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The American Renaissance

The period between 1830 and the start of the Civil War in 1861 is often referred to as the American Renaissance. The term was coined by F.O. Matthiessen in 1941. By likening the antebellum period to the artistic flowering of the Renaissance, Matthiessen aimed to celebrate the American literary tradition and to legitimate scholarly interest in American literature, which was still taught as inferior to English literature when it was taught at all. Matthiessen argued for the importance of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman; subsequent scholars have added tremendously popular women writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Fanny Fern, and important African Americans writers, like Frederick Douglass and Frances Harper, to this pantheon. While Matthiessen’s exclusive focus on white male authors raises concerns, there is no doubt that this literary period produced many bestsellers as well as many enduring works. Consider, for example, this list of texts, which appeared between 1850 and 1855:

1850: Emerson’s Representative Men, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World

1851: Melville’s Moby-Dick, Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

1852: Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Melville’s Pierre, Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance

1854: Thoreau’s Walden

1855: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom

Major changes in the United States contributed to this tremendous literary output. The nation’s population and territory grew rapidly. Improved technology allowed printers to print books more quickly and economically; increasing urbanization and the expansion of railroads and canals allowed these books to be distributed more widely. Magazine publication rose dramatically, providing a prime venue for the publication of short stories and novels in serial format (published with a few chapters appearing each week). A large number of reform movements, like abolition, women’s rights, and temperance (the banning of alcohol), also inspired increased literary output.


Transcendentalism grew out of theological disputes in the 1830s, but quickly became a force for innovation in education, an inspiration for utopian communities and economic alternatives to mainstream capitalism, and a clarion call for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and environmentalism. Defining transcendentalism is, in many ways, an un-transcendental gesture, because transcendentalism was deeply individualistic, articulated differently by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, and Bronson Alcott. Faith in the power of the imagination, a belief that each individual soul was illuminated by the divine, a rejection of established institutions, an emphasis on self-reliance, a reverence for nature as a means of accessing the divine—transcendentalist work generally embraces these ideals.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is usually seen as the father of Transcendentalism; the publication of his 1836 book of essays, Nature, marks the movement’s emergence on the national scene. His enduring influence on American literature is hard to overestimate—he directly inspired the work of his friend and neighbor Henry David Thoreau, feminist journalist Margaret Fuller, poet Walt Whitman, and the daughter of his dear friend, Louisa May Alcott, who would grow up to write Little Women. Much later American literature also bears his impress.

Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (1837), first delivered as a lecture at Harvard, is often seen as America’s declaration of cultural independence from Great Britain. Despite his literary nationalism, this essay (and transcendentalism in general) draws heavily on European Romanticism in its emphasis on creativity, the value of nature, the limitations of being chained to the past, the innocence of childhood, and the dangers of established institutions.

Emerson’s 1844 essay, “The Poet,” set the stage for American poets to come, most significantly, Walt Whitman, whose innovativeness and talent Emerson noted from the very start. In “The Poet,” Emerson encouraged poets to disregard meter and allow the poetic vision to dictate the poem’s form.

Henry David Thoreau was heavily influenced by Emerson, but more environmentally minded than his mentor and friend. Thoreau’s most famous work, Walden (1854), is a reflection on his time living alone in a cabin near Walden Pond, which he spent “living deliberately” and “front[ing] the essential facts of life.” Walden celebrates noncomformity, appreciation of nature, a questioning spirit, and distancing oneself from mass economics. During his time at the pond, Thoreau spent a night in jail protesting paying taxes in support of slavery, which inspired his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), frequently referred to simply as “Civil Disobedience.” The essay would inspire later freedom fighters, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

Though Walt Whitman wasn’t a part of the Transcendentalist circle in Concord, Massachusetts, he was directly inspired by Emerson. In his 1855 Leaves of Grass, Whitman essentially invented free verse, startling American readers with his formal innovations and his interest in the body and sexuality. Seeing himself as a poet of democracy, a poet seeking to capture the diversity of American life, Whitman wrote poems embracing the mythical potential of the individual as well as the magic of the communal. Whitman’s poems are filled with catalogs, encyclopedic lists of people and places that he seeks to embrace in his verse. Perhaps the most famous poem in the volume is “Song of Myself, a celebration of individuality, sexuality, and democracy through which the speaker guides the reader on her own journey of self-discovery. Whitman continued to rewrite Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime and produced other poems, including his famous elegies of Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain” (1865) and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865).


Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe are sometimes referred to as the “anti-transcendentalists” or “dark Romantics” because they rejected the sunny worldview of their contemporaries, crafting instead narratives of spiritual and personal darkness and doubt. All three wrote what they called romances, fictional works that privileged experimental and imaginative exploration over strict verisimilitude, which many nineteenth-century critics associated with the novel. The romance melds the fantastic and the ordinary, striving to achieve the poetic, the mythic, the symbolic, the universal.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work was popular in his own time (though never as popular as he wished), and he remains one of America’s most revered authors, appreciated for his unique prose style, his visions of New England and American history, his grasp of psychology, and his vivid characters. Hawthorne’s writing is often intentionally ambiguous, resisting simple moralizing and opening up the possibility of multiple interpretations. Though he wrote several other novels, children’s books, and short stories, The Scarlet Letter (1850) remains his best-known work. Set in colonial Boston, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne, who, having conceived her daughter Pearl through adultery, is forced to wear a scarlet A as a marker of her sin. Hester’s evil husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns to psychologically torture her lover, the Puritan minister Arthur Dimmesdale, who lives in mental anguish because his role in Hester’s sin remains unknown while he is perceived as a saint by his church members.

