American Romanticism Overview

Mount Corcoran by Albert Bierstadt
“Mount Corcoran” – Albert Bierstadt

In the mid-1850s, as the United States was beginning to shape its own identity within the realm of literature, American Romanticism emerged. This literary movement holds unique importance to American history because it is known to be the first, full-fledged literary movement of America. This movement saw the emergence of writers celebrating American beauty and identity. The American Renaissance period saw the publishing of timeless masterpieces, by authors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. In short, American Romanticism emerged in response to the nationalist values beginning to develop a distinct American literary style.

Much like the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, the emergence of American Romanticism saw the celebration of the common man. In an effort to move away from Puritanism and Calvinism, Romanticism, as explained by Ann Woodlief, “was a Renaissance in the sense of a flowering, excitement over human possibilities, and a high regard for individual ego.” In other words, American Romanticism celebrated the unknown – as Americans began to venture westward into newly acquired territories, authors began to write about the beauty of the natural landscape, untouched by man. The aesthetic of nature is something that was extremely importance to American Romantic writers, and is reflected in works such as the Leatherstocking Tales, The Last of the Mohicans, and even holds in Moby-Dick, a work that epitomizes what Romanticism is all about.

Furthermore, American Romanticism was composed of a couple different themes, including the theme of nature and the great unknown was told through stories of the frontier – a land unexplored, that promised opportunity for expansion, growth, and freedom. Venturing into this unknown brought forth a newfound spirit of optimism, a well-known American ideal that any person can achieve anything they set their mind to. Other characteristics included the power of the universe, exploring how it worked in mysterious, incomprehensible ways. These characteristic thus tied back to the theme of the unknown. The most import aspect, though, of American Romanticism, was that it had its own individualistic elements, apart from its European counterparts. For the first time in history, a movement came about that was entirely belonging to the United States, and the American writer’s identity thus was a result of it.

Works Cited

Harvey, Bruce. ” AMERICAN ROMANTICISM OVERVIEW.” West Georgia University, 1997. Web. 

Woodlief, Ann. “Intro to American Romanticism.” VCU. Virginia Commonwealth University, Aug. 2001. Web.

Founding Fathers Context

The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull 1817
The Declaration of Independence
Artist: John Trumbull

The eighteenth century was a time of tremendous change. In only 100 years, the population of the new world expanded from 110 thousand people to 1.6 million people. This colossal wave of immigration brought in a great number of slaves and people of Dutch, German, French, and Jewish decent. These settlers did not face the hardships that the colonists had in the past, allowing a newfound independence from English ways. With a blank slate in a land of diversity, inhabitants had to figure out the pillars in which they wanted to build their new country. The two central pillars included a distinctly American identity and abandoning the idea of a single, united church.

The regimented practices of the Puritan religion died off in the early eighteenth century, paving the way for the Enlightenment period. In the face of new scientific discoveries, intellectuals, such as Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and John Locke, needed a way to balance their Christian values with their scientific findings. They discredited the Puritan belief that every event in a person’s life is predetermined by an all-powerful God, and argued that each human has control over their spiritual destiny. Deists, in particular, believed in a scientific creation where the universe was formed by a single God, but said God did not interfere with daily happenings. Reason began to outweigh religion as people began to analyze how aspects of human nature conflicted with the teachings found in the Bible. The spread of Enlightenment ideals was contested in the mid-eighteenth century by an onslaught of Puritan revivals termed the Great Awakening. The movement gained traction arguing that Puritan theology could be applied to Enlightenment science in a way that was applicable and made sense. The conflicting religious beliefs present during this time was not seen in any other country. This unique problem helped set the precedent for religious freedom that was to come.

