: Romantic Period in America 1828-1865.

MASTERPIECES: Mid-century glory days;  American Renaissance;  Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman;  Masterworks establish the canon of American Romanticism – a canon which has been contested (who is included/excluded—how does the eye of the critic shape the interpretation of canon/period?)

INWARD DIVINITY:  Belief in natural goodness of man, that man in a state of nature would behave well but is hindered by civilization. Faith in something inherently good and transcendent in the human spirit, an inward divinity in no need of salvation, or even of formal creed -- but rather in need of awakening.

EMPHASIS ON THE SELF: High value placed on finding connection with fresh, spontaneous in nature and self.  The physical frontiers were being conquered in this time of "manifest destiny" and there was little wilderness to explore (and exploit). They turned to artistic, metaphysical, and intellectual frontiers to recapture the ecstasy of exploration and discovery.

EMOTION OVER REASON: Reaction against logic and reason;  generalized suspicion of science and dispassionate logic, though the fervor of this anti-science sentiment varied with the author and artist.   Sincerity, spontaneity, and faith in emotion as markers of truth.

NATURE: Nature as a source of instruction, delight, and nourishment for the soul; return to nature as a source of inspiration and wisdom; celebration of man’s connection with nature; life in nature often contrasted with the unnatural constraints of society.   Faith in the spirituality and the symbolic importance of nature.

CELEBRATION OF LOW/RUSTIC:  Anglo-French celebration of common and rural life provided a model for American writers, who sought a way to satisfy a cultural need for lore - a mythology suitable to a new nation.  As the "Fireside Poets" (especially Bryant, Whittier, Longfellow) became enormously popular in American households, they promulgated a celebration of simple living, intuitive wisdom, innocent love, and community folklore.  Affirmation of the values of democracy and the freedom of the individual.

SUBLIME: Aspiration after the sublime and the wonderful, that which transcends mundane limits.   The sublime, the grotesque, the picturesque, and the beautiful with a touch of strangeness all were valued above the Neoclassical principles of order, proportion, and decorum. 

RECYCLE ANTIQUATED FORMS: Interest in the “antique”: medieval tales and forms, ballads, Norse and Celtic mythology; the Gothic. 

Belief in perfectibility of man; spiritual force immanent not only in nature but in mind of man.

ORGANIC FORM: Belief in organic form rather than Neoclassical rules; development of a unique form in each work.


1830s New England;  The Dial;  Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, et al

Transcendentalism was a philosophical, literary, social, and theological movement.

Reaction against Unitarianism as a new orthodoxy of smug social conformity that denied the spiritual and emotional depths of experience

German and English Romanticism provided inspiration towards the search for some deeper 'truth.'

Complex response to the democratization of American life, to the rise of science and the new technology, and to the new industrialism.

Influences: Plato, Kant, Coleridge, Puritanism and Jonathan Edwards, Americanism

Elements of Transcendentalist belief:

“The American Scholar” and “Self Reliance,” were written by RWE in his early 30s, when he had reason to reiterate the need to act independently in the face of personal disaster, and to resist the lure of conformity.
Personal history gives insight to RWE’s privileging of the self.
RWE stressed the importance of the individual, but he was always losing people and being let down by others.
Emerson’s essays are optimistic about human potential, and advocate a peace to be found through the enactment of principles.  This insistence of the self as reaction to an early life of loss, rejection.
Emerson’s early misfortune only seems to strengthen his resolve and the optimism of his essays.  Could this be a level of over-“compensation” that at times can ring somewhat false.
There’s also an aspect of Horatio Alger in Emerson’s early work.
Grieved throughout his life for a series of deep personal losses – this is a man who lives with loss and is continually beset by new losses.
Loss is the limitation on Emerson’s boundless optimism as expressed in the early essays.
The first series of essays, published in 1841, are characterized by expansiveness, but the second series, published in 1844, speak with a growing knowledge and experience of the limiting conditions of life.  The first series is alive with the assurance of inspiration and power, the second series confronts the facts of ebbing power and decay.
He is a neo-Platonist, a yea-sayer – but with age grows increasingly unable to sustain this position.
When he writes about grief in his essays, it is in an optimistic sense, not an emotional sense.
This distancing from the darker side of nature.
His grief for his first wife emerges in his second marriage (marries Lydia Jackson several years later).  He idealizes Ellen and takes Lydia for granted – he is ultimately unable to come to terms with the loss of Ellen, who he puts on a pedestal as the perfect wife, as contrasted against his second wife.   Perhaps Lydia is his “base housekeeper.”
Professionally his career is marked by a painful break with the Unitarian Church – the source for his belief in the importance of non-conformity
Grappling with his father’s legacy – the AS and SR show that he is taking the right to pursue his own ideas even as they diverge from the paternal legacy.
Personal history gives context to his orientation as an idealist – an orientations sorely tested by not only the treatment of American Indians, but also the fact of slavery
Faith that the universe has its own order and the belief in non-violence VS. a sense of pervasive injustice and the acceptance of the need for war.
In the journals, Emerson talks about fate as a “burning wall which hurts those who run against it” (Journal 305).  RWE runs up against his own burning wall after leaving older Christian doctrines and the paternal legacy:
--the closedness of the Unitarian Church
--cruel losses of wife, child and brother
--capitalism/mass society
--slavery, genocide, war

Sources include:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Early Nineteenth Century - American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:

Warren, Robert Penn, Cleanth Brooks, and R. W. B. Lewis. "A National Literature and Romantic Individualism." in Romanticism. eds. James Barbour and Thomas Quirk. NY: Garland, 1986, 3-24. Boller, Paul F. American Transcendentalism, 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry. NY: Putnam, 1974.

Courtesy Debra White-Stanley
University of Arizona, 2004