Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

American Renaissance

a.k.a. the Romantic Period in American Literature

Historically or culturally, the "American Renaissance" is the literary and cultural period from about 1820 to the 1860sor, the generation before the American Civil War (1861-65), when the USA grew nearly 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.*

Major 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 an American literary tradition in which European styles and standards were adapted to American subjects and voices.

Scholarship since the 1970s extends the American Renaissance to include women, African American, and Native American authors with a related emphasis on cultural and historical issues that are compatible with Romantic ideals of equality, progress, individualism, idealism, etc.

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

Literary or Intellectual Issues

Cultural / Historical Issues

  • Dynamic, expansive period of American national culture after American Revolution

  • Rise of "the common man"; "Jacksonian democracy"

  • Manifest Destiny as American frontier / imperialism over Native American and Mexican lands (US-Mexican War)

  • increasing urbanization; population moving to cities

  • Abolition of Slavery

  • Women's Rights; rise of first generation of urban women writers

  • Apocalyptic and Utopian Movements

  • Occult or mystical movements (Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgiansim)

  • Religion: rise of evangelical mass religion (2nd Great Awakening)

  • Religion: rise among elites of Unitarianism & Transcendentalism

Why is this period considered great?

American authors first appear on world stage as equals or near-equals to European writers.

Many authors experiment in style and develop themes important to American identity and expression, adapting European styles and standards to American subjects. (Examples: In Last of the Mohicans, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas—like later cowboys—become equivalents of chivalrous knights in shining armor saving damsels in distress; the haunted gothic castle of the European imagination becomes the haunted forest of the American mental landscape.)

Rising readership and literacy increase with development of industrial publishing. As with computer literacy today, basic literacy became essential for leisure, social engagement, and power in literature, culture, scholarship, and politics.

1820s-60s as period of national greatness and tragedy: the USA grew enormously, expanding across North America via "Manifest Destiny," generating a rising middle class in numerous new cities, falling into Civil War over slavery and reactionary "Gilded Age" of rich-and-poor culture.

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 RomanticismBlake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and othersis 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)

  • Matthiessen's study of the period assumed its Romantic aspects but shifted focus to the development of a distinctly democratic American literature in which the individual represented the whole.

  • American Renaissance defined the 1850s as the “first maturity” of American literature, when masterpieces of the USA achieved a status comparable to those of the "European Renaissance" of the 16th & 17th centuries.

  • In Matthiessen's usage and popular usage, "Renaissance" means “a cultural flowering" or a period when art and culture rise to new heights. 

  • Matthiessen limited the American Renaissance to the work of five central white male authors in a six-year period, 1850-1855, though he also paid brief attention to Emily Dickinson’s work.

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

1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter

1851 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

1853 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men

1854 Henry David Thoreau, Walden

1855 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (first edition)

(Poe, Dickinson, and other authors were mentioned by Matthiessen but for various reasons didn't fit the limits of his concept.)

“Alternative” American Renaissances

Since the 1960s-70s, American Renaissance studies cover a broader range of time (1820-1860, even 1820-1900) and include more popular and representative authors.

The American Renaissance "canon" or text-selection for classrooms remains 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 continue to propel changes in literary studies and what gets read and tested.

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)

American Renaissance of African American literature (not to be confused with Harlem Renaissance of 1910s-20s)

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 classic American Renaissance and the alternate American Renaissance. (All these descriptions may be questioned for oversimplifying categories that frequently overlap.)

Classic: “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.

See Classic, Popular, & Representative literature

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

Another great period of American literature is Modernism in the early to mid 20th century:

Poetry: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., e e cummings, Elizabeth Bishop

Fiction: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty

Drama: Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams