Romanticism in American Literature,
Getting to Know Thoreau & Poe
Within this paper will be an explanation of the ideals of Romantic writers in Early American Literature. We will also look at some aspects of Romanticism that were uniquely understood by the writers and artists in the United States. There will be a brief discussion of “bright” and “dark” Romantic writing and it is there that we will look at the lives, and one poem each, of Henry David Thoreau, a “bright” romantic writer and Edgar Allan Poe, a “dark” romantic writer.
Romanticism began in Germany sometime around 1770. From there it spread to the rest of Europe including England and then finally to the United States. In the late Eighteenth Century people’s ideas about themselves, their religion, their world and the art and literature in it were evolving rapidly. This was mostly due to a re-examination of priorities and beliefs because of constant new scientific discoveries and an enthusiastic embrace of the uniquely human abilities of storytelling using ones imagination and a kind of rejection of reason and logic. For the first time since the concepts of religion and rulers began to regulate the spirit and creative energy of humankind people looked more to nature and within to define themselves and their humanity rather than to their Churches or to their Kings.
The Romantic period of American Literature is from about 1830 to 1860 and it interestingly overlaps the period which is said to be Victorian (1830 to 1880) in the United States. Romantic writers believe in the natural goodness of man and also that what is special in a particular man should be highly valued. They indulge heavily in introspection and self-analysis. Some finding their deity within themselves while others found their religion in the beauty of nature. Nature was food for the soul that provided their inspiration and was a resource for their wisdom. Indeed, for some of the Romantic writers nature was their muse; however, others found their inspiration in the dark corners of their human desires.
As mentioned above the citizens of the United States were in a unique position to embrace the tenets of Romanticism through a political movement that focused more on the individual. By shedding the oppressive monarchy of old England they were well on their way to forming what Emerson called “a Nation of men” who were following Jacksonian democracy. “By most historical accounts, (President Andrew) Jackson is seen as largely responsible for effecting this political and cultural transformation of the United States from a republic, governed by an elect few, to a democracy. Jackson persuaded Americans that sovereign power resided in them—that they would control the governing process by deciding questions of constitutionality, law, and representation through the ballot box. Many writers, philosophers, and activists were also convinced by Jackson's rhetoric of democracy, believing that more concern for the rights of common individuals would yield a more inclusive political and cultural environment receptive to the ideals of a younger generation of Americans,” (Didion).
One can easily see why the material that writers in the United States were putting out fell into line with the musings, literature and poetry of Romantic writers all over the world. By being exposed to the political aspects of the culture here they were in a position where their art reflected the lives of their patrons. Why, though, were some of the writings about the nature all around us and bright beauty found within it and some of it was about the dark nature of mankind and the sorrow found there?
Bright Romantics used a merging of science and nature to allow both to work together. Meanwhile they would put emphasis on the individual’s ability to take themselves out of society to live in nature away from the rat race. A good example of a bright Romantic writer would be Henry David Thoreau. He is famous for having...