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American Renaissance: Uniquely American Art, Literature and Culture

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  • 0:07 New American Culture
  • 1:49 Romanticism
  • 4:20 Literature and…
  • 7:32 Religion
  • 9:24 Pop Culture
  • 10:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

America began creating its own distinct culture in the 1800s. Learn about popular trends in art, literature, and pop culture in the antebellum era. Also, learn how religion and utopian communes changed the way some Americans lived.

New American Culture

Example of American Renaissance art by Bierstadt
Bierstadt Artwork

You might find a painting like this one - or a copy of it - on the walls of many American homes. And though not many people know the artist's name (it happens to be Albert Bierstadt), his work typifies so much of what was happening in American culture in the antebellum years.

Just the fact that so many people have copies of beautiful or inspiring artwork hanging on their walls is itself an outgrowth of a group of artists to which Bierstadt belonged, known as the Hudson River School. Bierstadt's painting depicts the Yosemite Valley in Yellowstone National Park. It's a beautiful illustration of what is often called the 'American Spirit' - these combined concepts of nationalism, romanticism, Manifest Destiny, optimism, grandeur and so much more. Even most of the music, literature, and entertainment of this time period draw heavily from these themes.

In history classes, you focus so much on politics and conflict. But in this lesson, we get to look at the birth of mainstream American culture in the years before the Civil War. Americans didn't form many distinct artistic and cultural characteristics until the 1800s. But then after the War of 1812, there was a burst of uniquely American culture, and a distinct identity from that of their colonial parents emerged. This period in literature is called the American Renaissance, though the phrase seems an apt description of all aspects of American culture at the time. Many European visitors from this era noted that everything about America seemed different - bigger - though some of it was an outgrowth of European sentiments.

Romanticism

Romanticism, for example, was a reaction to the hyper-rational, scientific approach of the European Enlightenment that said all experience had to be observable and measurable to be valid. Of course, the American Revolution did owe its origins to Enlightenment ideals. But Romanticism didn't exactly throw out the Enlightenment; it just validated emotional experience, too. As a whole, Romanticism affected visual art, music, and literature. Unfortunately, history was also influenced by Romanticism, as stories of the past were sometimes colored incorrectly through the Romantic lens. The Romantics wanted heroes and villains and drama; while rigid attention to detail was so much like that hyper-rational Enlightenment stuff they were trying to shake off.

You might know that Romanticism was not strictly an American movement. For example, Beethoven was a Romantic composer from Germany. But the Americans did it - well - bigger than everyone else. Its style fit so well with the American ideals of individualism, freedom, the goodness of nature, and morality over religion. Another important theme was nationalism. Romanticism was especially influential in American painting and literature.

Artists had been painting the American people for 200 years. But no one had been painting the American landscape. When a man named Thomas Cole took a boat ride up the Hudson River in 1825, he was inspired to paint the scenery, and thus was born the Hudson River School: a movement of artists who created romantic landscapes of the Hudson River Valley. A second generation of artists painted beyond the geographic borders of the Hudson, depicting the grandeur of the American frontier and nationalistic themes of discovery, exploration, and settlement. Though few of the artists are household names, their work helped people fall in love with this new and expanding nation. They also opened up the art world to the middle class. You didn't have to be part of the privileged aristocracy to see, understand, and appreciate art. A group of Hudson River School artists founded New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, introducing a new form of public entertainment.

Literature

Harriet Beecher Stowe was an influential 19th-century writer.
Uncle Toms Cabin Book

Romanticism also influenced American writers. In this period, we see novels, short stories, and poems instead of the sermons and essays of the colonial period. Just like the visual art, Romantic literature emphasizes emotion, freedom, personal experience, and morality. Unlike the painters, many American authors and their works are household names: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, many poems by Walt Whitman, and countless stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

Female writers also finally had a voice in this era of American literature. Emily Dickinson is a well-known American poet of the day who wrote prolifically about the theme of individualism. Other women were especially adept at weaving in the political issues of the day. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and very influential in the abolition movement. Louisa May Alcott became famous after publishing Little Women. On the surface, it's a coming-of-age story written for children about four sisters whose father is away at war. But on a deeper level, the book explores the struggle between women's traditional, subservient social role and the growing desire to pursue their own goals in life and to achieve political equality.

Transcendentalism

We're not quite done with Romanticism yet. Because of its emphasis on individual feelings and its rapturous experience of nature, Romanticism gave birth to a very American philosophical movement called transcendentalism. At its core, transcendentalism emphasized the belief that by communing directly with nature, humans could transcend the sensory world and reach the supernatural. Intuition was much more important than fact, imagination better than the senses. People were born good but were corrupted by the institutions of society. As such, the transcendentalists inspired a number of very progressive reform movements aimed at improving society such as abolition, feminism, and education. Transcendentalism's legacy can still be seen in Americans' tendency toward self-reliance.

The leading transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau.
Emerson Thoreau Transcendentalists

The most important transcendentalists were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson told Americans to stop imitating other people and just be themselves. He encouraged Americans to ''Hitch your wagon to a star!'' and set high personal goals and standards. Two of his best-known works are an essay titled, simply, ''Nature,'' and another called ''Self-Reliance.'' Henry David Thoreau didn't just write about theory, he put it into practice. For two years, he lived in the wilderness near Walden Pond, built his own cabin and tried to be completely self-reliant. He wrote about this experience in a famous book called Walden. Thoreau also became well-known for an essay titled ''Civil Disobedience,'' in which he encouraged Americans to stop paying taxes when the government was corrupt.

Religion

Americans also flocked to traditional (and not so traditional) religions in this era. It was a time of growth for a new generation of American church denominations and kindled the concept that faith was a private matter, between God and an individual's heart. You can learn more about this movement, known as the Second Great Awakening, in a separate lesson in this course.

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