Enlightenment writers such as J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and Benjamin Franklin were charged with creating a foundation for American identity that would deliberately separate America from Europe. The themes of hard work, diversity, and self-improvement are common throughout both de Crevecoeur and Franklin’s writings and can even be viewed even in twenty-first century American society. Yet women, Native Americans, Jews, and slaves were not typically acknowledged in early American literary works. Throughout the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for white Christians of varying European decent to marry one another, but rarely were the lines of religion and race crossed. The Native American population continued to dwindle as expansion continued and more than half of the actual population of the United States were slaves. Similarly, women of all races were not given basic human rights. The exclusion of these integral social groups in the writings of de Crevecoeur and Franklin would become increasingly significant in the centuries to come.

Gura, Philip. “American Literature 1700-1820.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature:Beginnings to 1820, edited by Nina Baym and Robert Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 365-376.

Reformers Context

As American society progressed and all free white males had gained rights, many other groups of people like women and other minorities were denied rights of their own. 19th-century reform movements in America began as a struggle between enlightenment and transcendentalist ideas. Americans were afraid of becoming too much like Europe, and so these reform movements began as a means of differentiating and refining American society.

Reformers advocated for equality among various groups of people. Reform movements during this period included abolitionism, utopianism, prison and mental institution reform, temperance, American Indian rights and an ongoing struggle for women’s rights. Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Fanny Fern used their influence to promote various reform movements.

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1857
Southworth & Hawes        Ralph Waldo Emerson 1857 Wikimedia Commons

Transcendentalists believed all people were born good. Thus, Transcendentalists believed that the only reason people would act against their innate character was because their society had corrupted them. This belief aided in promoting social reforms in order to improve American society.Transcendentalist authors like Emerson didn’t generally promote religion but instead promoted a spiritual connection with nature and oneself. Other Transcendentalist authors like Henry David Thoreau also promoted self-sufficiency and social reform within America. Thoreau specifically spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Act, and even refused to pay his taxes because he believed the law was unjust.Transcendentalism wasn’t the only factor in promoting reform. After the Second Great Awakening, there was a resurgence of Puritan values which helped instill Christian rhetoric as grounds for reformers. Movements like temperance, abolition, and women’s rights were strongly supported by many Christians.

Harriet Beecher Stowe circa 1850
Albert Sands Southworth Harriet Beecher Stowe c.1850s Met Museum

Abolition was one of the biggest and most controversial social reforms of the 19th century, and impactful writers and numerous slave narratives that were published argued the end of slavery through ethics and religion. Although slavery had always been a contentious discussion in America, the Second Great Awakening caused many people to reflect deeply on their beliefs, morals, and religion. Angelina Grimke was a writer motivated by Christianity and even published an article entitled “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” offering practical advice for wives of slave owners. Literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, made American Abolition a global debate. Writings like these paired with slave narrative further fueled the anti-slavery debate which greatly separated the north and south, ultimately leading to the Civil War.

Alongside the anti-slavery debate, there was a strong resistance to the Indian Removal Act. Under the Naturalization Law in 1790 American Indians were not deemed United States citizens and thus were stripped of rights. Elias Boudinot, the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, was a leader in the Indian removal act and spoke against the government. Ultimately, he gave up the fight and was killed as a traitor to American Indians after agreeing with the Treaty of New Echota. Although his original publications incited strong support for the native people.

The 19th century reform period was strongly motivated by both the Second Great Awakening and Transcendentalism. Authors of the time used their influence to spread new social ideals and assist in defining American Literature and the culture that grew from it.

Literature in Exploration

Christopher Columbus landing in the West Indies and declaring them possessions of Spanish monarchy
Christopher Columbus with his three ships landing in the West Indies and declaring them to be the possessions of the Spanish monarchy.

