American Renaissance Essay - Critical Essays

American Renaissance


American Renaissance

Also known as the New England Renaissance, the American Renaissance refers to a period of American literature from the 1830s to the end of the Civil War. The movement developed out of efforts by various American writers to formulate a distinctly American literature influenced by great works of European literature. Yet these novels, poems, and short stories utilized native dialect, history, landscape, and characters in order to explore uniquely American issues of the time, such as abolitionism, temperance, religious tolerance, scientific progress, the expanding western frontier, and the Native American situation.

Short fiction of the American Renaissance encompassed a broad range of subjects, settings, and styles—including Gothic romance, detective and horror stories, sea tales, historical fiction of colonial America, and progressive social problem tales, among others—all of which contributed to the first generation of great American literature. Critics consider the shorter work of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lydia Maria Child, as well as the posthumously published sensational thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, as representative of American Renaissance short fiction. These authors viewed the short story or novella as a viable form in which to produce parables that explored literary and political concerns. Critics regard some of the short fiction produced during the American Renaissance as some of the best American fiction ever written.

The American Renaissance was closely associated with an intellectual movement known as Transcendentalism, which is a philosophy or system of thought based on the idea that humans are essentially good, that humanity's deepest truths may be formulated through insight rather than logic, and that there is an essential unity to all of creation. Transcendentalism in the United States became popular among scholars, ministers, and intellectuals in and around Concord, Massachusetts. The American Transcendentalists advocated the development of a national culture and efforts at humanitarian social reform, as well as debate on such issues as the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, workers’ rights, educational innovation, and freedom of religion. The magazine The Dial, founded in 1840 by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, served as a forum for the publication of fiction, poetry, and essays by leading American Transcendentalists and writers of the American Renaissance, such as the poet Walt Whitman and the essayists Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Fuller, and Emerson.

Representative Works

Louisa May Alcott
Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1975
Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1976
A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1988
Freaks of Genius: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1991
Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1995

Lydia Maria Child
The Coronal: A Collection of Miscellaneous Pieces, Written at Various Times (sketches) 1832; enlarged edition published as The Mother's Story Book; or, Western Coronal, 1833
The Oasis [editor and contributor] (sketches) 1834
Fact and Fiction: A Collection of Stories (short stories) 1846; republished as The Children of Mt. Ida, and Other Stories, 1871
Autumnal Leaves: Tales and Sketches in Prose and Rhyme (sketches and short stories) 1857
Looking Toward Sunset [editor and contributor] (sketches) 1865

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Twice-Told Tales (short stories) 1837; also published as Twice-Told Tales [enlarged edition] 1842
Mosses from an Old Manse (short stories) 1846
The Snow Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (short stories) 1851

Herman Melville
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile (novella) 1855
The Piazza Tales (short stories) 1856
*Billy Budd, and Other Prose Pieces (novella and short stories) 1924
The Complete Short Stories of Herman Melville (short stories) 1949
Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) (novella) 1962

Edgar Allan Poe
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket (novella) 1838
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. 2 vols. (short stories) 1840
Prose Romances: The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man That Was Used Up (short stories) 1843
Tales (short stories) 1845

*Billy Budd was probably written between 1888 and 1891.

†This edition contains the first printing of a genetic text of this work.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Edward J. O'Brien (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Edward J. “Hawthorne and Melville” and “Poe.” In The Advance of the American Short Story, pp. 42-87. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1923.

[In the following essay, O'Brien discusses the contributions of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe to the development of the American short story.]

Few writers whose life was so uneventful as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne have left more biographical materials of their work for the critic. Of the many paradoxes which his life and writings reveal, none is more remarkable than the fact that a man whose shyness held him exceptionally aloof from men should have so frankly set down his dreams and hopes, his...

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Lawrence Buell (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Buell, Lawrence. “A Narrative Overview of New England's Literary Development.” In New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance, pp. 23-55. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Buell provides an overview of developments in New England literature between 1815 and 1865.]

Let us start by thinking of New England's literary climate at midcentury as affected most powerfully by a Unitarian-Whig orthodoxy, emanating chiefly from Boston, that was, however, enriched and complicated by a strong dissenting force that had arisen from within it and by considerable literary activity that was on the upswing in...

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Jeffrey Steele (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Steele, Jeffrey. “Materializing the Psyche: The Counterexample of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville.” In The Representation of the Self in the American Renaissance, pp. 134-71. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Steele argues that the fiction of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville provide a counterexample to the Transcendentalist writings of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman.]


It makes a great deal of difference whether or not the self is seen as incarnating transcendent spiritual power. If God—as Emerson believed—is found at the root of the psyche, one's attitude toward...

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David S. Reynolds (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Reynolds, David S. “Black Cats and Delirium Tremens: Temperance and the American Renaissance.” In The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, edited by David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal, pp. 22-59. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Reynolds asserts that the writers of American Renaissance literature presented a reconceptualization of the temperance movement in the antebellum era.]

