Romanticism (American History Through Literature)
The young and expanding United States was fertile ground for the currents of Romanticism, the intellectual, artistic, and cultural movement that had an enormous impact on European thinking and European politics in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Having thrown off a colonial government with a revolution grounded in the Enlightenment values of the rights of private judgment in religious matters and self-governance in political matters, the new American nation found consonance with the Romantic emphasis on self-knowledge and self-expression and the Romantic orientation against the imposition of authority by elite classes. The unique conditions of the western frontier and the socially divisive challenges of the antislavery movement and the women's rights movement generated further conditions that nourished assumptions and attitudes that were essentially Romantic in nature. Emerging from these conditions was an assertion of the value of the individual self, an intense concern with the inner workings of the perceiving mind, and an affirmation of emotion and instinct. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), in the 1841 essay "Self-Reliance," captured the spirit of his time when he termed it "the age of the first person singular" (Early Lectures 3:188). The self-reliant individualist and the figure of the hero were two key embodiments of this ethos. Their representation in fiction and poetry marked a distinctive era in American authorship and reading.
ROMANTICISM AND RELIGIOUS CULTURE
The Romantic movement gained its first American foothold in religion, the field of thought and expression that had had the longest hold on the American imagination. Throughout the eighteenth century, pressures grew to reform the principal tenets of Calvinism, the orthodoxy of the New England Puritans and an essential element of the Presbyterian, Reformed, and other established Protestant denominations. One of the distinguishing doctrines of Calvinism was election to grace, the assumption that the redeemed were not able to choose their salvation but were instead chosen by God. Because of this doctrine, Calvinism generated controversy and resistance from two quite different sides. A growing evangelical movement employed with new energy and proficiency the tools of religious revivalism that emerged in the eighteenth century. The evangelicals accentuated the place of choice and individual will in the process of salvation, thus making men and women the agents of their own spiritual fates. On the opposite side of the theological spectrum, a movement of religious liberalism contested the key theological assumptions of both Calvinism and evangelicalism and emphasized deepened spiritual awareness and character building as essential elements of religion. They held that salvation was less an instantaneous turn than a long-developing process of the cultivation of the soul. Both of these shifts in religious belief and practice had important later implications for literature in the United States. The assumptions of evangelicalism shaped much of the popular fiction and poetry of the mid-nineteenth century, and the liberal conception of religion as a continuing process of spiritual cultivation led to the rise of transcendentalism, the most important early American literary movement.
Different as they were in many essential ways, evangelical revivalism and transcendentalism shared two important attributes. First, each centered on an individual man or woman undertaking an act of choice as the basis of religious experience and religious truth. Revivalist preachers urged their hearers to moments of decision, in which they seized their own fates and consciously altered them. The revivalists created an inner drama in their hearers, challenging them to make their lives over through a momentous exercise of a choice that was their own to make. In his Lectures on the Revival of Religion (1835), Charles G. Finney (1792875), an important revivalist preacher and later president of Oberlin College, noted an important shift in attitude in the early nineteenth century about the process of religious revivals. Ministers and congregations were coming to believe that revivals must be planned and promoted. The revival was not a miraculous event come down from heaven, Finney argued, but an event dependent on human choice and will. It was also dependent on preparation, planning, and persuasion on the part of the minister. "A revival is the work of God," Finney wrote, "and so is a crop of wheat" (p. 268). Neither comes without human resolve and labor. Finney was representative of a new attitude that made religion less a given than a made thing, one that assumed new powers for, and placed new responsibilities on, the individual.
In contrast to the rise of evangelical revivalism, the religious liberals of New England, who came to be known as Unitarians, began to describe religion as a lifelong process of spiritual development, minimizing the significance of an isolated moment of conversion. The Unitarians emphasized an ongoing work of self-examination and self-discipline in which the will was constantly engaged in a creative expansion of receptive understanding and disciplined action. The momentous choice for salvation emphasized by the evangelicals was transmuted by the liberals into an unending series of choices in a series of ever-new creations of the self.
