The literary period known as "The American Renaissance" roughly runs from the 1820s-1860s. The works written during this time give readers an idea about what it was like to live in the antebellum US, an era that saw huge technological advances, rapid Westward expansion, the end of slavery, changes for women and men and their roles in society, and the development of the middle class. The recovery of works written by women, some of which were domestic-sentimental or popular fiction, African Americans, and those by or about the working classes provides a much fuller picture of life during this time period. Many readers may be familiar with canonical authors like Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Poe, and Hawthorne, but women, writers of color, or the working classes can offer additional information to readers about how society was actually arranged and what types of concerns people of different social positions addressed through the written word. A lot of these authors addressed ideas about selfhood and development of identity in the new US context and how that differed from ideas about the self in England. Revisit this piece for more context.
European Romanticism began in Germany but then spread quickly to England, France, and other countries. Many probably associate authors like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge with the movement in England. Like in the US, they were excited by the fresh vision and freedom of the movement which gave new life to artistic and intellectual spheres. It arrived on American shores around 1820 and was galvanized by the newness of life and its potential in the US (remember the young nation began governing itself only in 1776). In the US, Romanticism coalesced around the changes in geography and manifest destiny as well as the discovery and articulation of a uniquely American sensibility. To explore more about when Romanticism reached the US, revisit The Romantic Period. Romanticism emphasized an emotional, individual relationship with God, which differed from the much stricter tenets of Calvinism and Puritanism of previous generations. It shared this less restrictive view of God with Transcendentalism, although Transcendentalism espoused an even more expansive view of God and nature than Romanticism. Prominent Romantic/Transcendentalist writers in the US include Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville. For more info about the relationship between Romanticism and Transcendentalism, look at Romanticism in America.
Andrew Jackson was elected president of the US in 1828. He was a largely uneducated, self-made man and was thought to represent the new American spirit of ingenuity and grit. Emerson delivered his now famous "The American Scholar" speech at Harvard in 1837. He calls for a new creative spirit in America. Many see this as the rallying cry of the American Renaissance. The composition and recitation of his oration reveals a highly educated man of an elite class speaking to other young men as he calls them to be strong, creative individuals using America as their inspiration. He suggest three areas for the American scholar: exploration of nature, absorption of knowledge from books, and engagement with physical action. Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech was delivered at a women's rights convention in 1851 details a very different kind of life than what Emerson discussed. Truth was born into slavery in New York but escaped in 1826, becoming an abolitionist and activist. The speech itself given extemporaneously and then rewritten with a stereotypical Southern accent describes women and their ability to work alongside their husbands and do equal work without reaping the benefits of equal rights. She also discusses the rights of slaves and asks her audience to consider why there is such division and lack of agency for women and blacks at this time. In 1830, Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act, which violently relocated many Native tribes to Western lands. In his essay from 1833, Apess speaks as a Native man writing about "color prejudice" or racism against Native peoples. This comes in sharp contrast to Emerson's message about freedom and creative expression.
The Second Great Awakening gets its name as a means of distinguishing it from the earlier revival of Protestantism in the 1730s and 1740s in the US colonies. The Second Great Awakening happens around/by 1850 and encompasses a general shift in belief from earlier conceptions of God saving only an elect few, predetermined before time, from innate depravity to free will and the choice to accept God's grace and forgiveness of sin. This new understanding of Protestantism also related religion to social reform, namely the movements surrounding temperance and abolition. Charles Grandison Finney, Lyman Beecher and the New Light Calvinists, and Southern Baptist and Methodist denominations, who broke with older traditions and especially focused on social and political reforms, were the chief figures involved in the Second Great Awakening.
Calvinist-influenced notions of Protestantism relied on very little agency on the part of the believer. There was no direct contact between God and the believer. God had chosen an elect few, before time began, to save, and everyone else would be condemned for their innate depravity. A gospel of works (being good, moral, Christian) was favored at this time over a gospel of grace (one doesn't deserve grace but can choose to accept the gift). Puritanism drew on this religious philosophy over any other. Transcendentalism differs sharply from Calvinist-influenced Protestantism because it focuses on emotion and the intellect and suggest that God is accessible through nature and even in oneself. There is much more emphasis on free will and agency on the part of the individual. Revisit this text and this one on Transcendentalism for further explanation.
In "The American Scholar", Emerson outlines how to live and be productive in the era of the new American spirit. He emphasizes an exploration of nature, a reliance on books, and physical action to help spur one's creativity and formation of self into a scholar. He also writes about the development of the self and individualism in his famous "Self-Reliance". Transcendentalism got its interest in nature and the self from Romanticism, but Emerson helps focus it more centrally around the expansion of US territory and the energies and excitements of exploration. The new nation is ripe for writings about individualism and self-making as everything is fresh and on the verge of becoming something distinct. With the Second Great Awakening, audiences were also interested in ideas about religion and spirituality. Emerson described greater access to God; in fact, he suggested that readers find God in the universe as well as inside themselves. His poetry and free verse meditations also established an aesthetic that was uniquely American even if it was condemned by fellow Transcendentalists like Poe. Revisit this essay on Emerson and his beliefs as well as his poem "Gnothi Seauton" for more information on this topic.
Emerson and Fuller cofounded The Dial, a Transcendentalist publication meant to provide an outlet for writers and readers to explore Transcendentalist efforts around social reforms like the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and workers' rights. Emerson believed in the reformation of the self first above all. He thought that social and cultural reforms would come naturally after the transformation and explication of the self. The Ripleys, and Fuller to an extent, thought that social reform was just as important as individual development. The Ripleys founded Brook Farm as a place where this kind of transformational work could be done; however, Emerson did not join this endeavor because he was so fixed on the individual and thought that this interest in social reform should not be the primary goal of the movement. For more perspective on this issue, revisit Ripley's letter to Emerson and Emerson's reply.
This vocabulary list includes terms that might help you with the review items above and some terms you should be familiar with to be successful in completing the final exam for the course.
Try to think of the reason why each term is included.
In addition to consulting the course readings, you may want to access M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham's Glossary of Literary Terms, especially when you don't immediately see how a literary term might apply to a particular unit or primary text. You should bookmark the Abrams and Harpham text and use it to help facilitate your progress through the course.