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? 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.
Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:
- summarize this literary period in terms of its canonical authors, the inclusion of popular and sentimental literatures, and the recovery of works by African-Americans, women, and those of or about the working classes;
- articulate key features and figures of European Romanticism, demonstrate how Romanticism changed when it arrives in the US, and name how it differed from Transcendentalism;
- compare and contrast key articulations of American identity, or lack thereof, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sojourner Truth, and William Apess at specific moments within the context of the ideals of Jacksonian Democracy;
- define the key traits of the Second Great Awakening and delineate its chief figures;
- describe how Transcendentalism both drew on and broke from Calvinist-influenced versions of Protestantism, especially Puritanism;
- summarize Emerson's chief contributions to American philosophy and literature, with reference to some of his most significant works; and
- analyze different approaches to social reform among Transcendentalists like Emerson, Fuller, and Sophia and George Ripley.
1.1: The Influence of European Romanticism in America
To begin, read this article about the influence of European Romanticism on American authors.
This article offers even more information about the romantic period in US literature. Many use the labels "American Romanticism" and "American Renaissance" interchangeably; as you dig into this course, ask yourself whether you see a potential distinction between these two terms and what each of them defines.
Read the first stanza (lines 1–44) of The Prelude, "Book Twelfth, Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored", to appreciate the role that nature played in the sensibilities of the Romantic writers and artists. Wordsworth's Prelude is a lengthy autobiographical poem narrating, in the author's words, "the growth of the poet's Mind". It is representative of the European Romantic tradition, which is generally centered upon the individual and his experience, reverent toward nature, and colloquial in language.
Read this account of contemporary revisions to our understanding of the period. How do scholars now think more expansively about this time of literary production? Who do we now see as part of this literary outpouring?
1.2: Individuality, Conflict, and Context
Read this speech and Truth's famous oration, which follows, in conversation with one another. In his remarks, delivered at Harvard University in 1837, Emerson called for a new creative spirit in America; America evidently responded in kind. Many consider this speech the rallying cry for the American Renaissance. Truth's speech at a Women's Rights Convention in 1851 offers an alternative account of the challenges Americans – especially women and people of color – faced in defining themselves during this period. Consider how Emerson and Truth defined self-making in their very different cultural contexts. This trope of "self-making" will resurface time and time again in the literature we read throughout this course, and it should begin to inform the way you understand the "American Renaissance" as a literary movement. Also, consider the voice and tone that Emerson used in this piece. What does it reveal about his access to education? What does it tell you about his audience?
As you read this speech from 1851, think about the kind of experiences Truth describes in relationship to those Emerson recounted several years earlier. Is she articulating a culture that cares about the kind of self she creates? Does she have the luxury to engage in self-making? What do her voice and tone reveal about her access to education and her audience?
1.3: President Jackson and Indian Removal
Andrew Jackson was the 7th president of the United States. He was a "man of the people", and his election in 1828 to the highest office of the land was akin to a political, social, and economic revolution. He had little in common with those who had held that prestigious position before him. A man with little education and who was primarily known as a military man, the "hero" of the Indian Wars, he encouraged increased popular participation in government. He is often thought of as a self-made man. How is his self-making different or similar to what you just read by Emerson and Truth? Read this short biography for a fuller picture of the man, his legacy, and how his presidency shaped the period.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the brutal relocation of many tribes to Western US Lands. Read this work by William Apess (Pequot) from 1833. In it, he indicts what he calls "color prejudice", which would be referred to today as racism. You might do further research on Apess and the Pequot tribe to better understand this work and its significance. If you don't recognize the figures mentioned in this piece, look them up to help you have a more thorough understanding of what Apess is getting at here. Think about this essay as the perspective of a Native person on American identity (or even lack of identity and personhood) and culture at this time, and compare and contrast it with what Emerson and Truth articulate about the same topics.
1.4: Jacksonian Democracy and the Self-Made Man
Read Emerson's famous essay, which reflects the character of self-confidence, and think about how it defined the Jacksonian era. Emerson's oft-quoted essay "Self-Reliance" is considered one of the finest examples of the author's style, and a clear example of his thought. The essay was first published in 1841, but elements of the essay appeared in one of the author's journal entries as early as 1832, and in various public lectures given in the intervening years. As such, "Self-Reliance" reflects the idea that individualism was a necessary ingredient for success popular during the 1830s and 1840s.
