American Romanticism and Transcendentalism


Ralph Waldo Emerson
(1803 - 1882)
William Cullen Bryant
(1794 - 1898)
Edgar Allan Poe
(1809 - 1849)
Walt Whitman
(1819 - 1892)
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
(1830 - 1886)
Herman Melville
(1819 - 1891)

Introduction to American Romanticism


It would be impractical to think about Romanticism in the United States without discussing the Transcendentalist movement. This subtly disorganized philosophy originated and thrived in and around Boston and Concord during the 1830s and ’40s and was the first intellectual movement in the country to inspire a considerable number of literary classics: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and others. The Transcendentalists were a loose grouping of eclectic thinkers – for many critics they were much too diverse and individualistic to be thought of as a coherent movement – who took their name from the philosophy of Kant, but whose sources were as rich and varied (and complex) as their eccentric personalities.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau

First on the list would be both German and English Romantic writers: Fichte, Schleiermacher, Schiller, Goethe, Novalis, Wordsworth and Coleridge. But they also took on many ideas from the older Western and Oriental traditions: Plato, Plotinus, the Neo-Platonists, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and Buddhism, as well as a number of other thinkers and mystics such as Jacob Böhme and Immanuel Swedenborg.

In spite of this potpourri of influences (or perhaps because of it) we can think of Transcendentalism as the specifically American form of Romanticism. And like its European predecessors, it was by no means a systematic philosophy. In any case, the fundamental concepts of Transcendentalism might be summarized as follows:

—What can be thought of as the divine, the spiritual or the immanent force of creation (all terms which can be associated with the identity of God) is an integral part of the natural, material world, and not separate from it.
—The human body (a part of the material world) also contains a spiritual dimension which is a part of that larger world-spirit.
—Therefore the mind, when properly used, serves to connect the two harmoniously and thus leads to unity between the human being and nature.
—For that reason, intuitive thinking toward the world leads to a “higher” form of truth than the more limited thinking associated exclusively with logic and reason.

Kindred Spirits, by Asher B. Durand (1849)

While all of these are Romantic concepts, what makes Transcendentalism particularly American is its strong, possibly predominant, religious component. One of the primary motives behind this “revolution” in American thought was an effort to recapture the emotional power and the sense of mystery that had informed the religious life of New England before the Enlightenment. At the same time, however, the Transcendentalists rejected the terror inherent in Calvinism and rejected, in fact, the very concept of Original Sin. They developed a “liberal” idea of a benevolent Romantic divinity with which all human beings can, and should, resonate harmoniously.

Like many of their contemporaries, the Transcendentalists formed a club for literary, philosophical and theological discussion. They named it the Symposium, after Plato. One result of these heady encounters was The Dial, a quarterly review edited first by Margaret Fuller, from 1840 to 1842, and then by Emerson, until 1844. Among the more concrete results of the Symposium meetings and the writing in The Dial were the experimental communes of Brook Farm and the Fruitlands, during the 1840s, the sometimes radical attempts at educational reform proposed and carried out by Amos Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller, as well as a strong contribution of ideas and energy to the Abolitionist movement.

Amos Bronson Alcott

We cannot, however, limit a consideration of Romantic poetry in the United States strictly to the Transcendentalists and those who were influenced by them. In fact, the first evidence of Romantic thinking in North American poetry can be traced back to the late 18th century: Philip Freneau’s “The Wild Honey Suckle” (1786) is a fine example of what might be called a “proto-Romantic” poem. Two decades later, several of the most important issues of Romantic thought (the need to reformulate the earlier Christian concept of death and the afterlife, a consequent re-conception of the relationship between the individual, or the mind, and nature and a belief that we can acquire important knowledge intuitively through a patient and receptive contemplation of the natural environment) were effectively expressed in some of the earlier poems of William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) – for example, “Thanatopsis” (1817, 1821) and “To a Waterfowl” (1821).

And of course, we mustn’t forget about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), who spent the last decade of his life cultivating an unnecessary animosity towards the Transcendentalists. His intricate and musical verse forms prompted Emerson to refer to him as the “jingle man”. And the truth is that Poe’s poetry is less interesting than his innovative and psychologically acute fiction. His early poems, written in the late 1820s, are generally derivative of European the European Romantics. His later work, written during the last years of his life, exhibits a much richer psychological complexity – as in “The Raven” (1845) or “Annabel Lee” (1849) – similar to that of the narrators of his brilliant gothic tales.

And finally, perhaps the last, weak vestiges of Romanticism can be found in the second half of the 19th century in the group known as “The Fireside Poets”. While Emily Dickinson was completely unknown and Walt Whitman a controversial self-promoter with a relatively small but passionate following, poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94) and James Russell Lowell (1819-91) were almost universally read and loved by the American public.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

John Greenleaf Whittier

The key to their success, in an age of sentimentality, was their superficial adaptation of Romantic themes and postures. Most of them were university professors. Longfellow and Lowell taught languages and literature at Harvard; Holmes was trained in law and medicine and was Professor of Anatomy at Harvard. As may be expected of academic poets, their technique was often flawless. However, this technical brilliance with established forms meant that they inevitably looked towards the past and made it impossible for them to carry out the kind of iconoclastic formal experiments that constitute the muscle and sinew of Whitman and Dickinson’s accomplishments. Their subject matter, too, offered little challenge to a complacent reading public: a tendency toward nostalgia for a lost past (either on a personal or a national level) and an excessive fondness for melodramatic treatment and the easy tear.

The success of the Fireside Poets was a result of their appeal to the particular tastes of the time, and their example therefore suggests an intriguing question. Which of the best-known and widely-read poets of today will still be read and studied in the twenty-second century?


Autor:Paul Scott Derrick (University of Valencia)