America's literary flowering between 1835 and 1860, commonly known as the American Renaissance, owed much to the temperance movement that burgeoned in several forms during these years. No other single reform had so...

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Criticism: Major Authors Of Short Fiction

Tobin Siebers (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Siebers, Tobin. “Hawthorne's Appeal and Romanticism.” In The American Renaissance: New Dimensions, edited by Harry R. Garvin and Peter C. Carafiol, pp. 100-117. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983.

[In the following essay, Siebers maintains that Hawthorne utilizes the literary traditions of Gothicism and Romanticism in his stories in order to critique New England's history of witch trials.]

Great literature expresses history, that is, explicates it. Yet part of the literary expression of history may be contingent upon history's capacity to explicate itself. One domain in which this capacity reveals itself concerns the role of the...

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Gregory S. Jay (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Jay, Gregory S. “Poe: Writing and the Unconscious.” In The American Renaissance: New Dimensions, edited by Harry R. Garvin and Peter C. Carafiol, pp. 144-69. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983.

[In the following essay, Jay discusses the discourse of sexuality, philosophy, and textuality in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.]

Can the dispossession of consciousness to the profit of another home of meaning be understood as an act of reflection, as the first gesture of reappropriation?

—Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy

But human megalomania...

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Eugene Current-García (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Current-García, Eugene. “Poe's Short Fiction.” In The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History, pp. 59-83. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

[In the following essay, Current-García discusses major thematic and stylistic elements of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.]

When Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore on 7 October 1849 he had written and published, during the preceding twenty years, between seventy and eighty tales and sketches, some of which had been republished, with certain revisions, a number of times in different magazines. Many of his tales and sketches also reappeared in three collections during the last decade of his life: Tales of the...

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A. Robert Lee (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Lee, A. Robert. “Voices Off and On: Melville's Piazza and Other Stories.” In The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story, edited by A. Robert Lee, pp. 76-102. London: Vision, 1985.

[In the following essay, Lee discusses Melville's use of narrative voice to express multiple perspectives in his short stories.]

In summer, too, Canute-like, one is often reminded of the sea. For not only do long ground-swells roll the slanting grain, and little wavelets of the grass ripple over upon the low piazza, as their beach, and the blown down of dandelions is wafted like the spray, and the purple of the mountains is just the purple of the...

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Joseph Rosenblum (essay date spring 1986)

SOURCE: Rosenblum, Joseph. “A Cock Fight between Melville and Thoreau.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 2 (spring 1986): 159-67.

[In the following essay, Rosenblum argues that Melville's short story “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo” represents a critique of Thoreau's Transcendentalism as expressed in his volume A Week.]

In 1948 Egbert S. Oliver suggested that Melville's “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” was intended as a satire “on the buoyant transcendental principles which Melville heard echoing and re-echoing in the New England hills, especially those emanating from Concord, and, more particularly, a passage from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.1...

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John Downton Hazlett (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hazlett, John Downton. “Re-Reading ‘Rappucccini's Daughter’: Giovanni and the Seduction of the Transcendental Reader.” ESQ 35, no. 1 (1989): 43-68.

[In the following essay, Hazlett considers the themes of romance and seduction in relation to Transcendentalism in Hawthorne's short story “Rappucini's Daughter.”]

Not surprisingly, most interpretations of “Rappaccini's Daughter” have been launched on the assumption that Hawthorne was writing one of his usual “blasted allegories.” Hawthorne himself invites such a reading in the story's self-mocking, self-advertising preface by creating a fictional editor who introduces the work as the production...

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Douglas Tallack (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Tallack, Douglas. “Not Unoriginal: Herman Melville's Short Stories.” In The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story: Language, Form and Ideology, pp. 140-80. London: Routledge, 1993.

[In the following essay, Tallack examines Melville's use of narrative technique and point-of-view in “The Town-Ho's Story.”]

That would be too long a story …

—Herman Melville, ‘The Town-Ho's Story’


Shortly before its publication in 1851 as Chapter 54 of Moby-Dick, ‘The Town-Ho's Story’ appeared in an issue of Harper's Magazine...

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Bruce Mills (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Mills, Bruce. “Literary Excellence and Social Reform: Lydia Maria Child's Ultraisms for the 1840s.” In American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 3-16. New York: Garland, 1995.

[In the following essay, Mills analyzes Child's short stories in the context of her work as an abolitionist, social reformer, and transcendentalist.]

Fifteen months after retiring from a tumultuous two-year editorship of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Lydia Maria Child voiced astonishment over the literary success of Letters from New York (1845), a collection of journalistic transcendental essays first printed in...

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Further Reading


Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking, 2000, 161 p.

A concise biography of Herman Melville.

Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994, 804 p.

A biography of Lydia Maria Child, discussed in the cultural, historical, and political context of her time.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992, 348 p.

Biographical study of Edgar Allan Poe.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is...

(The entire section is 772 words.)