Study Guide

American Romanticism Top Authors

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  • Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man of many talents. He wrote essays and poetry, and he was associated not only with American Romanticism but also with its sister movement, Transcendentalism. Way to get around, Emerson.

    In his work, you'll find a huge emphasis on individualism, which is one of the central themes of American Romanticism. He played a big part in elaborating individualist ideals such as self-reliance. His ideas influenced also other important American Romantics, including Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

    Essays: First Series (1841)

    Emerson was really big on writing essays. He used the essay form to communicate his ideas to a wide audience, and through these essays he became a very influential figure in public life. His eloquence is on full display in this first book.

    We find many of Emerson's important essays in this book, including "Self-Reliance," which lays out why we should all, you know, rely on ourselves. "I do what I want" was Emerson's catchphrase.

    "The Rhodora" (1847)

    Although Emerson is better known as an essayist than a poet, he also wrote important works of poetry. Seriously, what didn't this guy do? The themes of his poetry echo those in the work of other American Romantics.

    "The Rhodora" is not only a poem about a flower; it's a poem about the beauty and power of nature. Nature, of course, is a huge theme in American Romantic literature—those guys couldn't get enough of the big, wide, natural world. Emerson's poem reflects the American Romantics' obsession with the natural world.

    Chew On This

    Individualism, one of the big themes of American Romanticism, was a fav topic of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Check out Emerson's statement on the importance of individualism in his essay "Self-Reliance."

    In "Nature," Ralph Waldo Emerson reflects on the importance of engaging with nature. Check out this quotation about the stars.

  • Henry David Thoreau

    Henry David Thoreau lived a pretty extraordinary life. At one point he spent two years living almost in complete solitude in a cabin in the woods in Massachusetts that he'd built himself. Take that, lumbersexuals. He wanted to escape society and to see what it really felt like to live alone and be completely independent.

    Thoreau, like Emerson, wrote essays, poetry, and journalism. He was an abolitionist who often wrote about the evils of slavery. He believed we should all stand up to our governments if they're not doing the right thing. Um, yeah: he's a cool guy.

    Walden (1854)

    Thoreau's book Walden is a reflection on his two years living in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. The guy just took off to live in the middle of nowhere, in a cabin that he'd built.

    The book embodies many American Romantic themes: Thoreau talks about nature, the importance of staying true to our own individuality, and the necessity of self-reliance. A pond in the middle of the woods does sound like a pretty romantic getaway, after all… but it's also a pretty Romantic getaway.

    "Resistance to Civil Government" (or "Civil Disobedience") (1849)

    In this famous essay, Thoreau argues that we shouldn't always be obedient to our governments. After all, governments aren't always right. What if our government starts an unjust war? Or what if it sanctions slavery (like the American government did until Lincoln came along and abolished slavery)?

    Thoreau's essay is so famous because it was one of the earliest American writings to elaborate the idea of "civil disobedience." This idea, of course, became huge during the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., more than a hundred years later.

    In its emphasis on being true to our conscience, as opposed to our government, the essay reflects the American Romantic ideal of individualism. We should always listen to ourselves first, before we listen to anyone else. Except your good buddy Shmoop: you should always listen to us.

    Chew On This

    In "Resistance to Civil Government" (also known as "Civil Disobedience"), Henry David Thoreau suggests that we must be true to the ideals of democracy and freedom—even if that means disobeying our own government. Have a look at this quotation from the essay.

    Thoreau's Walden is full of many beautiful descriptions of nature—a big theme in American Romantic writing. Dive into Thoreau's description of a lake here.

  • Walt Whitman

    Walt Whitman is the most important poet of the American Romantic movement. He's credited with developing a style of poetry that was distinctly American and democratic in its outlook. He wrote in simple language, so that regular folks could access his poetry easily. Sounds pretty good to us.

    Whitman's poetry dwells on many of the themes that were important in American Romanticism. We'll find big doses of nature in his work, as well as reflections on freedom and democracy, and an emphasis on individualism and the imagination. He's the Poet Laureate of Romanticism.

    Leaves of Grass (1855, First Edition)

    Leaves Of Grass is Whitman's magnum opus. It's a collection of poetry that he worked on and revised over a period of thirty years, publishing various editions of it along the way. And it's awesome.

    The poems are written in Whitman's signature style. The language is simple, and the poems are often composed in "free verse." Whitman didn't believe in sticking to poetic conventions, so his poetry wasn't written according to metrical conventions. He also didn't use rhyme. His poetic experimentation was pretty radical for the time. 

