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American Romanticism

1800-1860

Romanticism is "a journey away from the corruption of civilization and thelimits of rational thought and toward the integrity of nature and the freedom of the imagination."

The Romantic Sensibility:

  • Romanticism is the valuing of feelings and intuition over reason.
  • Began in Germany in the late 1700s, were it heavily influenced the arts until the nineteenth century
  • began in part as a reaction against rationalism, which tried to reason away the problems in society
  • Life in the City:
    • in permanent tenements, building might house four hundred families
    • city streets were littered with horse droppings--even with the carcasses of deceased animals
    • disease was so common place, in 1832, a cholera epidemic killed as many as 100 people per day in Manhattan
    • there were 20,000 homeless children on the streets of New York, most of whom died before they were twenty
    • crime and violence were a part of life
  • the Romantic mind saw poetry as the highest and most sublime embodiment of the imagination--in America, this took the form of finding an experience in nature, away from the horrors of the industrialized world

    Characteristics of American Romanticism

    • values feeling and intuition over reason
    • places faith in inner experience and the power of the imagination
    • despises the artificiality of civilization and seeks unspoiled nature
    • prefers youthful innocence to educated sophistication
    • champions individual freedom and the worth of the individual
    • contemplates nature's beaurt as a path to spiritual and moral development
    • looks backward to the wisdom of the past and distrusts progress
    • finds beauty and truth in exotic locales, the supernatural realm, and the inner world of the imagination
    • sees poetry as the highest expression of the imagination
    • finds inspiration in myth, legend, and folk culture

Romantic Escapism: From Dull Realities to the Oversoul

  • Romantics wanted to find a higher truth, or meaning in life above the "dull realities"
  • two principal schools of thought existed in achieving this escape:
      • the "natural" escape
        • finding exotic settings of the past (ancient Rome, Greece, and even pre-colonial America)
        • in a world far removed from the "grimy and noisy industrial" age, sometimes a supernatural realm, such as Nirvana, Utopia, or Xanadu
        • the Romantic, who views the modern world as inherently ugly and lifeless, attempts to escaped into a perfect world
        • often, this other world can be seen as an escape into human imagination, an exploration of the human mind
      • the contemplation of the natural world
        • the Romantic sees a commonplace object or event, such as a flower, tree, or rock in a pastoral setting
        • the literal sight brings contemplation, which leads to deeper "vision"; hopefully, this is an "insight" into the human soul, and awakening of the mental landscape

The American Wilderness and the Romantic Hero

  • American literature faced the opposition of the sophisticate, civilized world
  • Europe was settled and orderly, while America was unmapped, and boundless
  • Europe lent itself easily to the ordered role of the Rationalist Hero, while America invited the Romantic Hero
  • America gave the Romantics a literal "geography" for the imagination
  • The American Romantic Hero was a "country bumpkin"
  • The American Romantic Hero took strength from innocence; he was not corrupted by the sins of the industrialized society; his fortune was an adventure waiting to unfold, and not a destiny to be accomplished within the social confines of the industrial world
    • Paul Bunyan
    • Johnny Appleseed
    • Rip Van Winkle

Characteristics of the American Romantic Hero

  • is young, or possesses youthful qualities
  • is innocent and pure of purpose
  • 'has a sense of honor based not on society's rules, bu on some higher principle
  • has a knowledge of people and of life based on deep, intuitive understanding, not on formal learning
  • loves nature and avoids town life
  • quests for some higher truth in the natural world

The American Fireside Poets

  • While novelists sought to create a new, unique American Voice, the poets sought to disprove the stereotype of Americans as rustics
  • the Fireside Poets tried to use European Conventions to show this point

The Fireside Poets

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • John Greenleaf Whittier
  • Oliver Wendel Holmes
  • James Russell Lowell
  • called the "Fireside Poets" because their poems were often read aloud the the fireside as family entertainment
  • also were called the "Schoolroom Poets," because their poems were memorized in American classrooms for many years
  • While looking to literature of the past for convention, used topics such as love, patriotism, nature, family, God, and religion