Romantic religion, in either its evangelical or liberal versions, was thus a religion of the individual's self-transforming power, in which choice played an central and essential role. It was also a religion of feeling, in which the emotions were powerful agents of expression. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s were marked by their emotional intensity. At their core were experiences of great catharsis, in which powerful, submerged emotions were released with a potent mixture of searing remorse, anguished fear, and profoundly joyful relief. Emotion also played a role in the liberal reinterpretation of religion. In the emotionally fervent preaching, Unitarianism was often accused of a cold intellectualism. But in the emotionally fervent preaching of such liberal ministers as William Ellery Channing and Henry Ware Jr., the heart was made central to the religious experience. It was to this emotionally moving preaching that the young Ralph Waldo Emerson responded, bringing it not only into his own sermons but also into the descriptions of rapture with the natural world that marked his first book, Nature (1836), the starting point for one important strand of American literature.
THE ROMANTIC HERO
The inward turn of Romanticism, with its concentration on the individual self and on the importance of the emotions, manifested itself in the figure of the hero, an exemplary or representative self who undertook great or memorable actions as a principal form of self-expression. Two important forms of the hero emerged in American literature of the nineteenth century. The first was an individual who embodied enlarged spiritual awareness and perception of the natural and social worlds and who promised a fuller experience of life and thought to ordinary men and women. The second, also a figure of unusually deep perception and feeling, was an agent of dissent and social defiance, whose powers of perception revealed a flawed or corrupt social world that must be challenged and reformed. Closely related in their roles as prophetic awakeners, these heroic figures addressed a culture that many American authors felt was marked by unfulfilled promise and an incomplete enactment of the ideals that it professed. The United States was a nation that had to be called forcefully to realize its greater potential.
In the closing pages of Emerson's Nature, the narrative voice changes to that of an "Orphic poet" who "chants" a hymn of promise to the reader. The poet proclaims that each reader has the potential to create a world in accord with his or her dreams; the key is to seize the innate power that connects one to nature, and thus to God, and to translate this power into acts that are self-transforming. Emerson would later articulate this message of self-empowerment into one of his most influential essays, "Self-Reliance" (published in his Essays: First Series, 1841), in which he encouraged his readers to reject the pressures for social conformity and "trust" themselves, recognizing that "self-trust" finally implies a trust in a transcendent "Self," or "Over-Soul," an all-encompassing source of power from which each man and woman originates. Emerson's depiction of a heroic remaking of the world had great appeal to men and women who were struggling with aspects of Calvinist or evangelical theology that seemed oppressive and authoritarian in nature (his exhortation to personal power has remained one of the key aspects of his appeal even into the twenty-first century). His message also had a clear appeal to a young society, still engaged with expansion into the frontier and still forming its communities, cities, and way of life. Americans were in many senses making a world at this period, and Emerson's message of self-trust and confident advance rang true.
The "Orphic poet" of Emerson's Nature was given a different embodiment in the poetic narrator of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" (untitled when it first appeared in Leaves of Grass, 1855), the work that revolutionized poetic form through its long and flowing lines and its adoption of direct address to the reader. Whitman (1819892) presented the individual as the vehicle of a new era of perception and of social relationships. The "I" who speaks directly to "you" the reader in Whitman's poem implies a conversational dialogue that subtly encourages the reader to respond. It is a poem based on the principle of interaction, and it assumes that reading is an engaged rather than a passive act. Whitman's speaker is both an ordinary man and a visionary prophet who holds forth a utopian vision of joyful self-realization, brotherhood, and spiritual fulfillment. Whitman thought of himself as the poet of the people, and he used his poems to portray with sympathy a wide range of ordinary men and women in their everyday lives; he attempted to show how ordinary experience was itself miraculous when seen from the right perspective and thus to give his readers a new sense of empowerment in their judgments and decisions.
In a similar vein, Emerson's close friend Henry David Thoreau (1817862) described the process through which he resorted to the natural world to reclaim control over his life in Walden (1854). A description of a two-year sojourn in a cabin by Walden
The affirmative tone and positive energy of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau forms an important strand of American Romanticism, but it was countered by a more embattled and defiant attitude that made the hero a figure of courageous resistance. Emerson called his society a conformist one; resistance to that conformity was a necessary step in both self-development and building a more just society. The age was also marked by extreme political conflict over issues of social justice, such as economic oppression, rights for women, and especially the persistence of legalized slavery in the American South. By insisting on the value and capacity of the individual, Romantic writers added a fuel to the forces of democratic reform that were emerging at mid-century.
