic literature focused on the social outsider as a protagonist who lived by their own rules on the outskirts of society. These characters often go against the social norms and customs in favor of their own feelings, intuition, and moral compass. Some typical examples include Huck Finn from Mark Twain's (1835-1910) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers (1823).

The Romantic hero is a literary character that has been rejected by society and has rejected society's established norms and conventions. The Romantic hero becomes the center of his or her own universe, is typically the protagonist of a piece of work, and the central focus is on the character's thoughts and emotions rather than their actions.

Celebration of Nature

For many American Romantic writers, including the purported "father of American Poetry" Walt Whitman, nature was a source of spirituality. American Romantics focused on the unknown and beautiful American landscape. The uncharted territory of the outdoors was an escape from the societal constraints many rallied against. Living in nature away from the industrialized and developed city offered the immense potential to live life freely and on one's own terms. Henry David Thoreau documented his own experience among nature in his famous work, Walden (1854).

Many characters in American Romantic literature journey away from the city, the industrialized landscape, and into the great outdoors. Sometimes, as in the short story "Rip Van Winkle" (1819) by Washington Irving (1783-1859), the place is unrealistic, with fantastical events that take place.

Imagination and Creativity

During the Industrial Revolution, a time of progress for American society and of optimism, the ideology focused on the importance of ingenuity and the ability of the average person to succeed with hard work and creativity. The Romantic writers valued the power of imagination and wrote about it to escape overpopulated, polluted cities.

For example, this excerpt from William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) autobiographical poem "The Prelude" (1850) emphasizes the importance of imagination in life.

Imagination—here the Power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech,

That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss

Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,

At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

Halted without an effort to break through;

But to my conscious soul I now can say—

“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world….

from "The Prelude" Book VII

Wordsworth shows awareness of the power of imagination to reveal the unseen truths in life.

Elements of American Romanticism

One of the primary differences between American Romanticism and European Romanticism is the type of literature that was created. While many writers of the Romantic Era in Europe produced poems, the American Romantics produced more prose. Although writers like Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) were crucial to the movement and created influential pieces of verse, many novels like Herman Melville's (1819-1891) Moby Dick (1851) and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1888-1896), and short stories like Edgar Allan Poe's (1809-1849) "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) and "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving dominated the American literary scene.

Pieces produced during the Romantic period embody the essence of a nation struggling with different ideologies and working toward a national identity. While some works of literature were a reaction to the political and social conditions of the times, others embodied some of the following elements central to American Romanticism:

  • the belief in the natural goodness of man
  • a delight in self-reflection
  • a yearning for solitude
  • a return to nature for spirituality
  • a focus on democracy and individual freedom
  • an emphasis on physicality and the beautiful
  • development of new forms

The above list is not comprehensive. The Romantic era is an expansive time period rife with social changes, economic development, political struggle, and technological development. Although also considered part of American Romanticism, these subgenres often exhibit other characteristics.

  • Transcendentalism: Transcendentalism is a subgenre of American Romanticism that embraces idealism, focuses on nature, and opposes materialism.
  • Dark Romanticism: This subgenre focused on human fallibility, self-destruction, judgment, and punishment.
  • Gothic: Gothic Romanticism focused on the darker side of human nature, such as revenge and insanity, and often included a supernatural element.
  • Slave Narratives: The American Slave Narrative is a first-hand account of the life of a former slave. Either written by them or told orally and recorded by another party, the narrative has vivid character description, expresses dramatic incidents, and shows the individual's self- and ethical-awareness.
  • Abolitionism: This is anti-slavery literature written in prose, poetry, and lyrics.
  • Civil War Literature: Literature written during the Civil War consisted largely of letters, diaries, and memoirs. It marks a move away from American Romanticism and toward a more realistic depiction of American life.

Authors of American Romanticism

Writers of American Romanticism took a subjective and individualized approach to examining life and their surroundings. They sought to break from the traditional rules of writing, which they felt were constrictive, in favor of more relaxed and conversational texts that mirrored the changing American society. With a passionate belief in individuality, the American Romantics celebrated rebellion and broke conventions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was central to American Romanticism and the Transcendentalist movement.

Emerson believed each human had an intrinsic connection to the universe and that self-reflection was a vehicle to reach internal harmony. With everything connected, the actions of one impact others. One of Emerson's more famous and widely anthologized pieces, "Self-Reliance," is an 1841 essay expressing the idea that an individual should rely on their own judgment, choices, and internal moral compass rather than succumb to societal or religious pressures to conform.

American Romanticism image of Ralph Waldo Emerson StudySmarterRalph Waldo Emerson was an influential American Romantic writer. Wikimedia.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an essayist, poet, philosopher, and close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was largely influential in Thoreau's life and career. Emerson provided Henry David Thoreau with housing, money, and land for him to build a cabin on the banks of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. It was here that Thoreau would live for two years while writing his book Walden, an account of his experience living in solitude and nature. His account of reconnecting with nature and finding truth in this experience is a perfect example of the American Romantics' emphasis on humankind learning from nature.

