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.
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.
Themes of individualism and nature unified the writing of the American romantic movement, despite dramatic differences in the writers’ focus and style.
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.
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.
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
Name two contradictions of Americans in the first half of the 19th century.
Where did the writers of the period look to for truth?
What three ideas did the Romantic writers explore?