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The Romantic Period in American Literature and Art

  • 0:11 American Romantic Literature
  • 1:45 Imagination and Escapism
  • 3:45 Individuality
  • 4:44 Nature as a Source of…
  • 5:55 Wisdom from the Past
  • 7:12 Common Man as a Hero
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

This video introduces American Romanticism, a movement where literature focused on intuition, imagination, and individualism. Authors such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow contributed to what became known as the American identity as the new country did its best to distance itself from European tradition.

American Romantic Literature

The American Romantic period, which lasted from about 1830-1870, was a time of rapid expansion and growth in the United States that fueled intuition, imagination, and individualism in literature. When you think about stories that are labeled 'romantic,' you probably think of a romance novel, where some half-dressed woman has some Fabio-esque guy hanging all over her. That is NOT what we're talking about in the American Romantic period. Don't get me wrong: like those stories, Romantic literature is both adventuresome and improbable, but it's a lot more than just a randy love story.

Literary escapism was a response to the downsides of the Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution Illustration

In 1830, just fifty years after the Revolutionary War, America was still really young, but its citizens were anxious to create their own identity that was uniquely American and not so reliant on European values. Therefore, the American Romantic movement challenged the very rational thinking that we saw in the Age of Reason during the Revolutionary War. This period produced fewer instructional texts and more stories, novels, and poetry.

Within these stories, novels, and poems, there are five characteristics that we can use to identify American Romantic literature. These are:

  1. Imagination
  2. Individuality
  3. Nature as a source of spirituality
  4. Looking to the past for wisdom
  5. Seeing the common man as a hero

Imagination

The first of these characteristics is imagination. This falls in line with the Industrial Revolution, which was a great time of progress. In many cases, when there is progress, there is also great optimism. People start to imagine what could happen next, and progress continues. On the flip-side of that, with that much progress, a lot of people began migrating to big cities that were becoming overpopulated. The cities became dirty and disease-ridden, so it's no surprise that many people wanted to escape that. Therefore, the American Romantic writers embrace that notion through escapism.

Irving is recognized as the father of American literature
Washington Irving

Escapism is where the mind allows you to escape harsh conditions by taking you to a place that is purely beautiful. Characters in Romantic literature are often journeying away from the city and into the countryside to a place that's not totally realistic, a place that has improbable and even supernatural qualities. The authors develop these places with imagery to make the reader experience the locale as if it were real. Washington Irving, who's known as the father of American literature, wrote a story called 'Rip Van Winkle,' which is about a man who wanders out into the woods to escape some chores his wife is asking him to do. After falling asleep for twenty years in the woods, he not only escapes his chores but his wife as well because she's dead. This fanciful escape is typical during this time, but it's something we still see in movies today. Think about the movie Avatar. Jake Sully is able to escape by assuming a new identity in a beautiful new world. Even the audience, as they watch, is able to escape reality as they experience the fantastical world of Pandora. So, we see escapism continues today.

Individuality

The second characteristic used to identify American Romanticism is individuality. As people are moving into the frontier, they are establishing new areas in ways that best suit their needs. Not only are people moving across the country but into the country. Immigration begins creating what we now call the 'melting pot' in America. As a result, you see, not only people creating an identity for themselves, but the country creating its own identity as people with different social pasts come together to create something new.

Americans also wanted to distance themselves from Europe and become intellectually independent. This shows up in literature with characters who live on the outskirts of society. Kind of like that old-school cowboy, they aren't going to follow the norms that have come over from Europe; they're going to follow their intuition and their feeling, and they're going to embrace this newly found freedom and become individuals.

Nature as a Source of Spirituality

Third, we have nature as a source of spirituality. Remember, initially, the Puritans were coming to the Colonies to escape religious persecution in England. Those Puritans' ideas did not disappear when the country was established. During this time, the Romantics wanted to embrace that spiritual root that was planted by the Puritans. To do that, they're taking what was established in that spiritual realm, but then taking it into nature. Where the Puritans saw nature as savage, with the Devil hiding behind every tree, the Romantics really are finding God in nature. They believed that they could achieve high levels of insight and information about the world around them just by going to nature. William Cullen Bryant was a poet during this time, and he wrote a poem called 'Thanatopsis.' It's a prime example of looking into nature for spiritual insight. He explores death through the life cycles that we see in nature. He finds comfort both for the living and for the dying. In his point of view, death is just a chance to go back to nature.

Bryant focused on the linkage of nature and spirituality in his poetry
William Cullen Bryant

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