One of the most memorable depictions of heroic defiance was Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804864) Hester Prynne, the central character in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Hester conceived a child out of wedlock and was thus faced with anger and ostracism from the members of her New England Puritan village and the figures of religious authority there. The scarlet "A" that she is forced to wear to signify her adultery takes on a different meaning, however, as Hawthorne unfolds the story. It comes to symbolize not Hester's guilt but her bravery, and it also implies the intolerance and exclusion of her narrow and oppressive culture. Over the years, through her steadfast refusal to reveal the identity of her child's father and through her committed acceptance of her role as mother, even as a social outcast, Hester turns her badge of shame into a badge of honor. Her story is tragic, but it is also ennobling; one sees her create something positive out of her isolation and ostracism. Her principled resistance to oppressive authority wins her a kind of intellectual and moral freedom that few achieve. That she struggles against an overwhelmingly male-dominated social structure is also significant. She is a proto-feminist heroine, asserting a quality of honor and an independence that set her apart from her contemporaries.
Another example of defiant heroism emerged from the antislavery movement with the publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass's (1817895) moving autobiographical account of his escape from the power of his masters to become a free man. His movement toward freedom entails a deliberate and disciplined program of self-cultivation, in which Douglass recognizes and then acquires the power of reading and the capacity for self-directed work, eventually turning these and other skills into crucial elements of his escape into the free states. Finding himself in a free state was "a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced," he wrote. "I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions" (p. 107). Having made his own escape, Douglass connected himself with the efforts of William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery newspaper The Liberator, turning his own story and his passion for freedom into a tool against the continuance of slavery. The Liberator, Douglass wrote,
became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bondsts scathing denunciations of slaveholdersts faithful exposures of slaverynd its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institutionent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before! (P. 117)
Douglass was able to make his own private struggle into one that had larger social implications, as Hawthorne suggested that Hester Prynne had likewise done in her steadfast defiance of her community. In each case heroism is both a personal achievement and an enactment of principle that has a much wider social bearing. The Romantic hero or heroine thus becomes representative of a collective humanity as well as an agent of social reform.
Perhaps the most familiar form of the Romantic hero in the popular imagination is the frontiersman, the prototype of the cowboy star of western books and moviesne of the most characteristic and enduring symbols, for better or worse, of American culture. Real-life adventurers such as David Crockett, whose autobiographical memoir A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett was published in 1834, form part of the basis for this figure, but he is also mythological, an embodiment of the aspirations as well as the experiences of Americans who both lived on the frontier and viewed it imaginatively from a safe distance. James Fenimore Cooper (1789851) best brought this figure to life in fiction in his series of five Leatherstocking novels: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). All these works center around the character of Leatherstocking, or Natty Bumppo, the quintessential noble frontiersman. A white man with the ways and skills of an Indian, Leatherstocking lived in two cultures simultaneously. Although his sympathies were always finally with his white compatriots and their "civilization," he understood and respected the power and dignity of the Indian and viewed the advance of European settlers into the West as in many ways a tragic business. A new world was being created, but an old and valuable one lost.
Between both cultures, Leatherstocking had become a man entirely of himself and of the natural world. His attachment to nature, and his keen knowledge of it, is an especially crucial part of his character. The reverence for nature and its close identification with America's national self-image have long been in conflict with the drive to expand and develop the lands that are "unoccupied" or "unused." While the later figure of the cowboy, which evolved from Leatherstocking and characters like him, was generally associated with a celebratory support of continental expansion and the "winning of the West," Cooper's frontier hero is more complex. He is in certain senses himself a victim of that expansion, and he enables Cooper to present a more nuanced version of the moral conflicts entailed in the westward march. Through Leatherstocking, Cooper is able to show both the grandeur of western nature and the tragedy of its gradual demise.
