AMERICAN ROMANTICISM OVERVIEW 
"Romanticism," as a term, derives from "romance," which from the Medieval Period (1200-1500) and on simply meant a story (e.g. all the chivalric, King Arthur legends) that was adventuristic and improbable. "Romances" are distinguished from "novels," which emphasize the mundane and realistic. The period between 1860 and 1900, for the U.S., is often called "The Age of Realism," because of the many authors (e.g., Theodore Dreiser & Stephen Crane) who present their novels' subject matter in a realistic manner (Melville's monomaniacal Ahab, chasing a monstrous, symbolic whale, would be out of place in a realistic novel, although Moby-Dick has many realistic details about the whaling industry).
"Romantic Period" refers to literary and cultural movements in
Very generally, we also distinguish "Romantic" from "Classical" values and types of expression, without referring to any particular time period. Thus, you can come up with a list of atemporal oppositions:
Emotional Reasonable and Practical
Individualistic Public Responsibility
Loves Solitude & Nature Loves Public, Urban Life
Fantasy/Introspection External Reality
The Particular The Universal
Subjective Perception Objective Science
Right Brain Left Brain
Satisfaction of Desire Desire Repressed
Creative Energy/Power Form
"Noble Savage"/Outcasts Bourgeois Family
Idealist Philosophy Materialist/Empirical Philosophy
The problem with the attempt to define literary movements and particular literary/cultural periods is that authors seldom fit neatly into the boxes we construct for them. Emerson and Thoreau, along with Margaret Fuller, are Romantic, self-consciously part of a literary/philosophical/theological movement known as "Transcendentalism" (they had their own literary magazine, The Dial, which Fuller edited). They privileged imagination and wanted to resuscitate spiritual values in a era in which institutional religion dominated (or so they felt). According to them, we are, if we only knew it, Gods in ruin, with the power to regain our spiritual birthright by attending to the divine within. Poe, Dickinson, Melville, and Hawthorne, however, were not Transcendentalists, and often (implicitly or explicitly) critique Emersonian idealism. Poe--the most Romantic of all the authors, because he obsessively depicts sensitive, isolated individuals seeking the Beautiful or Ideal--was the least in step with the other writers we are reading: the other male writers celebrate democratic possibilities (and are often in love with the "common man"), whereas Poe scorns the masses. Poe's position on slavery was less than enlightened.
American Romantics tend to venerate Nature
as a sanctum of non-artificiality, where the Self can fulfill its potential
(the earlier Puritans tended to see nature as the fallen
"wilderness," full of "savage" Indians). American Romantics also champion spiritual
intuition or self-reliant individualism (which some intellectual historians
argue is a secularized outgrowth of Reformation Protestant radicalism). They often, however, illustrate the
egotistic, futile, and destructive aspects of their questing heroes. Or they highlight how such self-reliance or
intuitions conflict with conventional social and religious dogma (Fuller and
Dickinson). Socially, American Romantics
are usually radically egalitarian and politically progressive (Poe is the
exception) and, in the case of Melville and Whitman, receptive to
non-heterosexual relations (Whitman was definitely gay; Melville perhaps). In terms of literary technique, American
Romantics will use symbols, myths, or fantastic elements (e.g.,
The primary feature of American
Romanticism--the obsession with and celebration of individualism--takes on
particular social relevance because
& Emerson worries in "The American Scholar" about imitation/parroting. He looks inward to find divine essence, which he claims we all share in common. So is he the ultimate democrat or a narcissist?
Thoreau isolates/purifies himself at
& Poe habitually portrays aristocratic, hyper-sensitive madmen in gothic enclosures.
& Melville invests Ahab, a captain of a fishing boat, with a Homer-like or Shakespearean grandeur.
& Emily Dickinson does not go "public" by publishing her verse.
& Whitman embraces the democratic masses, yet calls his major poem “Song of Myself”.
Conditions that influenced American Romanticism:
promised opportunity for expansion, growth, freedom;
Spirit of optimism invoked by the promise of an uncharted frontier.
Immigration brought new cultures and perspectives
Growth of industry in the north that further polarized the north and the agrarian south.
Search for new spiritual roots.
Highly imaginative and subjective
Common man as hero
Nature as refuge, source of knowledge and/or spirituality
material copyright © 1997 by Dr. Brad Strickland, Department of English,
Romanticism: Romantic Period in
1. Belief in natural goodness of man, that man in a state of nature would behave well but is hindered by civilization. The figure of the "Noble Savage" is an outgrowth of this idea.
2. Sincerity, spontaneity, and faith in emotion as markers of truth. (Doctrine of sensibility)
3. Belief that what is special in a man is to be valued over what is representative; delight in self-analysis.
4. Nature as a source of instruction, delight, and nourishment for the soul; return to nature as a source of inspiration and wisdom; celebration of man’s connection with nature; life in nature often contrasted with the unnatural constraints of society.
5. Affirmation of the values of democracy and the freedom of the individual. (Jacksonian Democracy)
6. High value placed on finding connection with fresh, spontaneous in nature and self.
7. Aspiration after the sublime and the wonderful, that which transcends mundane limits.
In art, the sublime, the grotesque, the picturesque, and the beautiful with a
touch of strangeness all were valued above the Neoclassical principles of
order, proportion, and decorum. (
9. Interest in the “antique”: medieval tales and forms, ballads, Norse and Celtic mythology; the Gothic.
10. Belief in perfectibility of man; spiritual force immanent not only in nature but in mind of man.
11. Belief in organicism rather than Neoclassical rules; development of a unique form in each work.
 This information is directly cited from Professor Bruce Harvey’s American Literature webpage.