American Literature as it is known today began to be recorded at the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th. These early writings consisted largely of explorers taking note of their discoveries and explorations for European readers back home. Many of these writers, which included the likes of Christopher Columbus, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, came from a variety of different backgrounds, roles in exploration, and viewpoints. This would lead their writings to understandably have very different attitudes towards what they would find, and give an in-depth look into the complex relationship that the Spaniards (or servants of Spain in Columbus’ case) had with the land they were tasked with exploring. Continue reading Literature in Exploration

Abolitionists Overview

Handbill dated February 27 1837.
“Outrage,” February 27, 1837. Handbill. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (41)

Historical Context: Forced slavery in the Americas brought over by Europeans began as early as Columbus himself. From there, slavery continued to grow and began to boom in the late 1600’s as the new world saw an enormous increase in population, jumping from around 111,000 people to an estimated 1.6 million as learned in class. It was during this period plantations began to pop up all over the south and cash crops began to bring in much of the revenue for our new countries economy. However, as the European population kept increasing, so did the number of slaves. This sent the south on a streamlined path for rebellion and uproar as the number of slaves, and those who sympathized with them began to grow to revolting numbers. Thus creating the abolitionist movement. It was in the early to mid-1800’s that the abolitionist movement hit its peak after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed and before the civil war- the war that ended the institution of slavery. Which proved to be a  huge success for the abolitionist, and first step towards true freedom for African Americans in the U.S.

Who Were the Abolitionists?:  The abolitionists themselves were made up of a medley of different novelists, columnists, poets, speakers, etc. who all varied in background, life experience, and opinions. These activists ranged from Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman and teacher from the north who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin which is arguably the most influential piece of abolitionist writing to this day, to Frederick Douglass, an enslaved black man turned author and speaker who was eventually became able to buy his way out of slavery and acquired a massive following (See slave narrative sections). Other authors include Lydia Marie Child and her writing The Quadroons, Harriet Jacobs and her work Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Slave Narratives), and Equiano with The Interesting Narrative (Slave Narrative). All of these authors bring unique perspectives and ideas to the table on where the problem of slavery lies, and how we as Americans ought to fix it.

Themes: Each one of these authors all supported and advocated for the abolitionist movements in different ways and held different beliefs on slavery and slave owners. Therefore all of their works varied in slightly different themes and ideology. One example of a theme that rang true was that of religion and Christianity. For Jacobs, this means pointing solely towards a Christian slave owner’s hypocrisy while Douglass also used Christian rhetoric and pointed towards the Christian paradox of Ham as a way Christians justify slavery. Other themes portrayed included the brutality towards slaves and the thinking that blacks need to represent blacks in the movement, as well as the power of education, and the fractions slavery can create in both black and white families.


Works Consulted:

Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature beginnings to 1820 vol A, Edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 688-721

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature 1820-1865 vol. B, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 1174-1239

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature 1820-1865 vol. B, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 807-904

Child, Lydia Marie. “The Quadroons.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature 1820-1865 vol. B, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 183-190

Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature 1820-1865 vol. B, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 920-942

Slave Narratives

In 1619, as early Americans settlers struggled to generate an adequate food and labor source, a Dutch ship carrying 20 African American slaves came ashore. Slaves were originally indentured servants who never got released from their work commitments. As time went on, the American economy, specifically the Southern plantation farmers, became dependent on slavery.

Architectural drawings of a slave ship 1789.
Anonymous, Description of a slave ship, 1789

The trans-Atlantic slave trade ripped slaves from their homes, friends, and families, and brought them to American to be actioned off to the highest bidder. The transport of slaves through the Middle Passage entailed filthy, overcrowded conditions that resulted in the death of many slaves. In America, slaves were considered the property of their masters and received no rights or legal protections from abuse. Slaves were treated more like livestock than human beings and they constantly suffered from violence, isolation, and subjugation.

Most perpetrators of slavery believed their actions were justified by Christian rhetoric. The Curse of Ham was often interpreted as God’s assertion of African’s destiny to be slaves. Christian rhetoric was also used to suggest that slaves were saved from the savageness of Africa. Many people believed in the biological inferiority of blacks. Anti-miscegenation laws and the rise of eugenics in the nineteenth century supported oppression and constraint of blacks to maintain white superiority. The fugitive slave laws, forcing the North to be complicit in returning escaped slaves, expanded slavery into a country-wide political issue. The American reform movement developed in part to criticize slavery, which was abolished in 1865 with the passing of the thirteenth amendment.

