Study Guide

American Romanticism Characteristics

  • The Novel

    One big difference between American Romanticism and the Romanticism that developed on the other side of the pond (in Britain) is that the novel was kind of a big deal in American Romanticism. In British Romanticism, it wasn't.

    The most important British Romantic writers were poets—like William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Byron.

    And while the Americans also have their big poets, like Walt Whitman, a number of the most important American Romantic writers were novelists, most notably Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. So one thing that distinguishes American Romanticism from British Romanticism is how important the novel became in the American Romantic movement.

    Chew On This

    Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is one of the most important novels to come out of American Romanticism. Check out the book's many themes—ranging from fate and free will to man and the natural world.

    Man's relationship to the natural world is also a big theme in Melville's epic novel Moby-Dick.

  • Symbolism

    The American Romantics have given us some of the greatest symbols in all of American literature. These include the infamous white whale in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and the red letter "A" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter. These symbols are still kicking around in the 21st century.

    The American Romantics use symbolism to hint at ideas and emotions that are beyond ordinary language, or beyond the reach of everyday expression. These guys and gals were very much into expressing the "hidden truths" that lay beneath the surface of our rational minds and thought processes. And, judging from the examples above, they were also super into color-coding.

    Chew On This

    So how do American Romantic writers use symbolism? In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the ocean becomes a symbol for the human soul.

    The letter "A," or the "scarlet letter," is the central symbol in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Psst: it's not a symbol you want to be saddled with.

  • Formal Experimentation

    The American Romantics were a pretty nonconformist bunch. They were individualists, after all. They were rebels with a cause.

    For this reason, their writing often breaks literary conventions. If we take Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, for instance, we'll find that it is many things all at once. It's a novel, but it's also a whaling manual (blegh—those whaling chapters are the hardest) and a philosophical tract. The book, in other words, isn't easy to classify in terms of genre… though it's usually discussed as a novel.

    Likewise, Walt Whitman's poetry broke many poetic conventions of the time. Walt Whitman, for example, developed "free verse," a style of writing poetry that didn't rely on meter or rhyme. For the time, this sort of poetic experimentation was pre-tty radical.

    Chew On This

    Check out Walt Whitman's "free verse" in action in these quotations from his poem "Song of Myself."

    Delve into this analysis of genre in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to understand how Melville mixes it all up in the novel

  • Nature

    America is the land of epic landscapes: prairies, volcanoes, Rocky Mountains, canyons. We've got it all over here in America. Is it any wonder, then, that nature is such a huge theme in American Romantic literature? C'mon: just look at these red rocks. They make us want to write a few poems.

    The American Romantics looked to nature for inspiration, for escape from society, and as a place where their individuality could let its freak flag fly. The Romantics believed that in nature we could be free in a way that we couldn't be in society, where rules and conventions limit our individuality.

    The American Romantics' love of nature, of course, echoes the love of nature we'll find in Romantic literature in Europe. Like their European counterparts, the American Romantics venerated nature, wrote about it, and found lots of inspiration in it. Unlike Europe, however, America has freaky bison and nutso deserts.

    Chew On This

    In Walden, Henry David Thoreau tells the story of living alone in a cabin in the woods. But he wasn't lonely out there all on his own. Why? Because he had nature to keep him company.

    In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the narrator is awestruck by the sight of whale skeletons, and other (less morbid) natural phenomena.

  • Individualism

    We've all heard this stereotype about Americans: they're individualistic, they're all wrapped up in themselves, they're all about me, me, me (and cheeseburgers). This can be a good or a bad thing, of course (we mean individualism—cheeseburgers are always a good thing).

    Being all wrapped up in ourselves can mean we're selfish and egotistical. True facts.

    But being all wrapped up in ourselves can also be a good thing: it can mean being true to our identity and essential nature. The American Romantics valued this second sense of individualism. These writers hated the "herd mentality." They believed that we should listen really hard to our deep, inner selves, and be true to them. Everyone's going off to get jobs on Wall Street? And we want to paint pictures instead? Go for painting pictures. Everyone's settling down with their spouses and kids in the suburbs, and we want to travel around the world? Go for traveling around the world.

    In other words, the American Romantics were non-conformists. And in fact, the American love of individualism can be traced back to them. Their writing dwells on, and deals with, individuals who go against the grain, who think for themselves, and who stay true to themselves.