THE ROMANTIC ANTIHERO
Such powerful heroes as the Emersonian poet and Cooper's Leatherstocking generate their opposites; one of the most compelling aspects of American Romanticism is its negative pole, the countercurrent of angst, terror, and chaotic violence that answers the heroic affirmations that define the aspirations of the new nation. That vision was given its most powerful and enduring articulation in the work of Herman Melville (1819891), whose Moby-Dick (1851) stands as one of the great works of the Romantic imagination. In the crazed Captain Ahab, who defines his wound as the wound of all humanity and his attacker as the source of all evil, Melville defines the frightening excesses to which the Romantic ego could be taken. Observed through the eyes of Ishmael, a perceptive young sailor with an orientation to philosophy and metaphysics, Ahab seems to embody a courageous and single-minded quest for truth, a central motif of Romantic thought. He searches for the whale that maimed him but through that search hopes to get behind the surface of material things, to strike through the "mask" of appearances, to confront the deeper metaphysical elements that define existence. Ahab's quest is clearly the sign of a wounded and unbalanced mind, as Ishmael recognizes. But Ishmael is also able to see a tragic nobility in Ahab's quest. Ahab embodies the relentless drive to know all, however dark it may be, and he exhibits a concomitant courage that allows him to shake his fist in defiance even at the most sacred of things because he has seen that the universe is flawed. A less dramatically defiant, but no less disturbing figure is Melville's Bartleby, the copyist clerk in "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853), who gradually withdraws from life, puzzling those around him by turning to the wall and refusing all work with the repeated and haunting comment, "I would prefer not to." Ahab resists the world with rage, Bartleby with a quiet withdrawal, but each signals his recognition of a world askew, in which ideals and aspirations cannot thrive.
DARK ROMANTICISM AND THE GOTHIC
Melville exemplifies the turn in Romanticism that inverts the hero and disavows the quest for unity and understanding, replacing it with a growing recognition of chaos and darkness. The terror implicit in Melville's dark vision is highlighted in Edgar Allan Poe's (1809849) haunting narratives, in which madness, gothic horror, and violent death take center stage and in which the precarious balance of the human psyche is exposed and explored. While his contemporaries Hawthorne, Thoreau, and even Melville might be considered moralist in their orientation, Poe was a psychologist, concerned less with the questions of the nature of right and wrong and more with the workings of the mind under extreme stress. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), widely considered to be one of Poe's masterpieces, the tale's narrator tells the terrifying story of his friend Roderick Usher's premature burial of his twin sister, Madeline. The horror of the burial is compounded by the glimpse Poe gives us of Roderick's gradual mental decay, as he hears the voice of his sister call him from her coffin. Roderick's mental suffering seems as acute as Madeline's, augmented as it is by guilt and by his own fear for his sanity. Roderick's fear is mirrored in a different way in the narrator, who struggles with his rational mind against the seemingly inescapable fact of supernatural forces at work in the Usher mansion and in the family curse. Poe's gothic tale of premature burial thus becomes a study of the psychology of mental derangement and of the rational mind's confrontation with events that seem to transcend rational explanation.
In other works, such as "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), and "The Black Cat" (1843), Poe employs the device of an insane narrator, whose madness slowly dawns on the reader as the story's details unfold. The gradual recognition that one is seeing the world through the eyes of insanity has a powerful impact. Poe relies on a similar experience in what is perhaps his best-known work, "The Raven" (1845), a poem in which the narrator gives a hypnotic account of his crushing realization of the finality of his lover's death. He begins as a seemingly rational man, but as the poem develops, he is tortured by grief and descends into a shrieking hysteria of denial before he collapses at the poem's end. It is Poe's testament to the mind's inability to bear the anguish of loss.
