Characteristics of Romanticism in American Literature

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  • 0:03 American Romanticism
  • 1:05 Borrowing from the Brits
  • 2:41 Fresh Contributions
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will identify and explain several characteristics of the American Romantic period. Though the writers of this era preserved some more typical Romantic themes, they also made a new, uniquely American contribution to the Romantic tradition.

American Romanticism

What does 'romantic' mean to you? Your first answer might have something to do with flowers, chocolates, or a fantasy suite on The Bachelor. In the context of literature, however, Romantic (with a capital R) has a much wider meaning. In general, Romantic literature is emotional, imaginative, and interested in beauty. We see these themes in romantic literature across cultures. Our goal here is to zoom in on the romantic literature of one specific culture: American Romanticism.

The Romantic Movement was the first major literary movement in a very young America, spanning from 1820-1860, when American identity was still very much a work in progress. Deciphering this identity and creating specifically American values was a major part of the project for American Romantic writers. The movement was definitely influenced by the British Romantics, but it brought a varied set of characteristics to the Romantic genre, which would mark this movement as uniquely American.

Borrowing from the Brits

The British Romantics had a lot to say about nature in all its sublime glory, and the American Romantics continued this tradition. Their works celebrate the rugged beauty of the landscape. The wild, untamed outdoors also represented a way to escape the constraints of society and live free. Henry David Thoreau exemplified this reverence toward nature with his famous work Walden. The book describes Thoreau's time living in a cabin in the wilderness, finding a deeper truth far away from society.

Far from having the stereotypical stiff upper lip, the British Romantics were a group of pretty emotional people. The American Romantics were in touch with their softer side as well. Their emphasis on emotion placed the heart over the head. The way the Romantics saw it, valuing sentiment over rationality helped provide a glimpse into life's deeper meanings. Emily Dickenson, a major American Romantic poet, explored emotional extremes in her poem 'Poor Little Heart.'

This characteristic goes hand-in-hand with emotion. Part of valuing feelings over rational thought involves placing importance on the power of imagination. American Romantics took a cue from the British in this respect, as well. As they saw it, imagination leads to insight. For example, in Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, looks at a pile of whale bones and imagines the prehistoric ancestors of the creatures. His imagination allows him to explore the very meaning of time and man's place in it.

Fresh Contributions

Obviously, the American Romantics departed from their friends across the pond when they wrote about the American Revolution in literature. The ideals and ideas of the Revolution were inspiring to the American Romantics, and fodder for great works. The great Walt Whitman made it his mission to be 'America's Poet,' and many of his poems celebrate the democratic spirit on which America was founded. American Romantics also weren't afraid to expose American hypocrisy. At a time when slavery was still legal, Thoreau spoke out in his writings about the ways in which this cruel institution contradicted the very principles at the core of American democracy.

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