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Romanticism

(American History Through Literature)

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The Picnic, 1846. Painting by Thomas Cole. The pastoral setting of this painting is meant to represent an idealized middle landscape falling between an increasingly complex, industrialized civilization and raw wilderness. BROOKLYN MUSEUM OF AR The Picnic, Published by Gale Cengage © BROOKLYN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, USA/THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

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...

(The entire section is 5,110 words.)