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Lecture 6b: From Romanticism to Transcendentalism

March 11, 2014

b. Romanticism in the United States

Last week, we took care to highlight the extent to which Romanticism grows out of the dominant culture of “rational control” as embodied in the the Industrial Revolution and substitutes one of “creative expression” or expressivism. Just as the Industrial Revolution has its beginnings in the United Kingdom before arriving in the United States, so does English-language Romanticism move from the British isles to North America. And to the spread of new industrial practices is joined that of a new artistic language amongst the former colonies’ artistic elites. As the United States shifts from horse-powered machinery in its earliest factories to that of water power, so do we observe a new trend emerging in its literature.

Yet the scope of this shift is initially quite limited. As you perhaps know, the switch to water power was essentially limited to New England and the rest of the United States insofar as the best rivers for providing water power were swift moving ones and most fast-moving rivers are to be found in the Northeastern United States. Consequently, American Romanticism will find its strongest voices in this same region. In the United States, Romantic influence makes its first notable appearance in Washington Irving’s Gothic works “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819). It is followed shortly by James Fenimore Cooper’s depiction of the “noble savage” in his 1823 The Last of the Mohicans with its focus on heroic simplicity and solitude, as well as the careful description of the exotic landscapes of the frontier. In the years to follow, we see the development of local stories and landscapes in Washington Irving’s essays and travel writings, the rise of the macabre and terror in the Edgar Allan Poe, and perhaps the culmination of early Romanticism in the mood and melodrama of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Given its later beginnings in the United States, Romanticism remains a prominent literary genre until the second half of the 19th century with the romantic realism of Walt Whitman’s prose and poetry (Leaves of Grass), the atmosphere of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and the might of nature in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Only in the 1880’s do psychological and social realism supplant Romanticism as a dominant literary genre.

To what can we attribute Romanticism’s warm welcome in the one-time colonies? On one hand, we can point to the fact that Romanticism embraces the individual and rebels against the confinement of neoclassicism and religious tradition and orthodoxy. As in European strains of the movement, there is a high level of moral enthusiasm and a commitment to individualism, creative expression, the unfolding of the self and intuition. It is this preoccupation with freedom, reflected in the political society of the colonies, that becomes a great source of motivation to the American Romantic writers who could now give free expression to emotion in the guise of their characters’ personalities and psychologies. On the other, the prominence of the great American wilderness in the collective consciousness proved another reason for which Romanticism found fertile ground in the soils of the American imagination. Much like the European movement, American Romantics proceeded from the belief that the natural world was inherently good whereas human society was filled with corruption, lack of character and petty motives, all of which comes out in the economic and social changes brought on by the American Industrial Revolution.

Yet it is not only American literature that shows the influence of Romanticism. Indeed, prominent American thinkers of the time also retain elements of its emphasis on self-expression, nature and freedom from traditional forms. For the movement also appeals to the revolutionary spirit, still present in the period, of those longing to break free of the strict religious traditions of early settlement, notably amongst the Puritans and the Calvinists.

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