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 term "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 a new American identity, carving out inventive 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, especially for overstating the innovations of these few authors; for the exclusion of women, people of color, 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 the myth of American exceptionalism or superiority.
We begin this course by looking at context: What was it in American culture and society that led to the dramatic outburst of literary creativity in this era? Each unit starts 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 and making a profound impact on the literary production of the era: industrialization and urbanization, the development of mass politics, the debate over slavery, and Western expansion. Following that context, you will explore some of the period's most famous works, approaching them by genre category and important literary contributions (Units 2-4). Because of the varied ways that authors in this course invoke literary tropes and techniques like myth, symbolism, imagery, simile, metaphor, narrative structure, allusions, apostrophe, and others in their works, what we find during this period is indeed an American Renaissance of texts that respond to societal changes and upheavals. Overall, we attempt to define the emerging American identity represented in this literature and think about the larger implications of this robust textual output (Units 5-7).
What was happening in society and culture that might have spurred the explosion of literary expression seen during the antebellum period of American history? As you most likely know, the term "antebellum" refers to the period before the Civil War and is generally considered to span the years between 1781-1860. This period in turn includes what is known as the “American Renaissance" of literature, between 1830-1860. In this unit, we will situate the American Renaissance in its socio-historical context. We will first examine how the American Renaissance was influenced by European Romanticism and ultimately gave rise to the specifically American voices of authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sojourner Truth, and William Apess, who all investigated what it meant to exist as a human being during this time. We will also engage with the historical context of Jacksonian Democracy, self-making, and the values placed on the human experience according to race, ethnicity, and class position. Lastly, we will explore the American philosophy of Transcendentalism – the religious-philosophical movement that gave rise to some of the most important literary figures of the period, including Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 7 hours.
Building on the socio-historical context and primary texts we read in the last unit, here we will read the works of a number of important and varied poets writing during this time. After the last unit, you may not be surprised to hear that authors of the American Renaissance explored older literary forms like poetry, the short story, and the novel, and developed new forms as they shaped and responded to the changing nature of American society. Following European Romanticism, many American poets redefined 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, spearheaded by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. At the same time, debates circulated around both form and content of poetry, as exemplified by Edgar Allan Poe's influential criticism. Read through this unit with an eye toward poetic form and its literary traits.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 9 hours.
While most critics and writers during the period viewed poetry as the most important literary genre, the American Renaissance is now better known for its prose works. The short story as a form first came into its own in the United States with writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others exploring the aesthetic and thematic possibilities of compact prose works of fiction.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 10 hours.
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 sub-literary 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 sensational and sentimental subgenres. In this unit, you will learn about the genre of the novel as it rose in popularity during the American Renaissance.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 24 hours.
In this unit, we will look at ways that authors represented the new American identity: its voices, landscapes, and diversity. As often as they helped to construct long-standing ideals of the self-made American, upward mobility and economic progress, and 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 that these authors represented and questioned the new American identity and the forces and controversies that transformed the young nation. We will examine reactions to the industrial, economic, and technological transformations that were changing the nation from a rural agrarian country to a modern capitalist one.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 13 hours.
As with the economic and technological transformations – sometimes called the Market Revolution – that we examined in Unit 5, gender relations in the United States were also changing during this period. In the rural agrarian economy, men and women often worked side-by-side in the same location at the farm and the home, even when divided along gender lines. During the move to a professionalized capitalist workplace, more distinctions were made between male and female work (for some classes, at least). Alongside the political changes that empowered 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 unit, we examine the emergence of the first wave of the feminist movement in the United States, in the form of the fight for suffrage and increasing literary attention to the place of women in society.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 32 hours.
At the same time that women’s limited roles in public society were being challenged through literary production and other forms of activism, Americans in the antebellum period also struggled with the question of slavery. Even as politicians repeatedly attempted to find ways to hide sectional differences and quiet the controversy, the issue of slavery became more and more divisive and eventually became the leading cause of the Civil War. In this last unit, we will focus on anti-slavery 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. At the end of the course, you should be able to trace the ways that literary genres helped their writers craft the uniquely American sensibility that emerged in this period.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 42 hours.
These study guides are intended to help reinforce key concepts in each unit in preparation for the final exam. Each unit study guide aligns with course outcomes and provides a summary of the core competencies and a list of vocabulary terms. The study guides are not meant to replace the readings and videos that make up the course.
The vocabulary lists include some terms that might help you answer some of the review items, and some terms you should be familiar with to be successful in completing the final exam for the course.