The period of the American Renaissance is also sometimes referred to as the New England Renaissance. It was around this time that American literature came of age, producing some of the most important American writers. These included the “Brahmins,” like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. These writers, and others, sought out European methods of writing and storytelling in order to create a new kind of American literature.
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Definition and Explanation of American Renaissance
The phrase “American Renaissance” was first used in 1941, in American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. F.O. Matthiessen originated the phrase and described the movement as focused on “the possibilities of democracy” and as attempting to distinguish American literature from British literature. American writers, like those mentioned below, attempted to create their own literature, a genre that was emphasized by nationalism and the desire for an individual arts culture in America.
The American Renaissance was influenced by a variety of sources. This included Transcendentalism, featuring writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. This movement advocated for social reforms, free religion, and the abolition of slavery. During the American Renaissance, writers like Nathanial Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman came to prominence. After the movement had concluded, scholars reconsidered their categorization of authors and chose to include several other well-known writers as part of the American Renaissance movement. For example, Emily Dickinson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Edgar Allan Poe, and Frederick Douglass. Interestingly, most of these writers were not well-known in their time. They gained a following after their death.
Examples of American Renaissance Literature
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter, is a work of historical fiction that was published in 1850. The novel is set in a Puritan colony in Massachusetts Bay between 1642 and 1649. It follows the story of Hester Prynne, who has an affair and gives birth to a daughter. The book focuses on themes of guilt, religion, and morality while describing the colony’s treatment of Prynne and how she deals with their disdain.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s famed poetry collection, was first published in 1855 but was expanded and edited over the following years. The first time it was published the collection held twelve poems. By the time he died, he’d expanded it to include over 400. The poems were inspired by Transcendentalism, nature, and Whitman’s own individuality. He spent time talking about the human body, his own body and elevating the form in the reader’s eye, sometimes to the point where he received push back in regard to more sexual imagery. This collection was also a breakthrough in the realm of free verse poetry, solidifying Whitman as the “father” of the style.
Read poems by Walt Whitman.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Walden was published in 1854 and is part of the Transcendentalist movement and the American Renaissance. The text reflects on the author’s surroundings as he lived a simple life in a natural setting. Thoreau’s two years living in a cabin he built alongside Walden Pond allowed him to make scientific and social observations. His writing is poetic and metaphorically at times while direct and exploratory at others. He identifies plants, describes water, the stages of life around the pond, and the four seasons. He compressed the years he spent there into a single calendar year.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick, was published in the middle of the American Renaissance period, in 1851. It follows a sailing captain’s obsessive quest to take revenge on a white whale that bit off his leg. The narrative follows Ishmael as he narrates Ahab’s spiraling mental state and obsession. Melville drew on his own experiences as a sailor to inspire the plot and details. When published, the novel was received with mixed reviews. It made Melville very little money and was quickly out of print. It was only solidified as a classic of American literature in the 20th century.
The House of Seven Gables by Nathanial Hawthorne
While less well-known than The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables is another important literary work that Hawthorne contributed to the literary world during the American Renaissance. It’s categorized as a gothic novel and was published in 1851. It follows a New England family while exploring themes similar to those found in The Scarlet Letter. There are suggestions throughout the novel that something more supernatural is occurring, including witchcraft. The book was inspired day the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion found in Salem, Massachusetts. The mansion belonged to Hawthorne’s cousin and ancestors who participated in the Salem Witch trials.
Why is the American Renaissance Period Important?
The American Renaissance was one of the most important literary periods in the country’s history. It was at this time that American writers were able to carve out their own identity, separate from their British and European counterparts. The poems and novels that came out of this period, including works by Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Nathanial Hawthorne, paved the way for the writers who followed. This newly defined American literary identity came into being in the few decades between 1830 and the start of the American Civil War.
Related Literary Terms
- Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
- Transcendentalism: movement with a focus on nature and opposition to the destruction of the individual that came with industrialism.
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
- Historical Fiction: a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events