Image from an abolitionist pamphlet 1837
James Somerset, 1788

Slave narratives were a central part of the abolitionist movement because they allowed African Americans to expose the brutalities they faced through slavery. Slave narratives put a name and a face to the victims of slavery, helping people realize the true cruelty of the institution. There were often problems of representation when white writers tried to highlight racial issues because the writers unintentionally maintained myths and discrimination of the African Americans. For this reason, blacks saw the need to write their own stories in order to show their personal experiences with oppression and exhibit what they did to overcome it. Showing their agency, the authors of slave narratives created a platform of literature that aimed to ignite moral change in America.

Three of the best-known slave narratives, written by Equiano, Jacobs, and Douglass, aimed to expose the harsh truths of slavery. In addition to highlighting abuse experienced by slaves, the narratives also wanted to show how slavery as an institution harmed the dominant culture by promoting rape and disrupting family structures. Masters treated their slaves like property in order to avoid the true wretchedness of their actions. Slave narratives tried to debunk the “kind master” myth while simultaneously showing how salve ownership could transform the kindest person into a cold, harsh monster. Another important goal of slave narratives was to oppose the “Darkest Africa” myth, which assumed African American’s darker complexion was a biological indication of their inferiority. To contrast this myth, slaves wanted to challenge racial assumptions and stress that blacks did not want to be enslaved, even if they did not actively revolt. It was important for these authors to foster a positive race consciousness in order to limit the lasting effects of racism once slavery was abolished.

Unknown image 1839
Unknown, 1839

By showing the problem of slavery was the institution as a whole, slave narratives pushed for the abolition of slavery to create a more ethical America. Authors highlighted the hypocrisy of Christian rhetoric in oppressing slavery and focused on the power of education and literacy in helping slaves exert agency in their own situations. Another important aspect of slave narratives was showing the struggles slaves faced in gaining freedom and living while “free” Americans. Authors wanted to resist the savior narrative, where a white person purchased a slave’s freedom. Equiano, Jacobs, and Douglas were all powerful writers who knew the importance of how the represented slavery to the public. These abolitionist writers knew they had to share their stories in order to inspire change and abolish slavery in America.


Works Consulted

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp 1174-1235.

Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equino.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp 688-721.

Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp 921-942.

American Renaissance

The advent of a national literary consciousness in the United States is generally attributed to the American Renaissance period, from around 1830 to the beginning of the Civil War. Prior to this period, much of American Literature was serialized in periodicals, rather than as cohesive publications. As publishing companies began to take hold in the States, there was a influx of print journalism and new literary works. Two of the most popular genres to come from this period was Transcendentalism, with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, or Dark Romanticism, favored by Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Transcendentalists often had a more optimistic tone to their work than Dark Romanticists, but both factions focused on themes of nature, spirituality and separation from civilization.

Despite sharing membership in the American Renaissance with Transcendentalists, Dark Romanticists took a more pessimistic view of human nature, writing narratives characterized by destruction and sin. Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, authors of the genre, often corresponded with one another. This led to a more cohesive body of literature with shared themes. Dark Romanticist authors tended to be critical of reformers, including those of the Transcendentalist movement. Though Herman Melville supported activism such as prison reform, he did not share the more optimistic views of Transcendentalists. In Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the title character constantly repeats the phrase “I would prefer not to,” (Melville 1489) eventually becoming jailed and dying alone because of his abstinence. While critics disagree about interpretation, Bartleby’s unpleasant end could be perceived as a dig towards Henry David Thoreau, who chose to abstain from taxes as an activist gesture. Similarly, both Poe and Hawthorne wrote works criticizing Transcendentalists.

