American Renaissance & American Romanticism

 What is “the American Renaissance?”

Historically or culturally, it's the literary and cultural period from about 1820 to the 1860s--or, the generation before the American Civil War (1861-65), when the USA grew to its present size and began to deal with some of the unsolved issues remaining from the American Revolution.

In terms of literature or style, the American Renaissance is the "Romantic Period in American Literature."

The period's rich mix of literary style and cultural history makes it widely regarded as the greatest era in American literature.

Important authors: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Jacobs, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and others.

Classic scholarship, focusing on authors like Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman, identifies this period with American literature's first achievement of literary excellence and establishment of a classical American tradition.

More recent scholarship extends the American Renaissance to include women, African American, and Native American authors. with a subsequent emphasis on cultural issues.

Prevailing issues in Literary and Cultural Studies of the American Renaissance
(many of these issues overlap or cross categories)

Literary or Intellectual Issues

Cultural / Historical Issues

  • Romantic period of American literature

  • Transcendentalism

  • expansion of publishing industry, rise of literacy

  • classic and popular literature

  • Romantic subtopics like the Gothic and Sublime

  • Development of the novel or romance

  • Free verse

  • Dynamic, expansive period of American cultural history in generations after American Revolution

  • Manifest Destiny as American frontier, or as imperialism over Native American and Mexican lands

  • Abolition of Slavery

  • Women's Rights

  • Apocalyptic and Utopian Movements

  • Occult Movements (Spiritualism, Mesmerism)

  • Religion: rise of evangelical mass religion and elite Unitarianism




Why is this period considered great?

American Renaissance as “Romantic period in American literature”

In literary scholarship, the decades before the American Civil War are also identified as “the Romantic period in American literature.” American Romanticism occurred about a generation after the Romantic movement in European literature. (English Romanticism--Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and others--is traditionally defined as the period between 1789 and 1832.)

Name and significance of "The American Renaissance"

The term "American Renaissance" comes from a 1941 book, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman by F. O. Matthiessen. (PS 201 / M3 / 1968 in UHCL Neumann library)

Following are the time-frame and the major authors and works of Matthiessen’s American Renaissance:

“Alternative” American Renaissances

In recent decades, literary and cultural history have expanded the concept of the American Renaissance to cover a broader range of time (1820-1860, even 1820-1900) and particularly to include more popular and representative authors.

American Renaissance and American Romanticism at UHCL use this broader definition of the American Renaissance.

The "canon" or text-selection in classroom studies of American Romanticism and the American Renaissance remain dominated by classic male authors of European or Anglo-American descent. Such decisions are based on quality, tradition, and the American secondary school curriculum, but changes in American demographics and scholarship are propelling changes in literary studies.

American Renaissance and American Romanticism at UHCL work to integrate recent expansions of literary studies to include more women and minority authors. Thus far these expansions of the American Renaissance have taken two major forms.

American Renaissance Women Writers

The alternative tradition to the classical American Renaissance that has received the most scholarly attention has been the movement in popular women’s domestic romances that coincided with the classical American Renaissance period:

1850 Susan Warner, The Wide, Wide World

1851-2 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

1854 Susan Maria Cummins, The Lamplighter

1855 Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall

Examples of scholarship describing this alternative American Renaissance of women’s literature include Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction (Cornell UP, 1977); Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word (1985); Jane P. Tompkins, Sensational Designs (1984). (copies in UHCL's Neumann Library)

Also refer to Fuller and Stanton, early women's rights movement, Seneca Falls.

Another "American Renaissance" that is drawing increased scholarly attention is the first great period in African American literature, especially in written prose:

1845 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

1847 Frederick Douglass, The North Star (weekly newspaper, later known as Frederick Douglass's Paper [until 1860]);

1847 William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself

1850 Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondwoman of Olden Time (recorded by Olive Gilbert)

1853 William Wells Brown, Clotel; or the President's Daughter ("first full-length African American novel")

1855 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

1859 Frances E. W. Harper, "Two Offers" (first short story by an African American woman)

1859 Harriet Wilson, Our Nig (first novel by an African American woman)

1861 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Plus many other "slave narratives" and abolitionist writings, speeches, poems, & songs


Comparing the classical American Renaissance and the alternate American Renaissance.  (All of these descriptions may be questioned.  They oversimplify categories for the sake of comparison. In fact, the categories frequently overlap.)

Classical: “excellence,” refined style, appealed to elite tastes (intellect, humanistic traditions, compositional integrity); usually didn’t sell well on first publication, but eventually well-represented in libraries and reading lists, and stayed in print in school anthologies

Alternative: “representative” or “popular”; looser, freer style; appealed to wide tastes (sentiment, religion, sensation); sold well on publication, but most (except Uncle Tom’s Cabin) fell out of print after nineteenth century until feminist scholarship rediscovered and republished them in the late twentieth century. Much of the African American tradition continued to be studied at historically black colleges and universities.