Thoreau is also recognized for detailing the moral obligation to prioritize the individual conscience over social laws and government in "Civil Disobedience" (1849). The essay challenged American social institutions such as slavery.

American Romanticism depiction of Henry David Thoreau StudySmarterHenry David Thoreau questioned socially accepted institutions such as slavery and called for individuals to challenge them. Wikimedia.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was an influential poet during the American Romantic era. Breaking away from traditional poetry, he favored free verse. He focused on the individual and believed the self should be celebrated above all. His most famous piece, "Song of Myself", is a lengthy poem of over 1300 lines first published in 1855. In it, Whitman emphasized the importance of self-knowledge, liberty, and acceptance. His other piece, Leaves of Grass (1855), in which "Song of Myself" was first released untitled, is a collection of poems that changed the American literary scene, incorporating themes of democracy and exploring humankind's relationship to nature in a uniquely American voice.

American Romanticism image of Walt Whitman StudySmarterWalt Whitman was an American Romantic poet known for his use of free verse. Wikimedia.

Other writers of the American Romantic era include, but are not limited to:

Examples of American Romanticism

American Romanticism is the first truly American movement. It created a wealth of literature that helped define the American national identity. The following examples reveal some characteristics of American Romantic literature.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else"

lines 1-11 of "I Hear America Singing" (1860) Walt Whitman

Note how this excerpt from Whitman's poem is a celebration of the individual. The contributions and hard work that the common person adds to the tapestry of American industry are cataloged and depicted as unique and worthy. The "singing" is a celebration and acknowledgment that their work matters. Whitman uses free verse, with no rhyme scheme or meter, to express his ideas, another trait of American Romanticism.

Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood. When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet."

From Nature (1836) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

This excerpt from Emerson's "Nature" exhibits a reverence for nature found in many pieces of American Romantic literature. Here, nature is didactic and carries within it a lesson for humankind. Nature is seen as an almost living creature, as Emerson describes it as "the wisdom" and "poetical."

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was no life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life...."From Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau

The search for the truth of life or existence is a theme commonly found in American Romantic writing. Henry David Thoreau in Walden escapes from daily life in a bigger city to the solitude of nature. He does so in search of the lessons nature "had to teach." The urge to experience life on simpler terms and learn from nature's surrounding beauty is another American Romantic notion. The language used is a common diction to reach a larger audience.

American Romanticism - Key takeaways

  • American Romanticism is a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement from the 1830s to around 1865 in America that celebrated individualism, the exploration of emotions to find the truth, nature as a spiritual connection, and yearned to define a uniquely American national identity.
  • Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman were fundamental to American Romanticism.
  • Themes of American Romanticism focus on democracy, an exploration of the internal self, isolation or escapism, and nature as a source of spirituality.
  • The Romantic writers used nature and wrote about it to escape to a more beautiful and serene area.
  • They sought to break from the traditional rules of writing, which they felt were constrictive, in favor of more relaxed and conversational texts that mirrored the changing American society.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Romanticism

American Romanticism is characterized by its focus on nature, the internal emotions and thoughts of the individual, and a need to define the American national identity. 

American Romanticism is marked by the creation of more prose than European Romanticism, which produced primarily poetry. American Romanticism focuses on the expansive American frontier and expresses a need to escape the industrialized city for a more secluded and natural landscape. 

American Romanticism is a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement from the 1830s to around 1865 in America that celebrated individualism, the exploration of emotions to find the truth, nature as a spiritual connection, placed an emphasis on imagination and creativity, and yearned to define a uniquely American national identity separate from Europe. 

Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman were fundamental to American Romanticism. 

Themes of American Romanticism focus on democracy, an exploration of the internal self, isolation or escapism, nature as a source of spirituality, and a focus on history. 

Final American Romanticism Quiz

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What is Dark Romanticism?

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an American literary movement that focuses on human fallibility and the human tendency to turn to sin and self-destruction, especially in the face of social reforms.   

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What is Dark Romanticism a subgenre of?

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Romanticism

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What is Romanticism?

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a literary movement that focused on subjectivity and imagination to emphasize the individual and the sublimity of nature. It was marked by a devotion to beauty, worship of nature, and the superiority of imagination over logic and reason. 

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Why is Romanticism optimistic?

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It focuses on the positive sides of the human condition

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Why is Dark Romanticism pessismestic?

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It focuses on the negative qualities of the human condition

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What does fallibility mean?

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The tendency to make mistakes 

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What is trascendentalism?

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a group of writers and philosophers who believed in the purity and goodness of an individual and believed that institutions corrupted the individual.  