Nature was a popular theme in the American Renaissance, favored by Transcendentalists as well as Dark Romanticists. Contrary to the spiritual, positive view of nature in Transcendentalism, these authors illustrated nature as ominous and powerful. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, he portrayed the woods as a dark force. The woods represent Hawthorne’s view of human nature: unpredictable and difficult to understand. In Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, the woods reveal the true actions of the Puritan community, exposing religious corruption. Similarly, Poe utilizes natural surroundings to contribute to the gothic atmosphere. With The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe establishes the mood of the work by painting a vivid picture of how the surrounding nature’s darkness has bled into the mansion itself. Melville’s “Moby Dick” portrayed how weak man is in comparison with the forces of nature.

Whalers by Joseph Mallord William Turner
“Whalers”, Joseph Mallord William Turner

Furthermore, these authors wrote their protagonists as flawed individuals prone to sin and destruction. Their works acted as a foil to the more optimistic bent of Transcendentalist literature. Traits such as hubris, cruelty and hypocrisy are common in Dark Romanticist characters such as Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown, Poe’s Montresor, or Melville’s Captain Ahab. Often their narratives end unhappily as a result of the protagonist’s actions. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, the narrator’s choice to commit a sin opens his eyes to the sinfulness of those around him. He becomes mistrustful of everyone and allows this knowledge to affect his life so completely that even “his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 395). Many characters die or are irreparably changed by the end of Dark Romanticist literature.

While Transcendentalists and Dark Romanticists both published narratives in the American Renaissance, Dark Romanticists presented a much more cynical take on comparable topics. Authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville were critical of reformers, depicted nature as a dangerous force, and wrote characters that were prone to destructive behavior. Their contributions to the American Renaissance created a rich and diverse national literary consciousness.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 386-395. Print.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1483-1509. Print.
Melville, Herman. “Moby Dick.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American
Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1440-1483. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 714-719. Print.
Turner, Joseph Mallord William. Whalers. 1845. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.


A metal bust of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson. Source

Crafting a unique, well-defined American identity and an accompanying philosophy was considered an important task for authors in the United States during the 19th century. The most famous and successful of these endeavors is embodied in the works of an eclectic group of intellectuals now called transcendentalists. Their thoughts on a number of topics have helped to create what many conceive as the essential American spirit, especially those regarding nature and the role of the individual in society.

A common topic in transcendentalist literature is the conception of nature as a pathway to intense, spiritual experiences. Transcendentalism is often thought of as a branch of Romanticism due to the romantic nature of this idea. Ralph Waldo Emerson, often credited as the father of the transcendentalist movement, wrote that while standing in nature “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all” (Emerson 217). Similar tales of dramatic personal transformation brought about by experiencing nature first-hand are common throughout transcendentalist literature. The idea that engulfing oneself in nature could bring about a deeper understanding of the world, as Emerson describes here, is essential to the transcendentalist conception of nature as a transformative agent.

Another defining feature of transcendentalist thought is the importance given to individualistic ways of thinking and living. In one of the most famous passage of American literature, Thoreau, another definitive transcendentalist writer, claimed that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau 984) because they think that they have no choice but to live ordinary lives. In contrast to this way of living, transcendentalists typically encouraged people to live lives focused on more than just earning a living but on self-discovery and personal and intellectual growth. What separates this facet of their thought from earlier American conceptions about the value of self-improvement is that most transcendentalists did not value material wealth or material possessions. According to most transcendentalist writers, true meaning cannot be found in outward society but must be derived from the essence of one’s own self.

Both ideas today form an essential part of the American identity. Many in America still revere nature and consider excursions into it to be restorative, meaningful experiences. Additionally, the focus on individual identity as a source of meaning in life and a disdain for the repressive nature of everyday life are popular themes in American literature and media to this day. While few self-identify as transcendentalists today, the movement’s philosophy about life has a wide-reaching impact on contemporary American thought and culture.

Works Consulted

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” The Norton Anthology of

American Literature.. Gen. ed. Nina Baym, Robert Levine.

8th ed. Vol. A. New York:Norton, 2012. 217. Print

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden.” The Norton Anthology of

American Literature.. Gen. ed. Nina Baym, Robert Levine. 8th

ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 984. Print