Romantic Period (in American literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Romantic Period (in American literature)

Romantic Period (in American literature): A period in American literary history spanning the years 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency, to 1865, the year the Civil War ended. The limits of American unity were tested during this period, due to the rapid rate of westward expansion and, more importantly, the issue of slavery, which increasingly divided the nation. During this turbulent and often contentious time, the first truly American literature was produced, independent of English models, with significant works appearing in all areas except for drama, thereby giving rise to the appellation American Renaissance.

The Romantic Period has also been called the Age of Transcendentalism. Adherents of transcendentalism, an idealistic philosophical and literary movement that arose in New England, maintained that each person is innately divine, with the intuitive ability to discover higher truths. They rejected dogmatic religious doctrines, praised self-reliance, and gloried in the natural goodness of the individual. Transcendentalism is most closely associated with the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who outlined the movement in an essay entitled “The Transcendentalist” (1842). Other members of the movement included Amos Bronson Alcott; early feminist Margaret Fuller; and Henry David Thoreau, best known for his essay “Civil Disobedience” (first published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government”) and his book Walden (1854). Members of the Transcendental Club contributed writings to The Dial (1840—44), the group’s quarterly periodical.

Romantic writers generally emphasized emotion over intellect; the individual over society; inspiration, imagination, and intuition over logic, discipline, and order; the wild and natural over the tamed. In poetry, Edgar Allan Poe took the novel step of formulating his own theory of poetry, based on which he produced a symbolist verse that would heavily influence post—Civil War poetry and the Symbolist movement in France. “The Raven” (1845) and “Annabel Lee” (1849) are perhaps his most famous poems. Subsequently, Walt Whitman challenged poetic conventions with the radically personal and informal lyrics he published in Leaves of Grass (1855), a collection of poems composed in free verse addressing subject matter deemed highly taboo at the time, such as sex. In a letter to Whitman (July 21, 1855), Emerson called the collection “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed,” praising Whitman for his “free and brave thought” and “large perception.” Other romantic poets included William Cullen Bryant, Emily Dickinson, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Henry Timrod, and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, novelists whose careers had begun during the preceding Early National Period, produced some of their best works during the Romantic Period. But it was writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville who more truly exemplified novelistic romanticism. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Melville’s Moby-Dick (1852) are among the best-known American works. Louisa May Alcott, William Brown, William Gilmore Simms, and Harriet Beecher Stowe are other notable writers of the period. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is not only credited with being America’s first sociological novel, but it is also often said to have instigated the Civil War by its depiction of slavery.

Other types of prose were also common in the Romantic Period. On one hand, a group of Southern writers including John Pendleton Kennedy and William Alexander Caruthers developed a plantation tradition idealizing plantation life through historical romances and sketches. On the other, slave narratives and autobiographies became increasingly popular in the North, even as they were banned in the South. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) are two of the most famous examples of the genre. Furthermore, Western writers such as Davy Crockett chronicled frontier life, and essayists including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emerson, and Thoreau were widely read. Short stories such as Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1843) and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) captivated readers. Poe also pioneered detective fiction through works such as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841).

A number of new periodicals, which often reflected the sectional divisions that were tearing the country apart, were founded during the Romantic Period. The Southern Literary Messenger (1834—64) represented the views of the South; in the North, the Atlantic Monthly (1857— ) and Harper’s Magazine (1850— ) joined the North American Review (1815—1940, 1964— ), which was established during the Early National Period. Abolitionist newspapers and pamphlets also sprang up, even though many of their editors and authors were persecuted. For instance, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator (1831—65), was attacked and dragged through the streets of Boston by a mob in 1835.

American literary criticism also began during the Romantic Period. Poe, who developed an analytical approach to literary criticism, is usually credited as being America’s first real critic. Simms and Lowell are other noted critics of the time.

Drama, unlike other forms of literary expression, did not produce very distinctive works. Most dramatists continued to imitate English spectacles and romantic tragedies modeled on William Shakespeare’s plays. Of particular interest were stage adaptations of well-known novels (such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and short stories (such as Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” [1819]). Also popular was the star system, which, as its name suggests, subordinated both the play and most actors to one “star,” one name actor.