A Primer of American Romanticism

Let me begin by saying that fandoms are wonderful things. My Twitter followers fall into three categories: People I know IRL (very few), writers (many), and other fans of James Purefoy (the real reason – along with Taylor Swift – I joined Twitter).

Purefoy is most recently known for depicting Joe Carroll on The Following (but will always be Marc Antony of HBO’s Rome in my heart). Now, I have only seen season 1 of The Following, and THAT episode of season 3. I was hoping it would be far more literary that it has been so far, but I have been left wanting (I still have hopes for season 2, though). This is sad, because there are only so many directions a plot like this could go before seeming contrived – which the writers and Purefoy recently admitted (and props to them for doing so!).

Joe Carroll is an English professor at a New England college. He specializes in American Romanticism. He idolizes Edgar Allan Poe. In the first episode, his nemesis, our protagonist, refers to him as “always the Romantic.”

The American Literature teacher within me scoffed. Yes, yes, Romanticism – but there’s so much more depth than that! You have the strict Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the Gothic writers, and then there’s the fringe-y writers who aren’t quite Realists, but don’t fit comfortably in the scope of Romanticism.

So, here is a mini-lesson (over-simplified by necessity) in the American Romantic movement. *Grabs Norton Anthology, just in case, and clears throat*

American Romanticism developed as a movement following the American Revolution. It bucked the so-called “Age of Reason” movement that relied on logic and mental prowess, preferring the emotional and intuitive. Other contrasts include natural settings over cities, vague supernatural entities over Deism or atheism, the ideal over the practical or empirical, the dramatic over the realistic, romanticized versions of the past over the present. The Romantics embodied the concept that hope springs eternal – especially after their unexpected victory against Britain. The United States were now new-born, and anything was possible. Romanticism, no matter which facet of the movement, used a variety of poetic forms and literary devices, especially personification (describing inanimate things as if they were alive and had intentions) and apostrophe (speaking directly to inanimate things, such as the wind or flowers).

(Romanticism also includes a large amount of emancipation literature, such as slave narratives, as well as suffragist literature, such as Margaret Fuller. However, for my purposes, I am going to stick to fiction and poetry.)

Strict Romantics (I’m calling them that for lack of a better term) include William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. Their focus was on the common and/or low-born man, and how they could either rise to the heights of heroism, or how everyday duties can seem heroic.

So shalt thou rest — and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men–
The youth in life’s fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man–
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

“Thanatopsis” – Bryant (excerpt)

Romanticism is often imagined as an umbrella, arching over several other movements. Most notable among these are Transcendentalism and Gothic. Although they share the umbrella, they contrast one another bitterly – and I do mean bitterly.

Transcendentalism posited that mankind was born naturally good at heart, and when pressed, would respond in a way that reflects this goodness. Transcendentalists believed that all men were connected on a spiritual level, similar to the teachings of Hinduism. The writers, most prominently Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, wrote extensively on ways that one might transcend back to the state of natural goodness, through nature and simplicity.

If the red slayer think he slays,
      Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
      I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
      Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
      And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
      When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
      I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
      And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
      Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
   “Brahma” – Emerson

The American Gothic writers were also known as Anti-Transcendentalists, and it is very easy to see why: writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about characters, common and high-born, who were isolated psychologically (and often physically). They believed that it did not take much to tilt mankind into madness, selfishness, and destruction. In nature, where the Transcendentalists saw dancing stars, the Gothic writers saw darkness closing in.

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid, and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

“The Conqueror Worm” – Poe (excerpt)

(Note: American Gothic should not be confused with Southern Gothic – Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, et al. – which rose after the Civil War and can be described as Mark Twain meets Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

There are two writers that stand at the edge of the umbrella of Romanticism, but don’t quite fit under it: Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Ideologically (arguably), they are both Romantics. However, their works put them on the fringes of the movement. Dickinson weaves supernatural concepts and imagery in her poetry, but it’s very confessional, very personal. Her work does not display heroism or transcendence, but daily reflections or impressions.

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
Emily Dickinson

On the other hand, Whitman seems to hold his head under the umbrella of Romanticism – depicting the heroic nature of the common man – while the rest of him stands out in the cold rains of Realism. He does not hide that man can often be brutal, without much provocation.  He celebrates the urban as well as the rural, realistic, yet still spiritual. (He also made little qualms writing about his homosexual encounters – a delicious read.)

Lo, body and soul — this land,
My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships,
The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn.

Lo, the most excellent sun so calm and haughty,
The violet and purple morn with just-felt breezes,
The gentle soft-born measureless light,
The miracle spreading bathing all, the fulfill’d noon,
The coming eve delicious, the welcome night and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.

Walt Whitman

The Romantic Movement died, more or less, with the American Civil War. The brutality and alienating nature of the war, and the reasons the war began, gave way to Realism, which stripped literature of the supernatural, rational thinking, emotional feeling, or any predisposition man might have toward good or evil. Characters were left with their five senses, their history, and knee-jerk reactions to the forces that acted upon them (fight or flight).

Now that I find myself at the end of this lesson, I am disappointed. I feel like I did not say everything that should be said in a basic lesson. I highly recommend, however, if you are interested, to ask questions, or do some research – and lots of reading!

Please keep in mind, if you were forced to – or attempted to – read some of this material when you were in school, adult readers approach a text in a completely different way than students. It will not be the same poem, book, or play that you read in high school, I promise.

Suggested authors (All of these links are Project Gutenberg): William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.

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