Romanticism, unlike the other "isms", isn't directly political. It is more intellectual. The term itself was coined in the 1840s, in England, but the movement had been around since the late 18th century, primarily in Literature and Arts. In England, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron typified Romanticism. In France, the movement was led by men like Victor Hugo, who wrote the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although it knew no national boundaries, Romanticism was especially prevalent in Germany, spearheaded by artists like Goethe and thinkers such as Hegel.
The basic idea in Romanticism is that reason cannot explain everything. In reaction to the cult of rationality that was the Enlightenment, Romantics searched for deeper, often subconscious appeals. This led the Romantics to view things with a different spin than the Enlightenment thinkers. For example, the Enlightenment thinkers condemned the Middle Ages as "Dark Ages", a period of ignorance and irrationality. The Romantics, on the other hand, idealized the Middle Ages as a time of spiritual depth and adventure. Looking wistfully back to the Middle Ages, the Romantic influence led to a Gothic Revival in architecture in the 1830s. Gothic novels increased in popularity, and in art, paintings of various historical periods and exotic places came into vogue.
It would be impossible to cover all of the Romantics in such a short space (and a disservice to them to attempt it), but representative examples can be given. Mary Shelley (the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, published Frankenstein in 1818. Few would argue that it is the best work of the British Romantics, but it is indicative. In this story, a scientist is able to master life, animating an artificially constructed person. But this "miracle of science," far from a simple story of man mastering nature through reason, ends up having monstrous results.
In Germany art, Friedrich Schiller produced plays known for their sense of a German "Volk", or national spirit. Karl Friedrich Schinckel led the Gothic Revival movement, beginning his first plans for Gothic structures as early as the 1820s. German romantic philosophy was dominated by W.G.F. Hegel. He construed the development of the state as part of a historical process, or "teleology". He is particularly famous for outlining a concept of the dialectic: the mind makes progress by creating opposites, which are then combined in a synthesis. Hegel tied his philosophy into nationalism by arguing for a German national dialectic that would result in synthesis into a state. Hegel's work increased the emphasis people put on historical studies, and German history writing boomed. Partially as a result of Hegel's influence, the idea developed that Germany's role was to act as a counterbalance to France. Seeing themselves as such, Germans began to feel that liberalism was not appropriate in Germany.
The French had their Romantics too, though not in the same profusion as Germany. For instance, Romantic painting is always associated with Eugene Delacroix, who prized the emotional impact of color over the representational accuracy of line and careful design. Delacroix painted historical scenes, such as "liberty Leading the People" (1830) which glorified the beautiful spectacle of revolution, perhaps construing it as part of the French national character. After 1848, Romanticism fell into decline.
Romanticism can be construed as an opposite to "classicism," drawing on Rousseau's notion of the goodness of the natural. Romanticism holds that pure logic is insufficient to answer all questions. Despite a founding French influence, Romanticism was most widespread in Germany and England, largely as a reaction to the French Enlightenment. It also was a response to French cultural domination, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. The Romanticist emphasis on individualism and self-expression deeply impacted American thinking, especially the transcendentalism of Emerson.
The Blossoming of American Literature
During the early 1800s, American literature began to divide from its British roots. Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper helped carve out the early territory of American literature, using distinctly American literary themes. Washington Irving achieved international acclaim, writing often satirical accounts of life in colonial New York. Two of his most famous stories are “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” James Fenimore Cooper, the author of The Pioneers (1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826), is credited with creating the first western hero. In “The American Scholar” (1837), Ralph Waldo Emerson lauded such American literary advances and urged American authors to continue setting their own course.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe emerged in the late 1840s and early 1850s as prominent writers of fiction. They portrayed individuals as conflicted and obsessive, proud and guilt-ridden. In The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, Hawthorne explores the moral dilemmas of an adulterous Puritan minister. Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) portrays a sea captain’s tortured obsession. Poe’s macabre short stories and poems, including “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) and “The Raven” (1844), examine depravity and moral corruption.
Prominent essayists and poets also emerged during the 1840s and 1850s. Two of the most renowned essayists were the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (discussed in the Transcendentalism section), who favored emotion and intuition over pure logic. The poet Walt Whitman, a follower of Emerson, celebrated America for producing a new type of democratic man uncorrupted by European vice in his compilation of poems, Leaves of Grass, published in 1855.
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