American Literary History: Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism

Romanticism |Realism | Naturalism | Definitions | Works Cited


    (European) Romanticism 1820-1865: A European artistic and intellectual movement of the early 19th century, characterized by an emphasis on individual freedom from social conventions or political restraints, on human imagination, and on nature in a typically idealized form. Romantic literature rebelled against the formalism of 18th century reason. Many Romantic writers had an interest in the culture of the Middle Ages, an age noted for its faith, which stood in contrast to the age of the Enlightenment and pure logic.

    Romanticism differs significantly from Classicism, the period Romanticism rejected. Romanticism is more concerned with emotion than rationality. It values the individual over society, nature over city. It questions or attacks rules, conventions and social protocol. It sees humanity living IN nature as morally superior to civilized humanity: glorification of the "noble savage." It conceives of children, essentially innocent by nature, as being corrupted by their surroundings. Many works emphasize the emotional aspects excessively, moving the piece toward Dark Romanticism and the Gothic. Romantic literature places an emphasis on the individual and on the expression of personal emotions. Literary Romanticism should not be confused with romance literature.

    Romanticism was evident not only in literature, but also in art, music and architecture.

    The American Period of Romanticism (1830-1865) was "an age of great westward expansion, of the increasing gravity of the slavery questions, of an intensification of the spirit of embattled sectionalism in the South, and of a powerful impulse to reform in the North" (Harman 454). It has many of the same characteristics as European Romanticism but had several uniquely American aspects.

    Conditions that influenced American Romanticism:

    Frontier promised opportunity for expansion, growth, freedom; Europe lacked this element.
    Spirit of optimism invoked by the promise of an uncharted frontier.
    Immigration brought new cultures and perspectives
    Growth of industry in the north that further polarized the north and the agrarian south.
    Search for new spiritual roots.

    Literary Themes:
    Highly imaginative and subjective
    Emotional intensity
    Common man as hero
    Nature as refuge, source of knowledge and/or spirituality



  • Characters and setting set apart from society; characters were not of our own conscious kind
  • Static characters--no development shown
  • Characterization--work proves the characters are what the narrator has stated or shown
  • Universe is mysterious; irrational; incomprehensible
  • Gaps in causality
  • Formal language
  • Good receive justice; nature can also punish or reward
  • Silences of the text--universals rather than learned truths
  • Plot arranged around crisis moments; plot is important
  • Plot demonstrates
    • romantic love
    • honor and integrity
    • idealism of self
  • Supernatural foreshadowing (dreams, visions)
  • Description provides a "feeling" of the scene
  • Sub Genre:

  • Slave narrative: protest; struggle for authors self-realization/identity
  • Domestic (sentimental): social visits; women secondary in their circumstances to men.
  • Female gothic: devilish childhood; family doom; mysterious foundling; tyrannical father.
  • Women's fiction: anti-sentimental
    • heroine begins poor and helpless
    • heroine succeeds on her own character
    • husbands less important than father
  • Bildungsroman: initiation novel; growth from child to adult.

  • American Romanticists:
    European Romanticists:

    James Fenimore Cooper
    Emily Dickinson
    Frederick Douglass
    Ralph Waldo Emerson
    Margaret Fuller
    Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Washington Irving
    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    Herman Melville
    Edgar Allen Poe
    Henry David Thoreau
    Walt Whitman

    William Blake
    Lord Byron (George Gordan)
    Samuel Coleridge
    John Keats
    Ann Radcliffe
    Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
    Percy Bysshe Shelley









    Resources on Romanticism:

Created by: Carol Scheidenhelm, Ph.D.
Director, Learning Technologies and Assessment
Loyola University Chicago

Last updated: August 14, 2007