New England Romanticism
The Romantic movement, which originated in Germany but quickly spread, reached America around the year 1820. Romantic ideas centered around the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of nature, and the importance of the individual mind and spirit. The Romantics underscored the importance of self-expressive art for the individual and society.
The development of the self became a major theme; self-awareness a primary method. If, according to Romantic theory, self and nature were one, self-awareness was not a selfish dead-end but a mode of knowledge opening up the universe. If one’s self were one with all humanity, then the individual had a moral duty to reform social inequalities and relieve human suffering. The idea of “self,” which suggested selfishness to earlier generations, was redefined. New compound words with positive meanings emerged: “self-realization,” “self-expression,” “self-reliance.”
As the unique, subjective self became important, so did the realm of psychology. Exceptional artistic effects and techniques were developed to evoke heightened psychological states. The “sublime”—an effect of beauty in grandeur (for example, a view from a mountaintop)—produced feelings of awe, reverence, vastness, and a power beyond human comprehension.
Romanticism was affirmative and appropriate for most American poets and creative essayists. America’s vast mountains, deserts, and tropics embodied the sublime. The Romantic spirit seemed particularly suited to American democracy: It stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the inspired imagination for its aesthetic and ethical values.
The Transcendentalist movement, embodied by essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, was a reaction against 18th-century Rationalism, and closely linked to the Romantic movement. It is closely associated with Concord, Massachusetts, a town near Boston, where Emerson, Thoreau, and a group of other writers lived.
In general, Transcendentalism was a liberal philosophy favoring nature over formal religious structure, individual insight over dogma, and humane instinct over social convention. American Transcendental Romantics pushed radical individualism to the extreme. American writers—then or later—often saw themselves as lonely explorers outside society and convention. The American hero—like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn—typically faced risk, or even certain destruction, in the pursuit of metaphysical self-discovery. For the Romantic American writer, nothing was a given. Literary and social conventions, far from being helpful, were dangerous. There was tremendous pressure to discover an authentic literary form, content, and voice.
Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882
Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the towering figure of his era, had a religious sense of mission. Although many accused him of subverting Christianity, he explained that, for him “to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the church.” The address he delivered in 1838 at his alma mater, the Harvard Divinity School, made him unwelcome at Harvard for 30 years. In it, Emerson accused the church of emphasizing dogma while stifling the spirit.
Emerson is remarkably consistent in his call for the birth of American individualism inspired by nature. In Nature (1836), his first publication, the essay opens:
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we [merely] through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs. Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past...?
Much of his spiritual insight comes from his readings in Hinduism, Confucianism, and Islamic Sufism.
Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862
©The Bettmann Archive
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord and made it his permanent home. From a poor family, like Emerson, he worked his way through Harvard. Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), is the result of two years, two months, and two days (from 1845 to 1847) he spent living in a cabin he built at Walden Pond, near Concord. This long poetic essay challenges the reader to examine his or her life and live it authentically.
Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” with its theory of passive resistance based on the moral necessity for the just individual to disobey unjust laws, was an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian independence movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for black Americans’ civil rights in the 20th century.
Walt Whitman 1819-1892
Courtesy Library of Congress
Born on Long Island, New York, Walt Whitman was a part-time carpenter and man of the people, whose brilliant, innovative work expressed the country’s democratic spirit. Whitman was largely self-taught; he left school at the age of 11 to go to work, missing the sort of traditional education that made most American authors respectful imitators of the English. His Leaves of Grass (1855), which he rewrote and revised throughout his life, contains “Song of Myself,” the most stunningly original poem ever written by an American.
The poem’s innovative, unrhymed, free-verse form, open celebration of sexuality, vibrant democratic sensibility, and extreme Romantic assertion that the poet’s self was one with the universe and the reader permanently altered the course of American poetry.
Emily Dickinson 1830-1886
Emily Dickinson is, in a sense, a link between her era and the literary sensitivities of the 20th century. A radical individualist, she was born and spent her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, a small village. She never married, and she led an unconventional life that was outwardly uneventful but was full of inner intensity. She loved nature and found deep inspiration in the birds, animals, plants, and changing seasons of the New England countryside. Dickinson spent the latter part of her life as a recluse, due to an extremely sensitive psyche and possibly to make time for writing.
Dickinson’s terse, frequently imagistic style is even more modern and innovative than Whitman’s. She sometimes shows a terrifying existential awareness. Her clean, clear, chiseled poems, rediscovered in the 1950s, are some of the most fascinating and challenging in American literature.