INTRODUCTION TO THE ROMANTIC PERIOD OF LITERATURE (1820-1860)
Romantics believed that humans could understand their place in the universe by looking inside themselves, into their own hearts and spirits which were part of nature. They believed that intuition and art could teach people more than science. They believed that the individual could reach out and change society. Each person was connected to every living thing and so had to make society fair and prevent suffering. A person who understood himself or herself could see that the self and nature were connected. That connection contained the means to understand the universe. The study of psychology was really the study of the universe.
The Romantic view fit in well with American democracy. Both depended on individuals, their self-reliance, their creativity, and their honesty.
Transcendentalism was the positive (+), inspiring part of Romanticism. It was a reaction against the 18th century rationalism which had supported the belief that science and reasoning would lead to a deep understanding of the universe. Transcendentalism (taken from the root word transcend meaning to rise above or go beyond) was based on a basic belief that humans could unite with God and become one with the universe. In fact, each individual soul was identical to the universe itself. By studying one's self, a person could move beyond the ordinary and understand the spirit of God and the universe. If a perfect world is represented by a full glass of water, transcendentalists saw their glass as half full with the potential to be completely filled.
The transcendentalism movement began in Concord, Massachusetts. The city was and still is a peaceful town where learning is important and nature is respected. Concord was the site of the first battle of the American Revolution, and the Romantic writer Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem about the battle has two of the most famous lines in American poetry:
Here once the embattled farmers stood
From the beginning people have come to America to find or make their fortune, but in Concord writers looked for a spiritual and cultural alternative to American materialism. It was a place where even the most respected thinkers and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau lived simply and had their own vegetable gardens. Concord and nearby areas in Massachusetts attracted many of the writers whose beliefs define what an American is. These writers include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and William Ellery Channing. These authors and others were involved in the experimental utopian communities at Brook Farm and Fruitlands. There they tried to live in such a way as to transcend normal life and create perfect, peaceful places.
Because transcendentalists celebrated individual differences, they accepted into their discussions authors who did not share their belief in the goodness of humanity. Anti-transcendentalists or Dark Romantics did believe that people could learn by studying their own inner spirit, but they believed that evil was alive and well in both the human spirit and in the universe. Anti-transcendentalists were negative (-), warning that evil must be faced. Nathanial Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville were all anti-transcendentalists. Hawthorne noted (in The Scarlet Letter) proof of the evil in humanity: two of the first things that have to be created in any community are a jail and a graveyard. Anti-transcendentalists can be represented by the same glass of water as the transcendentalists, but the anti-transcendentalists would describe the glass as half empty.
Sources: The Web site from U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs at http://www.america.gov/st/arts-english/2008/April/20080429094758eaifas0.1172602.html, the Web site from the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany at http://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/oal/lit3.htm, http://dictionary.reference.com/, and my own many years of teaching experience.
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