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Romanticism in American Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1445 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Kathryn Pierce

American Literature, section 43

Essay #3

Since the time of Socrates it has been widely said that art imitates life. In the case of literature, however, it would be more accurate to say that art reflects life. The writings of both the Romantics and the Realists were an outgrowth of life in 19th century America and both reflected that life through style, approach, and subject matter.

American Romanticism was the first truly American literary movement and it included a group of authors who wrote and published between 1820 and 1860. Among the best-known are: …..

Romanticism first emerged as a reaction to Enlightenment ideas. Romantic writers rebelled against the idea that reason was the best tool for discovering truth. Instead, they deliberately delved into feeling, imagination, fantasy, and belief. Their style took advantage of personal freedom and spontaneity in order to break through the wall separating the author and the reader, and gave the author the freedom to comment on the events in the story in novel ways.

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The uniquely American history and landscape had a profound influence on the Romanticists. Many were writing not long after the American Revolution and/or the War of 1812, and these historical events were reflected in their preoccupation with democracy and freedom. (insert comment on authors and their works) This was a time of growth and expansion and their idealism fueled high hopes for the infant nation. The country was moving westward into great swaths of newly acquired territory. The frontier, both as a place and a concept, became an important representation of the American spirit. The country was filled with thousands of miles of untamed wilderness that held the promise of a new life filled with adventure. (insert comment on authors and their works)

While American Romanticism was a new attitude toward nature, often stressing it over culture, it was also a new attitude toward people, promoting the solitary individual standing against society. Individualism is a quintessential American value and was central to their writings which urged people to follow their inner knowing regardless of the pressure to conform. (insert comment on authors, Emerson & Thoreau, others, and their works).   Romanticists believed that emotions shape people’s experience and their knowledge of the world. They were an important part of an individual’s identity. Heartbreak, happiness, awe, and rage, and many other emotions were very important in American Romantic literature. (insert comment on authors, Emerson & Thoreau, others, and their works)

Stylistically, the American Romantics liked to experiment with form and the novel became an important vehicle for expression (unlike the European Romantics who focused mainly on poetry). They also made clever use of symbols to allude to truths or knowledge that exist beyond rationality. Unusual, often supernatural, characters and forces act in romantic stories. Nature was a particularly important theme, expressed in almost obsessive preoccupation with beautiful flowers, gigantic trees, towering mountains, and brilliant sunsets.  (insert Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau)

Other themes that figured prominently were  an impulse toward reform (temperance, women’s rights, abolition of slavery); a concern with the impact of new technology (the locomotive, for example); an idealization of women (Poe’s Anabel Lee, for example); and a fascination with death and the supernatural (Hawthorne, Poe).

Despite these lofty ideals, the new nation faced challenges. Principle among these issues was the expanding population base due to immigration, the role of government, the treatment of Native Americans, and the expansion or limitation of slavery. At the same time, advances in science and philosophy brought changes in thinking. There were two occurrences that propelled the transition from romanticism to realism: the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War. Both of these contributed to a change in emphasis in literary expression.

Change was already coming. The Realist movement began as early as the 1830’s, but the line of demarcation was the onset of war. In just four years, this war became the most disruptive and transformative event in American history. It was out of this turmoil that the movement grew and reached a prominence that continued until around the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1850s, the ideals that were driving the nation toward war were expressed in literature, but many writers became uncomfortable with this kind of moral certitude even though they had contributed to creating it. The war, with its observable gap between higher purpose and brutal reality, began to change what they believed and how and what they wrote.

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Realism was a reaction to and a rejection of Romanticism. In her book, Social Construction of American Realism, Amy Kaplan called realism a “strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change”. Realism was about recreating life in literature. Realists were concerned with the here and now, and their work was centered in their own time and dealt with everyday events and ordinary people, and with current socio-political issues.

Stylistically, the author was separate from the world of the story and acted as an objective observer/narrator. Gone was the elaborate use of figurative language. Realism presented a basic view of life and a real outlook on the world  that refused to idealize or flatter the subject. Even when the subject matter was complex, their stories used straightforward, simple language that described common scenes and experiences.

American Realists chose to show their readers rather than must tell them. They made their readers face reality as it happened in the real world instead of in the make-believe world of fantasy. (insert comment on authors and their works) . They often explored the qualities that formed a person’s character and examined how those qualities motivated their behavior. To accomplish this they used omniscient narrators who could jump from the mind of one character to the mind of another, and could move instantly from one location to another. For the most part, they depicted people that were in charge of their own destiny. Characters were superior to their circumstances even though it was the circumstances that created the plot. (insert comment on authors and their works) .  Their characters were dynamic and well-rounded and drove the story forward. The Realists also incorporated empirically verifiable causality into their stories and often used foreshadowing. At times the outcomes were left open.

The Realists also used their stories to critique the social and political structures that governed people’s lives. From issues like gender inequality and racial bias to poverty, class mobility, and government power, their stories contained a strong emphasis on personal morality, particularly as it played out between the individual and society. (insert comment on authors and their works)   Theirs was a sweeping view of a city, a nation, or a society and, like the Romantics, it was supported by the format of the novel.

The transition from Romanticism to Realism was a natural progression. Just as the United States grew and changed so did the literature its writers produced. Romanticism grew out of the new-found expression of national character and focused on plot, hyperbole, metaphor and feeling. The nation changed, however. Realism grew out of these societal changes and focused on characters, details, objectivity and separation of author and narrator. Realism expressed a message that depicted situations realistically, whereas romanticism illustrated messages by using fiction. Both are informative reflections of American life and culture.

Works Cited

Campbell, Donna M. “Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890”. Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. 07 Sept 2015. Web. 24 Mar 2017. http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/realism.htm

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Realism Top 10 List.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. http://www.shmoop.com/realism/top-ten.html

Shmoop Editorial Team. “American Romanticism Top 10 List.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. http://www.shmoop.com/american-romanticism/top-ten.html


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