ROMANTICISM, SENTIMENTALISM, AND AMERICAN FICTION
Nineteenth-century fiction and poetry offered a different kind of heroism, and a different conception of the inner life of the self, in what has come to be known as the "sentimental" or "domestic" literature of the era. Largely a literature that was written and read by women, its importance was largely overlooked until scholars in the late twentieth century recognized its value as an expression of women's culture and women's identity in the Romantic age. "Sentimentalism" is the broad category that has come to represent the fiction and poetry that represent and validate the strong emotional experiences of women and men and draw the reader into sympathetic bonds with the heroines or heroes of fictional narratives. Aligned closely with the emotion-centered evangelical religion of the nineteenth century and with the rise of both female authorship and female readership, "sentimental" novels constituted an enormous proportion of the most popular and widely discussed works of the day. Sentimentalism was criticized by "realist" writers later in the century for an excessive use of emotion and dismissed by "modernist" writers of the twentieth century for its lack of objectivity. But sentimentalism has nevertheless persisted to the early twenty-first century as an important element of popular fiction and film. Many of the elements of plot, character, and theme that gave sentimental novels of the nineteenth century their wide appeal were translated directly into the Hollywood films of the early and mid-twentieth century. The historical importance of sentimentalism in the shaping of American literature and culture was belatedly recognized in the late twentieth century through the historical reclamation of women's writing and in the growing recognition of the importance of popular taste in the construction of literary history.
Important studies by scholars such as Nina Baym, Jane Tompkins, and Mary Kelley have shown the formative power of sentimental culture in nineteenth-century American culture, especially in its ability to empower women in a society dominated by men. Novels by such authors as Lydia Maria Child, Maria Susanna Cummins, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Susan Warner portrayed the familial and social struggles of women and the enormous inner strength and communal support that they could summon to meet those challenges. The situations and conflicts faced by the key characters in these novelsoverty, lack of meaningful outlets for intellectual and creative expression, unreturned love and desire, psychological cruelty and mistreatmentere drawn from the real experiences of women, and they undermine the general assumption that "sentimental" novels were somehow "unrealistic." Women readers saw themselves mirrored in these heroines and were thus provided with an important means through which to assess their own lives and circumstances.
While these novels were not explicitly "feminist" in a modern sense, they did address the lives of women and did provide their readers with an important creative stimulus and an empowering representation of alternative lives that were closely related to their own. The characters and situations they portrayed spoke to a wide readership of middle-class women in an era in which women's rights and protections were an emerging social issue but hardly an achieved social goal. In one of the most influential novels of the era, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896) translated sentimental concerns and values into the growing discourse of antislavery, making the slave Tom a powerful exemplar of the spiritual resolve and inner strength that marked the domestic heroine of the sentimental novel. Stowe's novel had an enormous impact on American culture, making powerful use of both evangelical Christianity and the sentimental tradition in the cause of antislavery. In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, which upset many in the North with its emphasis on the return of runaway slaves, Stowe's moving portrayal of Tom gave both reality and urgency to the slavery question.
Scholars disagree about the political implications of sentimental literature. Was its tendency essentially conservative, in that it provided its readers with a way of coping with, but not directly challenging, the existing social power structures that supported and legitimized the oppression of women and the legalized slavery of African Americans? Or did it provide both identity and a measure of strength and capability to women, using the sentiments or emotions as a means of teaching lessons in ethics and social justice? The question could never be answered in such starkly binary terms, but the linkages between sentimentalism and nineteenth-century reform movements such as antislavery provide support for a view of an engaged and committed sentimentalism, whose authors were determined to speak to the conditions and consciences of their readers. Sentimental fiction embodied a critical idealism that assumed the intrinsic worth of each individual and recognized his or her right to self-development and self-expression. This was a fundamental tenet of Romanticism and helps to account for its democratic and anti-authoritarian qualities. In the context of the mid-nineteenth century, this affirmation of individual dignity and self-worth had decidedly political implications.
The Romantic era in the United States was eclipsed by the rise of "realism" in the later nineteenth century, a movement that in many ways defined itself against both the sentimentality and the idealism of Romantic fiction. But Romanticism and sentimentalism, as literary and cultural modes, have persisted in American culture. It may be argued in fact that the United States continues to be a Romantic culture whose fundamental values and symbols were shaped in the first half of the nineteenth century.
See also Art; Borders; Democracy; Leatherstocking Tales; Moby-Dick; Philosophy; Publishers; Religion; The Romance; The Scarlet Letter; Sentimentalism; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin
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David M. Robinson