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American Romanticism

American Romanticism is considered the first highly influential literary movement to occur within the United States. It is also sometimes known as the “American Renaissance.” 

The movement swept the nation and included numerous authors from a variety of backgrounds who were seeking to find a uniquely American voice within the writing. They sought to separate themselves from European and British writers who had thus far defined the course of western literature.

Despite their desire to separate themselves from their European counterparts, American writers were inspired by the broader romantic movement that began in Britain with William Wordsworth‘s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798. 

American Romanticism definition and literary examples

American Romanticism Definition

The American Romanticism movement lasted from 1820 to 1860 and included the works of American authors seeking to find a unique voice post-American Revolution and during the broader Romanticism movement in Europe and Britain. 

American writers were inspired by Romanticism’s interest and subjective experience, individuality, and powerful emotions. But, the history of America, and its very specific landscape, influenced the movement as well. For example, with American Romanticism, readers often encounter poems, novels, and more about the frontier or the American west. American values, like democracy, are also reflected in this movement.

Below, readers can explore a few of the most important literary works created within the American Romanticism movement.

Examples of American Romanticism Literature 

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne’s best-known literary accomplishment. The novel was published in 1850 and set in Puritan Massachusetts Bay, during the years of 1642-1649. It tells the story of a young woman, Hester Prynne, who has a daughter after engaging in an affair and is ostracized by her community. It speaks on themes of sin, guilt, and more. Here is a quote:

It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.

Read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s poetry.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville 

Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, is an 1851 novel and one of the most important books of the American Romanticism movement. The book is written from Ishmael’s perspective and details the obsessive quest his captain, Ahab, embarked on to exact revenge on Moby Dick, a giant white sperm whale that bit off his leg on a previous voyage. Here is a quote: 

In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body.

Interestingly, the book was met with mixed reviews and was considered a failure after its publication. It was out of print when the author died in 1891. It was not until the 20th century that the book was established as one of the most important literary accomplishments in American history. Famously, when commenting on the novel, D.H. Lawrence described it as “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.”

Walden by Henry David Thoreau 

Walden, also known as Walden Pond; or Life in the Woods, is one of the most critical literary accomplishments of the American Renaissance or the American Romanticism movement. It was first published by Thoreau in 1854 and is also commonly cited as one of the most influential works of the Transcendentalist movement. Throughout, Thoreau speaks about his natural surroundings, independence, self-reliance, includes elements of satire, and more. Here is a quote: 

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Famously, the book details Thoreau’s two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts (interestingly, on property owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson). 

Discover Henry David Thoreau’s poetry.


What are the characteristics of American Romanticism?

Writers who were part of the American Romanticism movement emphasized individuality, subjective experience, and strong emotional reactions within their literary works. Unlike their European and British counterparts, though, American writers were influenced by the American Revolution and the unique landscape of their country. 

What is an example of American Romanticism? 

The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne is one of the most important and commonly referenced works of the American Romanticism movement. In this piece, Hawthorne speaks on themes including guilt, son, and morality. The importance of religion and control are also present in the novel.

Why is American Romanticism important? 

The American Romanticism movement is important because it is considered to be the first widespread and influential literary movement in the United States. During this period of time, American writers, like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and more, were seeking to develop a uniquely American voice in their writing that would set them apart from their European counterparts.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
  • Dark Romanticism: a subgenre of the important literary movement— Romanticism. It includes works of a more grotesque nature. 
  • Dadaism: an art and literary movement in Europe during the 20th century. It was a reaction to the senselessness of war during the early 1900s. 
  • Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
  • Dirty Realism: a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.
  • Futurism:  an avant-garde movement that originated in Italy in the 20th century. It was part of the broader Futurist art movement.
  • Genre:  a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Fugitives: a movement comprised of a group of poets and scholars from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid-1920s. 

Other Resources 

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