Herman Melville, a devoted fan of Hawthorne, dedicated his 1851 novel Moby-Dick to his friend and idol. Moby-Dick is the story of a monomaniacal ship captain, Ahab, seeking to revenge himself on the white whale who cost him his leg (Moby Dick). The Pequod is also populated by a host of other colorful characters: Ishmael (the narrator), Queequeg (a harpooner of ambiguous race), Starbuck (the first mate, and the character that Starbucks is named after), and Stubbs (the second mate). Ahab’s quest costs the entire crew, except Ishmael, their lives.

Edgar Allan Poe gained international fame for his poetry and for his short stories—in fact, he is usually seen as the first theorist of the short story, a form that emerged in nineteenth-century America. His best-known poem is “The Raven” (1845), a poem about a scholar who is tormented with memories of his dead love Lenore thanks to the visit of a raven that can only speak the word “nevermore.” Poe inaugurated the detective story with his narratives about Auguste Dupin, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Poe’s gothic short stories, often revealing an obsession with madness, like “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), also remain popular.


While it’s the male authors of this period who are most frequently remembered and celebrated today, many of the most popular novels of the nineteenth-century were written by women working in a sentimental mode. Sentimentalism prioritized feeling and sought to develop the reader’s sympathy and compassion. It was associated with femininity and domesticity because of the gendering of sympathy, but many men produced sentimental texts as well. Sentimentalism was rooted in a Christian ethos and was often used to mobilize readers against social ills, be it the abuses of slavery or the plight of women.

The best-selling sentimental novel of the century was Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850). Like many sentimental novels, it follows the journey of a young girl deprived of her parents who must make her way in the world, find wholesome and loving guardians, resist losing her religious faith, and ultimately win the love of a good man she will marry.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was the nineteenth-century’s biggest bestseller and was instrumental in drumming up opposition to slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. While scholars justly object to the racism of Stowe’s portraits of slaves, the book draws powerfully on sentimentalism, especially on Stowe’s culture’s obsession with mother-love and shared Christian ethos, to argue that slavery is inherently unchristian and harmful to slaves and slaveholders alike. By showing how slavery harms the family, Stowe shows how it harms the nation.


Just as the reputations of female sentimental writers suffered after the nineteenth century, so too did the reputations of the Fireside Poets, who shared a sentimental outlook on American life and human relationships.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular poet of the nineteenth century. Known for long poems like Evangeline (1847) and The Song of Hiawatha (1855) as well as for short lyrics, Longfellow’s reputation has greatly suffered since his lifetime, with readers critical of what is seen as the simplicity and sweetness of his work. But just as Longfellow was welcome in the nineteenth-century school, he remains so today: his “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860), the poem that helped to make Paul Revere’s historic ride famous, appears in the Common Core.

John Greenleaf Whittier, like Longfellow, was an immensely popular poet whose reputation has suffered since the nineteenth century. He was a fervent abolitionist and achieved mass popularity only after the Civil War, with the publication of his long narrative poem Snow-Bound (1866), which tells the story of a snowed-in New England family.


Slave narratives were nonfictional accounts written by or on the behalf of formerly enslaved African Americans. These narratives recount the former slave’s experience in slavery, his/her development of a sense of self, community, and resilience that transcended the horrors of slavery, and his/her achievement of freedom. Slave narratives presented a powerful challenge to overly sunny accounts of slavery offered by white writers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. They also challenged the pseudoscientific claim that African Americans were incapable of intellectual work and higher reasoning by showcasing the literacy and articulateness of their narrators. Slave narratives were immensely popular, in part because of the titillating and sensational details they contained, but readers who approached the texts as voyeurs would also be exposed to strong abolitionist sentiments. As such, slave narratives became a powerful form of abolitionist propaganda. In the years since abolition, they have also served as a strong foundation for the African American literary tradition.

The publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), as well as his skills as a speaker, helped Frederick Douglass to become the most influential African American leader of the century. Charting his journey from slavery in Maryland to freedom in Massachusetts, Douglass’ powerful narrative of self-education, self-fashioning, and individual freedom was extremely popular and influential long after the nineteenth century.

Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), is the first American American woman known to have authored a slave narrative in the U.S. Jacobs draws on the conventions of sentimentalism as well as the conventions of the slave narrative to raise awareness of sexual abuse of black women by white slaveholders.


To craft this document, I consulted Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury’s From Puritanism to Postmodernism, the Norton Anthology of American Literature (shortened eighth edition), and American History Through Literature, 1820-1870, ed. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer.