Welcome to ENGL405: The American Renaissance

Specific information about this course and its requirements can be found below. For more general information about taking Saylor Academy courses, including information about Community and Academic Codes of Conduct, please read the Student Handbook.


Course Description

Explore American literature published between the 1830s and 1860s, focusing on the socio-cultural contexts that led to the dramatic outburst of literary creativity in this era.


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 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).

This course includes the following units:

  • Unit 1: The American Renaissance in Context
  • Unit 2: Continuity and Change in Poetic Form
  • Unit 3: The Invention of the Short Story
  • Unit 4: The Development of the Novel and its Various Forms
  • Unit 5: Nature and Technology: Creating and Challenging American Identity
  • Unit 6: The Question of Women's Place in Society
  • Unit 7: The Slavery Controversy and Abolitionist Literature


Course Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • discriminate among the key economic, technological, educational, social, cultural, and religious transformations underpinning the American Renaissance;
  • define the transformations in American Protestantism exemplified by the Second Great Awakening and Transcendentalism;
  • list the key tenets of Transcendentalism and relate them to Romanticism more broadly and to social and cultural developments in the antebellum United States;
  • analyze Emerson's place in defining Transcendentalism and his key differences from other Transcendentalists like Thoreau, Fuller, and Sophia and George Ripley;
  • delineate competing conceptualizations of poetry and its construction and purpose, with particular attention to Poe, Emerson, and Whitman;
  • examine Dickinson's place as a woman in the nineteenth century and define the formal innovations and particular content of her poetic works in light of this context;
  • describe the emergence of the short story, the Gothic, and crime fiction as forms, with reference to specific stories by Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville;
  • distinguish among forms of the novel, with reference to specific works by Hawthorne, Lippard and Thompson, and Fern;
  • elucidate the ways that writers such as Melville, Brownson, Davis, and Thoreau saw industrialization and capitalism as a threat to US society;
  • develop the relationship between Thoreau's interest in nature and his political commitments and compare and contrast his thinking with Emerson and other transcendentalists;
  • articulate the conventional gender roles of women during this time and think about how those roles were beginning to change because of the ways in which women fought for equality in both the public and private spheres;
  • analyze the different ways that sentimentalism constrained and empowered women writers to critique gender conventions and spurred the Women's Civil Rights Movement, with reference to specific works by writers such as Fern, Anthony, Fuller, Alcott, and Stowe; and
  • define and evaluate the ways that the slavery question influenced major writers and literature during this period.

Throughout this course, you will also see learning outcomes in each unit. You can use those learning outcomes to help organize your studies and gauge your progress.


Course Materials

The primary learning materials for this course are articles, lectures, and videos.

All course materials are free to access and can be found in each unit of the course. Pay close attention to the notes that accompany these course materials, as they will tell you what to focus on in each resource, and will help you to understand how the learning materials fit into the course as a whole. You can also see a list of all the learning materials in this course by clicking on Resources in the navigation bar.


Evaluation and Minimum Passing Score

Only the final exam is considered when awarding you a grade for this course. In order to pass this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam. Your score on the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you may take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt. Once you have successfully passed the final exam you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.

There are also end-of-unit assessments in this course. These are designed to help you study, and do not factor into your final course grade. You can take these as many times as you want until you understand the concepts and material covered. You can see all of these assessments by clicking on Quizzes in the course's navigation bar.


Tips for Success

ENGL405: The American Renaissance is a self-paced course, which means that you can decide when you will start and when you will complete the course. There is no instructor or an assigned schedule to follow. We estimate that the "average" student will take 127 hours to complete this course. We recommend that you work through the course at a pace that is comfortable for you and allows you to make regular progress. It's a good idea to also schedule your study time in advance and try as best as you can to stick to that schedule.

Learning new material can be challenging, so we've compiled a few study strategies to help you succeed:

  • Take notes on the various terms, practices, and theories that you come across. This can help you put each concept into context, and will create a refresher that you can use as you study later on.
  • As you work through the materials, take some time to test yourself on what you remember and how well you understand the concepts. Reflecting on what you've learned is important for your long-term memory, and will make you more likely to retain information over time.
  • Although you may work through this course completely independently, you may find it helpful to connect with other Saylor students through the discussion forums. You may access the discussion forums at https://discourse.saylor.org.


Technical Requirements

This course is delivered entirely online. You will be required to have access to a computer or web-capable mobile device and have consistent access to the internet to either view or download the necessary course resources and to attempt any auto-graded course assessments and the final exam.

  • To access the full course including assessments and the final exam, you will need to be logged into your Saylor Academy account and enrolled in the course. If you do not already have an account, you may create one for free here. Although you can access some of the course without logging in to your account, you should log in to maximize your course experience. For example, you cannot take assessments or track your progress unless you are logged in.

For additional guidance, check out Saylor Academy's FAQ.



This course is entirely free to enroll in and to access. Everything linked in the course, including textbooks, videos, webpages, and activities, is available for no charge. This course also contains a free final exam and course completion certificate.

Last modified: Monday, September 28, 2020, 2:56 PM