Thursday, June 11, 2015

Literary Look: American Romanticism

Last time I discussed European Romanticism, (and I recommend reading that post before this one) so today I'm going to discuss American Romanticism  which is a little complicated (but really, what literature movement isn't?) because it over-laps and combines with some other movements that I will be talking about in later posts.
Before we get started, here's my other Literary Look Posts if you want to get caught up:
European Romanticism
The Harlem Renaissance
The Lost Generation
The Beatnik Movement

General Information: 
As mentioned in the European post, Romantic pieces of art are heavy on emotion. This movement developed as a response to what is known as "The Age of Reason" or the Neoclassical Age, which was a return back to the logical and realistic style used by the ancient Greeks. The original Romantic period occurred in the Medieval Period  (1200-1500) where legends of knights and chivalry were popular- namely The Legends of King Arthur.

America is late to join the Romantic party (1830- 1860), so this movement overlaps with The Victorian Age (1830-1880) and the Transcendentalist Movement (1830's-1860's). Romanticism tends to touch on and favor subjects of high emotion, the importance of the individual, love, solitude, nature, satisfaction of desire, and creative energy/power.    

Nature and Individualism were very important to Romantic writers, and you will see these concepts as a theme in pretty much every work I list below.

Authors and Works: 

Ralph Waldo Emerson 
Emerson is one of my all-time favorite authors. He is also one of the authors that over-laps into the Transcendentalist movement; therefore, I will talk about him in more detail in that upcoming post. Emerson is most well-known for his essays, but he also wrote poetry. He is a very, very wise man, and his essays are extremely brilliant. I highly recommend reading them all, as well as his letters. His works usually center around the theme of individualism and staying true to oneself. My high school teacher once described him as a 19th century self-help writer. His must reads include, Self-Reliance, The Poet, The American Scholar, and Heroism.   

Henry David Thoreau 
Thoreau is another author who overlaps with the Transcendentalist movement, in fact he and Emerson are considered the fathers of the the Transcendentalist movement. Thoreau is well-known for his essays as well (but he wrote poetry too), and is himself a very interesting guy, He was a naturalist, abolitionist, tax resister, surveyor, and historian. In order to concentrate on his writing, Thoreau decided to "Live simple" and moved to a small cabin owned be Emerson in the woods where he lived for three years alone, and wrote Walden. Upon his return, Thoreau was arrested and spent the night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes because of his disapproval of the Mexican-American War and slavery. This event inspired a lecture that would eventually turn into one of his most well-known essays Civil Disobedience. His works often contain themes pertaining to nature, and the improvements he thought that could be made to humanity and our country through government reforms.     
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is perhaps one of the best known American authors, and the most prominently Romantic author on this list. Poe is responsible for the first detective fiction with his short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the first horror fiction. He wrote short stories and poetry, and had quite a tragic life. His father abandoned his family when he was very young, and his mother died of TB the next year. He was taken in by another family, and was troubled by a gambling problem in college. He then dropped out and was later expelled from another school. Pretty much everyone he loved died, his adoptive father, his brother, his wife, and his mother. Some of his work was probably inspired by the death of his wife from TB, and he was extremely unstable after her death. The circumstances of his death are quite mysterious. He was found wandering the streets in the early hours of the morning wearing clothes that did not belong to him, repeatedly calling out the name 'Reyonds'. Poe was never coherent long enough before his death four days later to explain what had happened to him. Must reads include the short stories: The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, and the poems: Annabel Lee, The Bells, To Helen, The Raven and A Dream within a Dream. Poe's works are high in emotion, inner desires, and solitude. 
Emily Dickinson 
I have plans for a Poetry Spotlight post on Dickinson, so I will try to be brief here. She never married, which was quite odd for her time, was never recognized for her brilliance while she was alive, and only about a dozen of her poems were published anonymously during her life-time. Dickinson is one of literature's most illusive figures, as not much is known about her, and she has a rather mysterious reputation. All we really have is the approximately 1,800 poems she left behind. Dickinson's style is easily recognizable, as she using dashes for punctuation, capitalizes her nouns, and leaves her poems untitled. Dickinson's poems are characteristically dark, many are about death or dying, and she uses a lot of sea imagery. Interestingly, many of her poems can be sung to the tune of church hymns, such as Amazing Grace, as she used the rhythm to guide her poetry. Must reads: I started Early-Took my Dog, I heard a Fly buzz -when I died, Hope is the thing with feathers-      

Walt Whitman 
Walt Whitman is a notorious American poet. His poems are often very complex and each time you read them, you discover something new about the poem or a deeper meaning you missed the first time. His works often involve nature, and very complex themes relating to the human condition, or finding oneself. If you are having an existential crisis, Whitman will probably be able to help you through it (Emerson too). He wrote the two rather large poetry collections, Song of Myself, and Leaves of Grass (which is featured in John Green's Paper Towns), and they are perhaps his best-known works. I also recommend the individual poems: A Noiseless Patient Spider and When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer- both are brilliant. 

Herman Melville 
I have never read anything by Melville, but he is of course responsible for the monster of a novel (haha) Moby Dick.  Melville and Hawthorne had a profound, but short-lived friendship while Melville was writing Moby Dick. He often drew from his own experience as a seamen for his novels and short stories. He wanted to write a non-fiction novel about whales and the whaling industry, but was told it would not sell so he worked in a plot, and alas Moby Dick was born. His works also focus on nature and contain many allusions. There has also been much thought and study towards homosexual undertones present in the novel, but I have never read it, so I have nothing to add to that debate. If you have read Moby Dick, please let me know what you thought of it. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne 
Hawthorne is known for his novel The Scarlet Letter, but he also wrote the novel The House of Seven Gables, and many short stories such as Young Goodman Brown, and The Birthmark. Hawthorne wrote quite a bit about the Puritan age of American history, and many of his works contain religious themes, characters, and allegories. Young Goodman Brown is a prime example of this, as pretty much everything in the story is symbolic, and the story as a whole is an allegory. I have not yet read The Scarlet Letter, but I have read Young Goodman Brown. Just a warning, Hawthorne's writing can be a bit dry and over-detailed, so prepare yourself if you are a first time reader of his works.  

Fredrick Douglas
Douglas began to write after he escaped slavery, and his numerous anti-slavery works carved him a place as a leader of the abolitionist movement. Douglas was a very large and public supporter of women's suffrage, and held many public offices within his life-time. He was a living counter-argument to the idea that slaves were intellectually inferior to their white masters, as many couldn't believe that such a brilliant speaker and writer had been a slave. Douglas wrote a series of autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas being the most well-known. I have yet to read this autobiography, but I did pick up a used copy not too long ago, and I have heard that it is absolutely brilliant. 

And there concludes another lengthy post on literary movements! If you want some more info on this movement, I suggest this website, which I referred to while writing this post, or this PBS site  which is always good for any American Literature research you may need to do.  

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