During the late 1700s and early 1800s, romanticism was the dominant literary mode in Europe. In reaction to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason, romanticism stressed emotion, imagination, and subjectivity of approach.
Until about 1870 romanticism influences the major forms of American prose: transcendentalist writings, historical fiction, and sentimental fiction.
William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier formed a group sometimes called the Fireside Poets because they frequently used the fireplace as an image of comfort and unity, a place where families stayed together to learn and tell stories. They also wrote abolitionist and slavery poems.
Longfellow, the most famous of the group, turned colourful aspects of the Americans into romance and myth. His poetic narratives included Evangeline (1847), about two lovers separated during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and The Song of Hiawatha (1855), inspired by Native American folklore. He was the only American poet to be honoured with a bust in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, England.
During the 19th century, black and white poets wrote about the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves. The most famous were the ex slave George Moses Horton; Joshua McCarter Simpson writer of memorable songs then turned into tunes; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper an early feminist poet and James M. Whitfield , whose poems criticize America for its failure to live up to its ideals.
Black poets used the language of the white but show how songs of liberty and freedom sound from the perspective of ones considered different.
They often expressed themselves with irony and ambiguity to give different intonations and meanings to their poems.
In New England, an intellectual movement known as transcendentalism developed as an American version of romanticism. The movement began in Concord, Massachusetts, and was led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transcendentalists rejected 18th-century rationalism, referred to Puritan religion and celebrated the power of the human imagination to communicate with the universe and transcend the limitations of the material world. Their chief source of inspiration was nature. Emerson’s essay Nature (1836) was the first major document of the transcendental ideas. His other works include The American Scholar (1837), a volume in which he addressed the intellectual’s duty to culture, and Self-Reliance (1841), an essay on the importance of being true to one’s own nature.
Henry David Thoreau, a friend of Emerson’s, put transcendentalist ideas into action. Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) is the report of his two years spent living simply and without any help in a small hut that he built on the shores of Walden Pond, near Concord. In his essay Civil Disobedience (1849) the writer declares that everyone indirectly supports the wrongs of a nation such as slavery or war, simply by paying taxes and voting for government representatives. Passive resistance, or non-violent protest are ways to express disapproval of government policies.
Another influential transcendentalist was Margaret Fuller, whose Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) was a major early work of American feminism. Together with Emerson and reformer George Ripley, Fuller founded The Dial in 1840 a periodical that published the verse and philosophical writings of the transcendentalists
The self-confidence and nationalism of the newly created United States of America gave a new energy to prose. Among the first manifestations of nationhood was the recognition that America had its own language and that American English differed from British English.
The lexicographer Noah Webster published his first American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 giving the definition of words based not only on traditional English usage but also on American variations (Americanisms).
Local histories were also of interest in the early part of the century. History of New York (1809), by Washington Irving with his famous comic creation, the Dutch American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker, offers a satire on the exaggeration and gravity of common local histories. Among Irving’s best-known legends is Rip Van Winkle, in which a man from New York’s Catskill Mountains falls asleep before the beginning of the Revolution and wakes up after it is over to find his world happily transformed. In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a headless horseman drives an embarrassed and naive schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane from his small New York town.
Literary magazines proliferate in the early 1800s. From 1807 to 1808 Irving and James Kirke Paulding publish the literary magazine Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, devoted to satirical writings.
The development of the historical novel was due also to the influence of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and the subjects were inspired by the first generations of Puritans in New England, the Salem witchcraft trials, white conflicts with Native Americans, and the American Revolution.
Biography and autobiography helped to create the new nation’s sense of history and its need for heroes in the 1800s. Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834), attributed to Crockett himself, mythologizes an early frontier hero. Daniel Boone was another legendary figure introduced by Timothy Flint that later developed his character in Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone (1833). Boone is a hero similar to the fictional character Natty Bumppo, created by James Fenimore Cooper in The Leather-Stocking Tales (1821). The hero bridges Native American and white cultures through his friendships, depicting the consequences of further white settlement for Native Americans.
Nathaniel Hawthorne dealt with the history of Puritan New England.
Descendant of one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, his works were imbued with deep ethical concern about sin, and punishment. The Scarlet Letter (1850), a story of rebellion within an severe Puritan society, is undoubtedly a masterpiece in its powerful psychological insights. Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) collects some of his best short stories and sketches, including “Roger Malvin’s Burial” and “Young Goodman Brown.”
While transcendentalism was fundamentally optimistic, celebrating human creativity and the beauty of nature, Hawthorne and Poe demonstrated that the nature of the universe could reveal the darker side of life and show hints of immeasurable evil.
In his disturbing prose and poetry, Edgar Allan Poe explored the nature of humanity and frightened readers with what he found. His tales are obsessed with death, madness, and violence. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) represent the triumphs of romantic horror. Poe also invented the detective story with such works as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). In Poe’s longest story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), a sea journey to the South Pole suggests other, more primal journeys—to the center of the mind, to the source of all evil, and toward an all-encompassing void. As a poet Poe demonstrated his love of rhyming and his use of varying rhythm (The Raven, 1845).
In the United States as in Britain, many plays reflected the influence of romanticism. Melodrama, with its outburst of emotion, was the most prevalent dramatic form in the 19th century. Gothic melodramas, which emphasized horror, mystery, and the supernatural, and melodramas with tragic endings appeared regularly in American theatres from the 1790s on—in many cases adapted or translated from German, French, and British plays.
The first prolific writer of melodramas was William Dunlap, who adapted Revolutionary War history in André (1798), an account of the final days of British spy Major John André. In 1803 Dunlap reshaped the play as a musical, Glory of Columbia.
American melodrama represented details of scenery, dialects, and gestures representative of specific locations; contemporary slang; and historical incidents. In She Would Be a Soldier (1819) Mordecai Noah depicts the military spectacle of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain and tells the story of a girl who disguises herself as a soldier to help the American cause and join the man she loves.
James Nelson Barker’s The Indian Princess (1808) was the first professionally produced play to explore Native American characters and themes. It tells the story of Pocahontas, a Native American who married an English colonist.
American romantic plays took various forms. But without a subject matter typically American, it would be difficult to distinguish these plays from British melodrama and romantic tragedy. What may be the best American play of the time, Francesca da Rimini (1855), is a romantic verse tragedy by George Henry Boker about an Italian noblewoman of the 14th century. It presents a villainous fool, a forbidden love affair, and a grotesque hunchback in the role of the protagonist.