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Who were the Puritans?

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English Protestants who wanted to purify the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Because of religious persecution, many Puritans fled England and established themselves in New England 

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What are the four key elements of Dark Romanticism?

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an individual who is prone to sin and self-destruction, the anthropomorphization of Evil, nature as sinister and spiritual, an individual's inability to make changes for the better.  

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Who is an example of a Dark Romantic author?

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Edgar Allen Poe, Emiy Dickenson, Herman Melville, and Nathanial Hawthorne

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What is the difference between Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism?

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Dark Romantics want to emphasize the fallibility of human beings. Gothic literature wants the reader to feel an intense emotion while focusing on the sublimity of decay and an element of horror.   

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What does sublime mean?

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Having so much beauty as to inspire awe and admiration.  

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What is Anthromorphization?

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The act of giving non-human entities human characteristics, personalities, and forms. 


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When did Dark Romanticism begin?

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Dark Romanticism began in the 19th century and grew in popularity between 1836 and 1840. 

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Who was a major figure in the origins of Transcendentalism

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What is Walden by Henry David Thoreau about?

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Walden is about Thoreau's experience of living the simple life, away from society, and contemplating nature. 

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What did Transcendentalists believe about human nature? 

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Transcendentalists believe that humans are inherently good and can experience the divine without an organized religion. 

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What was the Transcendentalist view of self-reliance? 

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The Transcendentalists believed following one's intuition would lead a person to complete independence, with no need for reliance on others. 

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What did Margaret Fuller write? 

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Summer on the Lakes, an autobiographical account of her travels that include spiritual contemplation and social commentary. 

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What is a symposium? 

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A symposium is a gathering of people to discuss intellectual ideas. 

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What famous nineteenth century poet did Ralph Waldo Emerson inspire? 

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Walt Whitman

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What is a major theme of Emerson's essay 'Self-Reliance'? 

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Trust yourself

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What modern-day book written by Jon Krakauer contains similar themes and values to Walden?

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Into the Wild

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What literary movement was in direct opposition to Transcendentalism? 

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American Gothic (or Dark Romanticism) 

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When was American Gothic literature at its peak? 

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1820 - 1900

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What does 'macabre' mean? 

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Involvement with injury or death, usually to a horrifying extent. 

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What is a characteristic of American Gothic? 

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Psychological terror or trauma 

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Who is considered to be the quintessential author of American Gothic literature? 

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Edgar Allan Poe

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Which short story marked the beginning of the American Gothic literary movement? 

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"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving

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Who focused on religious tensions in his American Gothic literature? 

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Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What is a common theme in American Gothic literature? 

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The past is alive

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What is "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore about? 

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In "The Yellow Wallpaper" a woman is confined to a room for recovery after having a nervous breakdown; as a result of her isolation, she starts to go mad and lose touch with reality. 

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What kind of landscape does European Gothic literature have? 

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Craggy moors, unruly winds, and remote lands. 

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What kind of architecture is frequently featured American Gothic literature? 

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Houses or mansions that are haunted or which experience unexplained phenomenon. 

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Which poet invented the term "anesthesia"? 

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Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Which of the Fireside Poets founded the American Medical Association? 

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Oliver Wendell Holmes

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How many poets were part of the Fireside Poets? 

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Five poets were commonly included. 

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Why were they called the Fireside Poets? 

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The poetry produced by the group of Fireside Poets was easy to memorize and recite, making it prime poetry for families to share as they sat around the fire. For entertainment, families would often sit at the side of the fire in the home, and read works by these poets. 

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Who were the Fireside Poets? 

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The Fireside Poets were William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell. 

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In what way were the Fireside Poets Romantic poets? 

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The Fireside Poets expressed an emphasis on the importance of the individual's emotion, and imagination, and revealed an interest in nature. 

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Which Fireside Poet grew a beard to cover up burn scars? 

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Which Fireside poet was an active anti-slavery advocate, participated in the underground railroad, and was known as the "slave's poet"?

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John Greenleaf Whittier

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What does didactic mean? 

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Didactic means something with a purpose to instruct a moral lesson or expectation of behavior.

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All of the following are characteristics of the Fireside Poets writing except:

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difficult to read

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All of the following were American Romantic writers except 

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William Blake

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What is American Romanticism?

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American Romanticism is a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement from the 1830s to around 1865 in America that emphasized imagination, individualism, and nature. 

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Common themes in American Romanticism include all of the following except

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a focus on tradition

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What is one of the primary differences between English Romanticism and American Romanticism? 

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English Romanticism produced mostly poetry while American Romanticism produced mainly longer novels and short stories. 

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Who is considered the "father of American poetry"? 

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Walt Whitman

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Which American Romantic writer helpe Henry David Thoreau by providing him with money, a place to stay, and land to build a cabin on the banks of Walden Pond? 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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