Topic outline

  • Course Introduction

    As most famously defined by F. O. Matthiessen in his groundbreaking book, The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), the "American Renaissance" demarcates a period of tremendous literary activity between the 1830s and 1860s that marked the cultivation, for the first time, of a distinctively American literature.  For Matthiessen and many other critics, its key figures-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville-sought to define and explore the new American identity, carving out new modes of expression and self-identification.  In the years since Matthiessen's important work and especially in the past several decades, this characterization of the literary period has been challenged on several fronts, for overstating the innovations of these few authors, for the exclusion of women, African-American, and more popular authors from its account of the United States during a period of social and cultural upheaval and transition, and for its acceptance of a myth of American exceptionalism.

    We begin this course by taking a look at context: What was it in American culture and society that led to the dramatic outburst of literary creativity in this era?  We then explore some of the period's most famous works, approaching them by genre category.  Finally, we attempt to define the emerging American identity represented in this literature.

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  • Unit 1: The American Renaissance in Context

    What was happening in society and culture that might have spurred the explosion of literary expression seen during the antebellum period of American history?  (For those of you not up to speed on your U.S. history, "antebellum" refers to the period before the Civil War and is generally considered to span the years between 1781-1860, which in turn includes what is known as "The American Renaissance" period of literarature, between 1830-1860.)  In this unit, we will situate the American Renaissance in its sociohistorical context.  We start with a broad overview of the literary period and different ways of framing it before moving on to examine the economic, political, and social changes that were transforming the United States--industrialization and urbanization, the development of mass politics, the debate over slavery, Western expansion.  Turning to American culture during this period, we then investigate the growth of literacy and the expansion of education, the religious revival sometimes called the second Great Awakening, and the emergence of urban popular culture.  Finally, we look at transcendentalism, the religious-philosophical movement that gave rise to some of the most important literary figures of the period, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. 
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  • Unit 2: Continuity and Change in Poetic Form

    The American Renaissance explored older literary forms and developed new ones as it shaped and responded to the changing nature of American society.  Following European romanticism, many American poets re-defined poetry less in terms of preconceived form than in terms of organic structure.  Doing so led to some of the most important formal innovations of the time, especially those of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.  At the same time, debates around poetry circulated around both form and content, as exemplified by Edgar Allan Poe's influential criticism.  

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  • Unit 3: The Invention of the Short Story

    While most critics and writers during the period continued to view poetry as the most important literary genre, the period is now better known for its prose works.  The short story, as a form, first came into its own in the United States during this period, with writers such as Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others exploring the aesthetic and thematic possibilities of compact prose works of fiction.  
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  • Unit 4: The Development of the Novel and its Various Forms

    Just as the short story emerged as a new literary form due to cultural, social, and economic changes, the novel moved from being regarded as subliterary to being the most popular form by the end of the era.  Works by writers such as Hawthorne continue to stand among the greatest novels in world history while those by authors such as George Thompson and Fanny Fern gained unprecedented popularity by mining sensation and sentimental sub-genres.
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  • Unit 5: Nature and Technology: Creating and Challenging American Identity

    Writers in the American Renaissance sought to identify the promise and uniqueness of the American experience through various forms and genres.  In this unit, we will look at ways in which these authors represented the new American identity--its voices, its landscapes, and its diversities. As often as they helped to construct long-standing ideals of the American self-made man, of upward mobility and economic progress, and of universal liberty and equality, they also criticized the ways that American society and its political and cultural institutions failed to live up to its ideals and the ways that economic and technological development came at a great price.  In this and the following two units, we will look at ways in which these authors represented and questioned the new American identity and the forces and controversies transforming the young nation.  Specifically in this section we will examine reactions to the industrial, economic, and technological transformation of the United States that was beginning to transform the nation from a rural, agrarian country to a modern, capitalist one.
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  • Unit 6: The Question of Women's Place in U.S. Society

    With the economic transformations sometimes called the market revolution, gender relations in the United States also changed.  Where in a rural, agrarian economy, men and women often worked--even when divided along gender lines--side-by-side in the same location, the farm and the home, the move to a more professionalized, capitalist workplace more firmly established distinctions between male and female work (or for some classes at least).  Alongside political changes that empowered all white men, these transformations coincided with an increasing emphasis on women's importance in the private sphere in opposition to men's dominance in the public realm.  In this section, we examine some of the ways that the antebellum era saw the emergence of the modern feminist movement in the United States and increasing literary attention to the place of women in society. 
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  • Unit 7: The Slavery Controversy and Abolitionist Literature

    Perhaps no controversy defined the antebellum period as much as slavery.  Even as politicians repeatedly attempted to find ways to paper over sectional differences and quiet the controversy, the issue became more and more divisive, eventually becoming the leading cause of  the Civil War.  Throughout this course we have examined texts that investigate slavery.  In this section, we will focus on abolitionist literature, looking at some of the founding statements of the radical abolitionist movement as well as some of the most popular texts of the era.
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  • Optional Course Evaluation Survey

    Please take a few moments to provide some feedback about this course at the link below. Consider completing the survey whether you have completed the course, you are nearly at that point, or you have just come to study one unit or a few units of this course.

    Link: Optional Course Evaluation Survey (HTML)

    Your feedback will focus our efforts to continually improve our course design, content, technology, and general ease-of-use. Additionally, your input will be considered alongside our consulting professors' evaluation of the course during its next round of peer review. As always, please report urgent course experience concerns to and/or our Discourse forums.

  • Final Exam

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