On American Romanticism 

Definitions from A Handbook to Literature, Sixth Edition 
C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon.

Romanticism: a movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that marked the reaction in literature, philosophy, art, religion, and politics from the neoclassicism and formal orthodoxy of the preceding period. Romanticism arose so gradually and exhibited so many phases that a satisfactory definition is not possible. The aspect most stressed in France is reflected in Victor Hugo's phrase "liberalism in literature," meaning especially the freeing of the artist and writer from restrains and rules and suggesting that phase of individualism marked by the encouragement of revolutionary political ideas. The poet Heine noted the chief aspect of German romanticism in calling it the revival of medievalism in art, letters, and life. Walter Pater thought the addition of strangement to beauty (the neoclassicists having insisted on order in beauty) constituted the romantic temper. An interesting schematic explanation calls romanticism the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (classicism) and over the sense of fact or the actual (realism), a formula that recalls Hazlitt's statement (1816) that the class beauty of a Greek temple resided chiefly in its actual form and its obvious connotations, whereas the "romantic" beauty of a Gothic building or ruin arose from associated ideas that the imagination was stimulated to conjure up. The term is used in many senses, a recent favorite being that which sees in the romantic mood a psychological desire to escape from unpleasant realities.

Perhaps more useful to the student than definitions will be a list of romantic characteristics, though romanticism was not a clearly conceived system. Among the aspects of the romantic movement in England may be listed: sensibility; primitivism; love of nature; sympathetic interest in the past, especially the medieval; mysticism; individualism; romanticism criticism; and a reaction against whatever characterized neoclassicism. Among the specific characteristics embraced by these general attitudes are: the abandonment of the heroic couplet in favor of blank verse, the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and many experimental verse forms; the dropping of the conventional poetic diction in favor of fresher language and bolder figures; the idealization of rural life (Goldsmith); enthusiasm for the wild, irregular, or grotesque in nature and art; unrestrained imagination; enthusiasm for the uncivilized or "natural"; interest in human rights (Burns, Byron); sympathy with animal life (Cowper); sentimental melancholy (Gray); emotional psychology in fiction (Richardson); collection and imitation of popular ballads (Percy, Scott); interest in ancient Celtic and Scandinavian mythology and literature ; renewed interest in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Typical literary forms include the lyric, especially the love lyric, the reflective lyric, the nature lyric, and the lyric of morbid melancholy...;the sentimental novel; the metrical romance; the sentimental comedy; the ballad; the problem novel; the historical novel; the Gothic romance; the sonnet; and the critical essay....

The term designates a literary and philosophical theory that tends to see the individual at the center of all life, and it places the individual, therefore, at the center of art, making literature valuable as an expression of unique feelings and particular attitudes (the expressive theory of criticism) and valuing its fidelity in portraying experiences, however fragmentary and incomplete, more than it values adherence to completeness, unity, or the demands of genre. Although romanticism tends at times to regard nature as alien, it more often sees in nature a revelation of Truth, the "living garment of God," and a more suitable subject for art than those aspects of the world sullied by artifice. Romanticism seeks to find the Absolute, the Ideal, by transcending the actual, whereas realism finds its values in the actual and naturalism in the scientific laws the undergird the actual. 

Romantic Period in American Literature, 1830-1865.

The period between the "second revolution" of the Jacksonian Era and the close of the Civil War in America saw the testings of a nation and its development by ordeal. It was an age of great westward expansion, of the increasing gravity of the slavery question, of an intensification of the spirit of embattled sectionalism in the South, and of a powerful impulse to reform in the North. Its culminating act was the trial by arms of the opposing views in a civil war, whose conclusion certified the fact of a united nation dedicated to the concepts of industry and capitalism and philosophically committed to egalitarianism. In a sense it may be said that the three decades following the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson in 1829 put to the test his views of democracy and saw emerge from the test a secure union committed to essentially Jacksonian principles.

In literature it was America's first great creative period, a full flowering of the romantic impulse on American soil. Surviving form the Federalist Age were its three major literary figures: Bryant, Irving, and Cooper. Emerging as new writers of strength and creative power were the novelists Hawthorne, Simms, Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the poets Poe, Whittier, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Dickinson, and Whitman; the essayists Thoreau, Emerson, and Holmes; the critics Poe, Lowell, and Simms....

The poetry was predominantly romantic in spirit and form. Moral qualities were significantly present in the verse of Emerson, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Thoreau. The sectional issues were debated in poetry by Whittier and Lowell speaking for abolition, and Timrod, Hayne, and Simms speaking for the South. Poe formulated his theories of poetry and in some fifty lyrics practiced a symbolist verse that was to be, despite the change of triviality by such contemporaries as Emerson, the strongest single poetic influence emerging from pre-Civil War America, particularly in its impact on European poetry....Whitman, beginning with the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, was the ultimate expression of a poetry organic in form and romantic in spirit, united to a concept of democracy that was pervasively egalitarian.

In essays and in lectures the New England transcendentalists-- Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Alcott--carried the expression of philosophic and religious ideas to a high level....In the 1850s emerged the powerful symbolic novels of Hawthorne and Melville and the effective propaganda novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Poe, Hawthorne, and Simms practiced the writing of short stories through the period, taking up where Irving had left off in the development of the form,,,,

At the end of the Civil War a new nation had been born, and it was to demand and receive a new literature less idealistic and more practical, less exalted and more earthy, less consciously artistic and more honest than that produced in the age when the American dream had glowed with greatest intensity and American writers had made a great literary period by capturing on their pages the enthusiasm and the optimism of that dream.