    Democratic Vistas (1871)

    Democratic Vistas is a prose work by Whitman written toward the end of his life. In it, he reflects on American identity and the meaning of America democracy.

    The book's preoccupation with questions of democracy and freedom is right in line with American Romanticism's emphasis on these issues. But it's a long and very complicated book. We think Walt is better at writing poetry.

    Chew On This

    According to Walt Whitman in "Song of Myself," we must all trust each other in order for American democracy to work. Have a look at these quotations from the poem here.

    Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who influenced him, Walt Whitman was big on individualism and self-reliance, as reflected in these quotations from "Song of Myself."

  • Herman Melville

    Thanks to Herman Melville, we have the great (and we mean huge—this novel is important and fat) American epic Moby-Dick. Melville is a huge part of the American Romantic movement because his works engage with American Romanticism's big topics: nature, individualism, the imagination, and freedom. Oh, and whales. Hmm, we guess that falls under the umbrella of "nature," huh?

    Melville is known for his novels. Along with Nathaniel Hawthorne (see elsewhere in this section), he developed the novel form (how's that for innovation?!) and made it an important genre within the American Romantic movement.

    Moby Dick (1851)

    Moby Dick tells the story of sailors on a whaling ship. At the center of the story is Captain Ahab, the crotchety one-legged captain who is on a quest to track down and kill a white metaphor, er, whale. Ahab seeks vengeance on Moby Dick, the huge, scary, albino whale that chewed his leg off.

    In Melville's novel, you'll find some of the most beautiful descriptions of the natural world, and especially the ocean, to come out of American Romanticism. As a bonus, you'll also learn a whole lot about whaling… maybe even more than you ever wanted to know.

    Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846)

    Melville's first published novel was based on his own experience of being stranded on a remote island in the South Pacific in 1842. Way to live a cooler life than any of us, Melville.

    It was also one of his most successful works, and during Melville's lifetime did much better than his later novel Moby-Dick, which only gained a wide readership after Melville's death.

    On one level, this is just an adventure story set in a far-away land. But the novel also reflects themes that would become central to Melville's later writing. You'll find wonderful descriptions of the island's natural landscape, and the theme of exploration—which would preoccupy Melville for the rest of his writing career—is already on full display in this first novel.

    Chew On This

    Herman Melville uses symbolism in masterful ways. The white whale is a central symbol in his novel Moby-Dick

    Emotions are also central to Melville's novel Moby-Dick. Captain Ahab, who wants to kill the white w hale, is a pretty emotional guy. We can see it in his tirade against the white whale in this quotation from the novel

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Nathaniel Hawthorne is another American Romantic writer who is known for his fiction. Along with Melville, he helped make the novel genre a big part of the American Romantic tradition.

    Hawthorne, who came from New England, often set his fictional works in that region. His works are notable for their psychological complexity, for their emphasis on emotion, and for being ol' standbys in high school English classrooms. But there's a reason for that, Shmoopers: he's uber-important. His novels are also often set in the early days of America: when the Puritans first landed and established colonies in places like Boston.

    The Scarlet Letter (1850)

    This book is brought to you by the letter AThe Scarlet Letter, set in the early days of the settlement of Boston when America was still a new colony, tells the tale of Hester Prynne. The uptight Puritans who live in the town are scandalized when Hester's affair with a local man leads to her (oops) pregnancy. She's condemned to wear a scarlet letter—the letter "A" for "adulteress"—as punishment for the affair.

    The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne's most famous novel. Not only does it reflect the characteristic American Romantic emphasis on emotion and passion, it also deals with questions of freedom, morality, and justice.

    The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

    The House of the Seven Gables, like The Scarlet Letter, is a historical novel. It tells the story of the Pyncheon family. The Pyncheons are plagued by a curse because of Colonel Pyncheon, a forbear who built the family house by sacrificing the life of an innocent man. Pro-tip: to avoid curses, make sure innocent men don't die so you can get your dream home.

    This novel reflects Hawthorne's preoccupation with early Puritan America, and in it we find him grappling with questions of freedom and justice. Hawthorne's characters in this book—like his characters in his other works—are motivated by strong emotions, which are a central driving force in this plot. They feel all the feels.

    Chew On This

    The Pyncheons, the family at the center of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, are too proud for their own good. Pride is one of the central emotions that the novel engages with. Have a look at these quotations about the Pyncheons here.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter critiques the undemocratic values of early Puritan America. Thank goodness the country moved on from those times (and that fashion). Check out Hawthorne's treatment of the themes of justice, judgment, and democracy here.

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