As you saw when reading his biography, Jackson is widely regarded as a self-made man. Read this short essay on the development of this concept of the self-made man in the context of Jacksonian Democracy and American Romanticism. Think about how the pieces by Truth and Apess contradict this self-making. What does this reveal about race, ethnicity, and class in this literary period? Are certain people and voices allowed personhood when others are not?
1.5: The Second Great Awakening and the Emergence of Transcendentalism
Another important cultural phenomenon taking place at this time centered on religion, and is often referred to as "The Second Great Awakening". Read this account of the religious fervor that swept the United States in the early 1800s, transforming American culture and society and paralleling the emergence of Transcendentalism.
Read this excerpt about Transcendentalism, a scholarly account taken from Harold Clark Goddard's 18-volume History of American Literature that came out between 1907 and 1921. The movement emerged in 1836 with the first gathering of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prominent contributors included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, William Henry Channing, and George Ripley. With Fuller's death in 1850, one of the movement's great advocates was silenced. Emerson lacked the ability and interest to follow in her path. Though their hold on the public imagination was short-lived, the long-lasting influence that the Transcendentalists had on American literature cannot be discounted. Even the philosophy's critics were forced to acknowledge the effects that the Transcendental Movement had on the world, particularly the American experience. Transcendentalism was a distinctly American expression, with concerns and ideals that did not fully translate in England or Continental Europe. Think about how this philosophy fits into the larger "American Renaissance" and what literary characteristics it offers to the era.
1.6: The "Transcendental Club" and "The Dial"
With this and the next resource, you will read Emerson's and Ripley's articles from The Dial, which appeared in July 1840 and January 1841, respectively. Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson established The Dial to publish works by Transcendentalist authors in America and to promote their efforts for social reform, the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and workers' rights.
Sophia Ripley writes in The Dial that "Woman is educated with the tacit understanding, that she is only half a being, and an appendage". Read this 1841 essay alongside the previous resource.
1.7: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Father of the Transcendental Movement
As we discussed before, Emerson was one of the main literary figures of this time. Read this introduction about his life and beliefs. Transcendentalism owed its interest in nature and individuality to Romanticism, but with its focus on the wide expanse of the US and the energy of its explorers, it evolved into a uniquely American expression. For the time, Transcendentalists were particularly attuned to the interests of non-white persons, namely Native Americans and African-Americans. Look for these inclinations here.
Read Emerson's poem "Gnothi Seauton". Translated from Greek as "Know Thyself", the poem is a free-verse meditation on self-knowledge, loss, and spirituality. Consider how Emerson's thoughts here relate to the overall concepts of Transcendentalism. Do any of his verses seem to divert from those concepts, or reinforce or represent them?
1.8: Competing Visions of Reform
Read the exchange between Ripley and Emerson. Consider Emerson's notion of reform as put forth in "Self-Reliance" in contrast to Ripley's plan for Brook Farm. In his letter to Emerson, Ripley – the founder of Brook Farm – lays out several core Transcendental views on social reform, including humane relationships, respect for individual freedom, and the merging of values and ideas with spiritual events. He believed that Brook Farm would serve as a transformative model for society.
Read this letter. As the Cambridge History points out, Emerson's refusal to join the community represented the more individualistic and more famous side of Transcendentalism. He emphasized that the first and most important aspect of reform was the self, and that all social and cultural reform would follow naturally once the self was reformed. While Emerson abstained from the Brook Farm Project, he later became increasingly involved in the anti-slavery movement, even though he was consistently skeptical of organized reform movements. Parts 13 and 14 of The Cambridge History discuss another leading Transcendentalist, Theodore Parker, and his role as a leading critic of slavery and of capitalist economic exploitation. As we will see in our examination of Margaret Fuller and Orestes Brownson in later units, many other Transcendentalists offered trenchant social critiques on other issues, sometimes speaking in favor of specific social changes and political causes, even if they did not see Brook Farm as the vehicle for reforming society. Thus, while most leading Transcendentalists did not participate in Brook Farm and many questioned its emphasis on community reform over individual reform, it represented a key element of Transcendentalist thought: the attempt to link individual spiritual improvement to social reform.
Unit 1 Assessment
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Take this assessment to see how well you understood this unit.
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