Literary Context

The Romantic movement in Britain, Europe, and America provided the broad literary background for the rise of Transcendentalism. Romanticism permeated American literature between 1820 and the end of the Civil War in 1865. It was expressed not only in the writings of the Transcendentalists, but also by their literary contemporaries — James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman — who worked in a variety of genres. Romanticism informed the literature of the period and also gave direction to developments in art, architecture, and music. The landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, for example, and of Washington Allston (1779–1843) — whose work defined art for Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, and others among the Transcendentalists — grew out of European Romanticism.

Romanticism (or "Romanticisms," as some literary scholars have preferred to term the multiplicity of expressions of the movement) emerged in England and Germany in the late eighteenth century. Influenced by the intuitive philosophy of Kant, Romantic writers looked at literature as an outpouring of the inner spirit, and saw imagination as the means of summoning this spirit. They reacted against classical formalism and symmetry, against rationalism, and against other restrictions on individual expression and imagination. Romantic writers celebrated the freedom of the individual, whom they placed at the center of life and art, and the expression of personal emotion. Perceiving physical objects as representative of spiritual, moral, and intellectual reality, Romantic writers relied heavily on symbolism and allegory. Romantic literature displayed a number of recurrent motifs: the theme of the individual in rebellion; the symbolic interpretation of the historic past; subjects from myth and folklore; the glorification of nature; faraway settings; sentimentalism; the nobility of the uncivilized man (the Native American, for example); admiration for the simple life; the elevation of the common man; a fascination with Gothic themes, with the supernatural and mysterious, with introspection, melancholy, and horror; and a humanitarian political and social outlook. The American experience provided much raw material suited to Romantic interpretation.

British Romantic authors William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle greatly influenced the New England Transcendentalists. Poets Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Coleridge (1772–1834) together wrote Lyrical Ballads, the first edition of which was issued in 1798. In these poems, Wordsworth and Coleridge presented personal feeling, employed language that reflected the spoken rather than the stylized written word, and focused on both the supernatural and ordinary experience. In his Biographia Literaria (1817) and his Aids to Reflection (1825), Coleridge presented the Kantian distinction between knowledge gained through the senses ("Understanding") and that grasped intuitively ("Reason") and discussed German philosophy. Carlyle (1795–1881) impressed the Transcendentalists with his essays on German literature and philosophy, his translations from Goethe, his Sartor Resartus (1836), The French Revolution (1837), and On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841). Some of the Transcendentalists had the opportunity to meet Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. Emerson met all three of them on his first trip abroad (1832–1833). The Transcendentalists also read German and French Romantic authors, among them Goethe, Richter, Schlegel, Cousin, Chateaubriand, and Madame de Stäel.

American Romanticismwas powerfully expressed with the anonymous publication of Emerson's Nature in 1836. This manifesto of Transcendentalism, based on earlier journal entries, sermons, and lectures, was soon followed by the important addresses "The American Scholar" (1837) and the "Divinity School Address" (1838). In "The American Scholar," delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard on August 31, 1837, and published in the same year, Emerson urged self-reliance, self-knowledge, and closeness to nature in the forging of an original American thought and literature. In the "Divinity School Address," delivered at Harvard on July 15, 1838, and first printed in the same year, he exhorted the pursuit of spiritual truth by the individual through intuition rather than through the passive acceptance of traditional religion. The publication of these three "scriptures" of Transcendentalism imparted energy and momentum to the efforts of the movement's proponents. The Transcendental Club was formed in 1836, the year in which Nature was published, providing the opportunity for Emerson, Alcott, Clarke, Parker, Fuller, Ripley, Brownson, Peabody, Thoreau, Very, Cranch, and others to explore their philosophical similarities and differences.

Romanticism in the form of Transcendentalism was communicated foremost through the writings of the faithful. Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and others published lengthy works of a range of types on a variety of subjects, each in its own way an expression of Romantic ideals. The Transcendentalists also conveyed their philosophy, concerns, and creativity through shorter pieces printed in the periodical publications that were important to the intellectual life of the mid-nineteenth century. The Western Messenger, published in Cincinnati and Louisville from 1835 to 1841, included pieces on Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and German and Oriental literature. In 1838, Orestes Brownson began the Boston Quarterly Review. The Dial, the best-known organ of Transcendentalism, edited by Emerson and Margaret Fuller and published for a time by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, was issued between 1840 and 1844. The Brook Farm publication The Harbinger commenced in 1845. Theodore Parker founded the Massachusetts Quarterly Review in 1847. The single issue of Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers appeared in 1849. The North American Review began publication in 1854, Atlantic Monthly in 1857. Both were later bought by the Boston publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields. Neither publication was strictly a periodical of American Transcendentalism, but both included pieces by Emerson, Thoreau, and others. (Ticknor and Fields were major publishers, handling the work of such nineteenth century American authors as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, and Lowell.)

The flowering of Transcendentalism was only one American expression of Romanticism — albeit the strongest one — in the period between 1820 and 1865. Moreover, the literary presentation of Romantic themes and ideas was not confined only to New England authors. Novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) vividly wrote about the frontier experience, life at sea, America's past, the wilderness, and the individual's relation to society. His Leatherstocking Series was published between 1823 and 1841. A critic of Transcendentalism and an opponent of abolition and reform, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) had nevertheless been influenced by Coleridge in his approach to literary criticism. His poetry conveyed intense emotion; his stories were full of mystery and horror. Popular poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) wrote personal sonnets, took history as subject matter (his narrative poem Evangeline was published in 1847), and drew upon Native American legend in his poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Although not a Transcendentalist, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) spent a substantial portion of his life among Transcendentalists. Married to Sophia Peabody, sister of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, he lived in Concord from 1842 to 1845, at the height of the Transcendental movement, and again later in life. He was also a resident of Brook Farm. His romances and stories, rich with symbolism and allegory, focused on the individual, explored morality, dealt with historical subjects, and examined the effect of the past upon the present. Herman Melville (1819–1891) wrote narratives drawing upon his personal experiences in exotic places and his knowledge of life at sea. His Moby-Dick (1851) was atmospheric, evocative, allegorical, symbolic, an exploration of good and evil — the embodiment of Romantic literature. Poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was deeply moved by Emerson's thought and writing. His Leaves of Grass (1855) extolled the individual in the person of the poet himself and celebrated personal expression, freedom, and the intuitive understanding of the world. Whitman went far beyond the Transcendental vision in assigning a place of importance to sensuality.

All of these voices of Romanticism, and other writers as well (Washington Irving, William Gilmore Simms, William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Parker Willis, and John Greenleaf Whittier among them), contributed to the development of that vigorous national thought and expression that Emerson had envisioned in 1837 in "The American Scholar." The Romantic impulse played a major role in the mid-nineteenth century blossoming of American literature and art that has been called the American Renaissance.

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