In the Emerson Society Quarterly, James E. Miller Jr. writes, “America has traditionally incarnated the romantic in almost every sense,” and that “The American adventure, the great democratic experiment . . . are the essence of Romanticism.” Romanticism in America flourished between 1812 and the years of the Civil War. Like English Romanticism, its writers emphasized the dignity and freedom of the individual; rebellion against restrictions, whether political, cultural, or social; the importance of emotion over intellect; and the need for a personal relationship with God and the natural world.
However, American Romanticism differed from the English movement because it was shaped by factors unique to American history, culture, and geography. Americans, unlike the English, lived in a democratic, more egalitarian society in which the ordinary individual had political power and was free from the dictates of a king or an entrenched upper class of nobles. In addition, rebellion and freedom of all kinds was encouraged by the presence of an apparently limitless supply of land; if people felt restricted, they would simply move farther west, where there was freedom and opportunity. In small, insular England, this feeling of personal freedom and the lure of “the open road” was nonexistent.
Because the United States was a new country with an extremely diverse population, it did not have an established set of literary forms, traditions, and masters. This lack of a creative structure or ceiling encouraged writers to experiment with new forms, genres, and styles. Americans were proud of their country and its freedoms, felt a certain rivalry with Britain, and wanted to prove that they, like the British, could create works of lasting merit that nevertheless reflected the uniqueness of the American character. Thus, American romantic writers focused on American settings and themes. In addition, the vast and largely unspoiled beauty of the American landscape provided perfect material for romantic musings on nature and spirituality.
Writers considered part of the American romantic movement include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. According to Mark Bevir in the English Historical Review, these writers differed from their British counterparts in their “close relationship to both Unitarianism and frontier individualism.”
Unitarians opposed the concept of a divine Trinity, and believed that God had a single personality or manifestation. They rejected the concepts of damnation and eternal hell, the innate sinfulness of humanity, and the belief that Jesus had atoned for human sins. Bevir notes these beliefs “readily opened the way to a belief in a single spiritual deity existing within nature, rather than a transcendent God standing outside nature.” He comments that although English romantics believed nature could inspire or renew people, American romantics typically believed God and nature were one, and that God’s purpose was achieved through the action of natural forces.
Many romantics in England and America looked to the past for inspiration. In England, Coleridge believed that a national church could provide stability and balance against the onward forces of social progress, and art critic John Ruskin was interested in reviving the medieval importance of trade guilds and craft skills. However, American romantics such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were inspired by the democratic ideals of United States Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and believed the birth and growth of America as a democratic state was part of a divine plan for the creation of a perfected nation. American romantics emphasized material simplicity, living close to nature, and the honest manual labor of the self-sufficient farmer and frontier dweller. Thoreau—perhaps the greatest proponent of the simple, self-sufficient life—lived alone in a hut by Walden Pond, trying to live so simply that he needed very little, and growing or making whatever he absolutely could not do without.
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