    Chew On This

    In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson challenges us to stay true to ourselves.

    Why does Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, admire whales so much? Because they can be great examples for us humans on how to maintain our individuality and independence.

  • Emotion

    The American Romantics were an emotional bunch. Ok—maybe they didn't spend all day weeping into a handkerchief and eating Phish Food. But they believed deeply in the power and importance of emotion. People feel things, and even if what we feel isn't rational, or doesn't make sense, it affects how we view the world.

    The American Romantics believed that our emotions were also a gateway to knowledge. We not only know things by using our brains, we know things by using our hearts, maaan. Our emotions allow us a glimpse into the meaning of things: if we are moved by a beautiful sunset, then we (according to the pious American Romantics) have a better understanding of God and the way that God works in nature.

    The American Romantics' preoccupation with emotion also parallels the emphasis on emotion we'll find in European Romanticism. Romantics on both sides of the Atlantic valued feeling above thought, sentiment above rationality. They had all the feels.

    Chew On This

    Roger Chillingworth in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is one angry guy. Is it any wonder that his emotions motivate his need for revenge? Check out these quotations from the novel to see how just how emotionally chilling Chillingworth gets.

    According to Henry David Thoreau, most of us are miserable. In order to change our emotions, we must change our conditions. Have a look at this quotation from Thoreau's book Walden.

  • Imagination

    We've mentioned that the American Romantics were really into individualism. Well, they also happened to be really into the imagination. And that's because they believed that the imagination is an expression of individual identity. If five of us were instructed to imagine a tree, for example, we would all imagine it differently, because we're five different people.

    Yup—we really are special, individual snowflakes.

    Not only did the American Romantics believe that the imagination expresses our individuality, they also believed that our imagination allows us to make insights that we couldn't arrive at through "rational" means. Our imagination, like our emotions, allows us access into a realm of knowledge that is beyond reason or rationality.

    Chew On This

    Why is the imagination so important to the American Romantics? Because it can take us beyond ourselves. Check out Emily Dickinson's "There is No Frigate Like a Book," which deals with how books enrich our imagination.

    When Ishmael in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick looks at whale bones, he doesn't just see whale bones. His imagination takes him back right to the very beginning of the world.

  • The American Revolution

    Remember the American Revolution? Yeah, that was a pretty big deal. The thirteen American colonies broke away from Britain, the "mother country," because they were peeved about being taxed without having political representation.

    Writing in the decades after the Revolutionary War (which took place between 1775-1783), the American Romantics lived in an optimistic age, at a time when the new nation was just finding its feet. They were inspired by the ideals of the Revolution, and they had high hopes for the new nation. This was that happy, rosy time before the Civil War dashed everyone's faith in humanity to smithereens.

    Chew On This

    Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing" is a hymn to the new American nation.

    Henry David Thoreau felt that slavery contradicted American Revolutionary ideals (huh—you think?). He speaks about slavery in his book Walden.

  • Democracy and Freedom

    Democracy became a huge political value in American culture and identity following the American Revolution. And it's a huge deal in American Romantic writing.

    The American Romantics valorized the ideals of democracy and freedom—the ideals on which the American nation was built, after all. These guys and gals were all about equality, justice, and freedom for all. These ideals influenced their outlook and were also central themes in their writing.

    Chew On This

    Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" reflects a democratic vision in which everyone has an equal role to play in society. Dive into these lines from the poem here.

    In the poem "A Nation's Strength," Ralph Waldo Emerson argues that what makes a nation strong isn't just wealth. What really matters is the wealth of its ideals and principles. Delve into this excerpt from the poem here.

  • The Frontier

    For the American Romantics, the frontier was kind of a big deal. Remember, they were living at a time when the country was expanding westward. Many Americans were moving out to those big prairies in the Midwest and beyond.

    The reason the frontier was so important to American Romantic writers is because it represented possibility and escape. As we've already mentioned, freedom and individualism are big themes in American Romantic literature. And the frontier, as a space of exploration, embodied those ideals for the Romantics.

    Chew On This

    James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie is set on the western frontier. Have a look at the beginning of the book, which focuses on America's westward expansion.

    Walt Whitman's vision of America in his poem "Song of Myself" is partly inspired by the American frontier. Delve into an analysis of Whitman's vision of America here.