Romantic Period 1840-1860
Sometimes called the American Renaissance because literary achievements
were of such high quality.
Like the Early Romantic period, it was a time of “hopeful change.”
III. Purposes for writing
A. Social Reform
1. Needed because of
social disorders such as overcrowding; child labor; low wages for long hours;
abuse of women at the workplace; unsafe work atmosphere at factories; and worst
of all, slavery.
2. Kinds of social
reforms included better treatment for the mentally ill and the physically
handicapped, prison reform, women’s rights, and child labor laws.
3. Tax supported schools
established in every state.
4. Newspapers and
magazines grew in number.
5. Libraries and museums
6. The Lyceum was
established (an association of citizens who invited prominent intellectuals to
give public lectures)—Also educated adults, trained teachers, worked for
social reform, and established museums.
7. Outstanding people
included Horace Mann (public schools), Dorthea Dix (worked to reform mental
institutions), William Garrison (abolitionist), Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret
Fuller, and Emma Willard (all worked for women’s rights).
B. Literary Reform
1. Writers wanted to
create distinctively American literature (Irving, Bryant, and Cooper had proved
that Americans could write respectable literature, but they were all influenced
by European literature).
2. Emerson spoke out for
a truly independent literature.
Major influences of the period
on a rapid concentration of people into cities, changed the nature of work.
to idealism) a view which emphasized the qualities of self-trust, self-reliance,
and individualism. This view stressed that the truths of the universe
transcend or go beyond what we learn from books or what we learn through our
senses and that intuition is the “highest power of the soul.”
Truth was reached through intuition, not through logic or reason.
Transcendentalists believed that each person had an inner voice, which
should be followed no matter what society believed.
They believed this inner voice to be good; therefore, if every person
acted on that good inner voice, the world would be a Utopia.
Man was believed to be innately good, and if he were corrupted,
society was to blame. Nature
was thought to be a “doorway to the mystical world” where we may find
Ideals versus realities
A. Ideally—man was
good and acted from that goodness
was not always good and sometimes did evil as well as
Latter Romantic Period Writers
Ralph Waldo Emerson—Transcendentalist—Lived childhood in poverty, often
without enough to eat. Came from a
long line (seven generations) of clergymen.
He once said of himself: “I find myself often idle, vagrant, stupid…I
am indolent and shall be insignificant.”
He became a Unitarian minister, but resigned because he felt “the
profession to be antiquated,” and he could no longer perform the rituals.
After the death of his wife, he went to Europe where he discovered German
transcendentalism and brought it back to America, where he made it distinctively
American. His optimistic philosophy stressed human goodness and
intuition but failed to account for the evil in the world. He was called “the great prophet of America.” He
spoke out against slavery and other social ills.
The idea of the Over-Soul was his. He
also believed that there was something of God in every man.
Henry David Thoreau—Transcendentalist—The basis of his life and his writing
was “communion with nature.” He
believed in the beauty of nature and in the importance of the human spirit, and
he tested both of these ideas by living a life stripped of nonessential
“things,” thus becoming the self-reliant nonconformist, which Emerson urged
everyone to be. To show his
disapproval of slavery, he refused to pay his poll taxes and was jailed. He also helped runaway slaves escape to Canada after the
Fugitive Slave Law had been passed. Thoreau
“went into to the woods to live to see what nature had to teach.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne—dissenter—Differed with the transcendentalist in that he
saw evil as well as good in the universe. He
appealed to the Calvinistic belief of “innate depravity” and “original
sin,” and pointed to the differences in the ideals and realities in America.
He believed that evil existed primarily in people’s behavior toward one
another. The greatest of sinners were people who were so concerned with
themselves that they denied sympathy to their fellow human beings.
His writing criticizes Puritan morality, transcendental morality, and the
world he knew. He created the
first American novel to become a classic—The Scarlet Letter.
He carried within himself a heavy burden of personal guilt because of his
ancestor John Hathorne, who had participated in the Salem Witch Trials and Major
William Hathorne, who had a Quaker woman whipped publicly and driven into the
forest because she criticized priests and churches.
In his writing, he repeatedly probes the nature of good and evil, of
guilt and sin: repeatedly his characters must look within to face themselves
and the moral consequences of their actions.
IV. Herman Melville—dissenter—Believed, like Hawthorne, that evil was present in the universe. At age nineteen, he went to sea, and his experiences as a sailor awakened the hatred of the darkness of man’s deeds and the evil seemingly present in nature itself as expressed throughout his fiction. His experiences as a sailor gave his first-hand knowledge of whaling, which he wrote about in his greatest novel Moby Dick, a story about a white whaile and a sea captain whose hatred destroys himself and his fellow sailors. In the novel, Melville explores the evils of the universe, using a whale as a symbol for nature.