American Romanticism: 1800-1855



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American Romanticism: 1800-1855

Patriotic and individualistic, urban and untamed, wealthy and enslaved—Americans in the first half of the 19th century embodied a host of contradictions. Struggling to make sense of their complex, inconsistent society, writers of the period turned inward for a sense of truth. Their movement, known as romanticism, explored the glories of the individual spirit, the beauty of nature, and the possibilities of the imagination.

Romanticism: Historical Context
Historical forces clearly shaped the literature of the American romantic period. Writers responded—positively and negatively—to the country’s astonishing growth and to the booming Industrial Revolution.
The Spirit of Exploration
WESTWARD EXPANSION—Writers of the romantic period were witness to a period of great growth and opportunity for the young American nation. With that growth, however, came a price. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the country’s size. In the years that followed, explorers and settlers pushed farther and farther west. Settlers moved for largely practical reasons: to make money and gain land. But each bit of land settled by white Americans was taken from Native American populations who had lived there for generations. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, for example, required Native Americans to relocate west. As whites invaded their homelands, many Native Americans saw no choice but to comply. And those who did not were simply—and often brutally—forced to leave.

Toward the middle of the century, Americans embraced the notion of “manifest destiny”—the ideas that it was the destiny of the United States to expand to the Pacific Ocean and into Mexican territory. Mexicans disagreed, of course. When Texas was annexed from Mexico by the United States in 1845, it set off the Mexican-American War. Many Americans, including writer Henry David Thoreau, found the war to be immoral—a war fought mainly to expand slavery. “Can there not be a government,” he wrote, “in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?” In the end, the United States defeated Mexico and, through treaties and subsequent land purchased from the Mexican government, established the current borders of the 48 contiguous United States.

Growth of Industry
The stories and essays of the romantic period reflect an enormous shift in the attitudes and working habits of many Americans. When the War of 1812 interrupted trade with the British, Americans were suddenly forced to produce many of the goods they had previously imported. The Industrial Revolution began, changing the country from a largely agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse.
The factory system changed the way of life for many Americans, but not always for the better. People left their farms for the cities, working long hours for low wages in harsh conditions. In addition, Northeastern textile mills’ demand for cotton played a role in the expansion of slavery in the South. Writers of this period reacted to the negative effects of industrialization—the commercialism, hectic pace, and lack of conscience—by turning to nature and to the self for simplicity, truth and beauty.

Cultural Influences

Many romantic writers were outspoken in their support for human rights. Their works created awareness of the injustice of slavery and called for social reform in many other areas as well.


Ideas of the Age

Reflecting the optimism of their growing country, American romantic writers forged a national literature for the very first time. Yet sectionalism would threaten to tear the nation apart.


Romantic Literature

Themes of individualism and nature unified the writing of the American romantic movement, despite dramatic differences in the writers’ focus and style.


The Romantics:

  • were inspired by the beauty of nature

  • emphasized emotions and the imagination over reason

  • celebrated the individual spirit



Focus One: the Transcendentalists

By the mid-1800s, Americans were taking new pride in their emerging culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a New England writer, nurtured this pride. Emerson led a group practicing transcendentalism—a philosophical and literary movement that emphasized living a simple life and celebrating the truth found in personal emotion and imagination. Exalting the dignity of the individual, the transcendentalist stressed American ideas of optimism, freedom, and self-reliance.


The term transcendentalism came from Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who wrote of “transcendent forms” of knowledge that exist beyond reason and experience. Emerson gave this philosophy a peculiarly American spin: he said that every individual is capable of discovering this higher truth on his or her own, through intuition. The transcendentalists believed that people are inherently good and should follow their own beliefs, however different these beliefs may be from the norm. Both Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” and Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” address this faith in the integrity of the individual.
Not surprisingly, a major target for the transcendentalists’ criticism was their Puritan heritage, with its emphasis on material prosperity and rigid obedience to the laws of society. The transcendentalists disliked the commercial, financial side of American life and stressed instead spiritual well-being through intellectual activity and a close relationship to nature. Thoreau put his beliefs into practice by building a small cabin on Walden Pond and living there for two years, writing and studying nature.

Transcendental ideas lived on in American culture in the works of later poets such as Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens and through the civil rights movement of the 20th century. In the short term, however, transcendentalists’ optimism began to fade when confronted by with the persistence of slavery and the difficulty of abolishing it.

The Transcendentalists:


  • Emphasized living a simple life

  • Stressed a close relationship to nature

  • Celebrated emotions and the imagination

  • Stressed individualism and self-reliance

  • Believed intuition can lead to knowledge

  • Believed in the inherent goodness of people

  • Encouraged spiritual well-being over financial well-being



Focus Two: American Gothic—The Darker Side of Romanticism—Coming Soon!

Not all American romantics were optimistic or had faith in the innate goodness of humankind, however. Three other giants from this period, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville are what have been called Dark Romantics or “anti-transcendentalists.” Theirs is a complex philosophy, filled with dark currents and a deep awareness of the human capacity for evil. Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, were haunted by a darker vision of human existence. Their stories are characterized by a probing of the inner life of their characters, and examination of the complex and often mysterious forces that motivate human behavior. They are romantic, however, in their emphasis on emotion, nature, the individual and the imagination.


American Gothics:

  • did not believe in the innate goodness of people

  • explored the human capacity for evil

  • proved the inner life of characters

  • explored characters’ motivations

  • agreed with romantic emphasis on emotion, nature and the individual

  • included elements of fantasy and supernatural in their works

Notes from American Romanticism: 1800-1855



  1. Name two contradictions of Americans in the first half of the 19th century.








  1. Where did the writers of the period look to for truth?


  1. What three ideas did the Romantic writers explore?










  1. The two major forces that affected the country were:








  1. What doubled the size of the country in 1803?



  1. With the notion of “manifest destiny,” the U.S. thought it was destined to expand to the Pacific coast. Who disagreed with that idea and why?


  1. What war resulted from the disagreement over manifest destiny? Who won?


  1. How did war serve as the cause of the American Industrial Revolution?


  1. How did the Industrial Revolution change the country according the article? In the past 25 years, we have seen another shift in “ages”, what “age” we in now?


  1. How did the people’s lives change with the new factories?


  1. What negative effects of industrialization did writers of the period point out in their works?


  1. What social reform was called for as a result of a cultural influence of the Romantic period?

(Begins on Second Page of Reading)


  1. What were the two main unifying themes of Romanticism?



    1. What were the Romantics inspired by?


    1. What did their writing emphasize?


    1. What did they “celebrate”?



  1. By the middle of the 1800’s, an offshoot of the Romantic literary evolved called Transcendentalism. What did the writers emphasize?



  1. Who is credited with giving an American spin to Kant’s philosophy? What was the “spin”?


  1. How did transcendentalists feel about nonconformists?


  1. What group did the Transcendentalists criticize? Why?


  1. How did the Transcendentalists feel about Nature?



  1. What are the seven elements of Transcendentalist beliefs? (pick a few key words from each)


















  1. What was the second branch of American Romanticism that countered the Transcendentalism movement in many ideas?






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