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American Renaissance & American Romanticism

American Renaissance

Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter belongs to the period known in American letters as
American romanticism, the period called, by F.O. Matthiessen, the American Renaissance.
The American Renaissance took place roughly from 1840-1865, though the most significant
work of this period was produced from 1850-1855.
o See F. O. Matthiessens American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of
Emerson and Whitman, written in 1941.
o Matthiessen was influential in determining the canon of American writers from this
period: Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.
Recent texts have challenged Matthiessens notion of an American Renaissance, pointing out
that the work of major American authors of this period did not occur in a vacuum. They were,
instead, significantly influenced by the popular literature of the period.
o See, in particular, David S. Reynoldss Beneath the American Renaissance: The
Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville, written in 1989.
o Reynolds points out that a subversive literature existed prior to the work of the major
authors of the American Renaissance, in the form of sensational crime novels, erotic
writings, humor writing, etc.
o In fact, there were a number of stories circulating which focused upon sexually
transgressive clergymen, and this may have been an influence on Hawthornes
portrayal of Arthur Dimmesdale.

American Romanticism

Romanticism as broadly considered arose so gradually and exhibited so many phases that a
straightforward definition proves impossible. Generally, romanticism marks a reaction in
literature, philosophy, art, religion, and politics from the neoclassicism and formal orthodoxy
of the preceding period.
Although romanticism was not a clearly conceived system, it does tend to present certain
characteristics: there is often a tendency toward primitivism, an interest in nature and the
natural world, a pressuring of the past, and a foregrounding of the concerns of individualism.
American romanticism shares a number of characteristics with British romanticism, but it has
its own uniquely American characteristics as well, growing as it does from a particularly
American brand of religious thought (particularly Puritanism), shaped as it is by the
American landscape, and situated as it is in the wake of American Revolutionary thought.
The political influences on American romanticism include 18th century notions about human
perfectability, the ideals of American democracy, and the tensions caused by growing
concerns over the rights of women and the problem of slavery.
The economic influences on American romanticism include the rise of materialism within the
American context (which contributed to the growth of reform movements in the United
States), the increase in disposable time and income (leading to a growth in appreciation of
writing and reading with the growth of a leisure class), and the expansion of print culture

within the United States (including the development of copyright laws to protect the artistic
products of American authors).
The religious influences on American romanticism include the gradual decline of Calvinism
(the stern religious tradition of the early Puritans) and the emergence of Unitarianism and
Deism. This marked a growing liberality in religious thought and practice, and this period
was significant in terms of religious searching and the development of new forms of religious
Other institutional influences on American romanticism include the rise and
professionalization of science, against which Romantic writers reacted. They tended to see
Truth as more a matter of intuition and imagination than logic and reason.
Aesthetically, the romantics were also in a state of revolt, primarily against the restraints of
classicism and formalism. Form, particularly traditional literary forms, mattered much less
than inspiration, enthusiasm, and emotion.
The historical context of American romanticism is significant, emerging as it does between
the Jacksonian Era and the Civil War. This was a period of significant westward expansion,
as well as one of significant political turmoil, particularly as the conflict over slavery came to
a boil.

Significant American Romantic Writers

Ralph Waldo Emerson: considered to be a founding writer and philosopher within the
American romantic movement, Emerson is perhaps best known for his essays, from which
emerge the grounding notions of Transcendentalism.
Henry David Thoreau: best known for his work Walden, Thoreau presents an exploration of
self-discipline and self-discovery which resonates significantly through American literature.
Walt Whitman: his famous Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass is often considered the
most stunningly original poem ever written by an American. Leaves of Grass was inspired
largely by Emersons writings, and in particular his essay The Poet. The poem is
innovative both in terms of style and content, forever altering the course of American poetry.
The poem clearly participates in the invention of a myth of a democratic America.
Edgar Allan Poe: his work was fiercely original, refining the short story genre, establishing
detective fiction, and prefiguring the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Poes
work often explores questions of individual psychology, but can certainly be read to gesture
to a sort of cultural psyche, a particular American unconscious.
Herman Melville: an author of romantic fiction as was Hawthorne, Melville is particularly
well known for his novel Moby-Dick. His work explores a variety of concerns central to the
romantic movement. In reading Melvilles Bartleby the Scrivener, we will be particularly
concerned with the manner in which an developing capitalist ethic and a growing urban
culture are explored.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: many of Hawthorne's stories are set in Puritan New England, and his
greatest novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), has become the classic portrayal of Puritan
America. Hawthornes work often explores the vexed and vexing relationship Americans
bear to their pasttheir peculiar cultural history.