American Romanticism is generally considered to take place from around the end of the 18th century to the latter half of the 19th century (1800 to 1860). Only a few decades prior to this movement, the United States, in 1776, had become an independent nation. America, being so young in its sovereignty, did not really have a history of its own making to fall back on. In other words, it had yet to create for itself, a so-called, “national literature” or recorded history to identify with, as opposed to the kind of literary history England had for instance, which extended back multiple centuries. Consequently, literature in American schools at the time would have consisted primarily of Greek, Roman, and English literature. America had yet to establish a literary voice that was unique in itself, of which the American population, being so diverse, could use as a means of uniting or coming together as one people.
American Romanticism was the first, true, attempt at giving the freshly independent nation a distinctive American voice. One of the earliest and most recognized of the new-American writers was Washington Irving. He is known, particularly, for his two short stories, “Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle”, both of which combined fantasy and folklore, creating, for the readers, a sort of “mythic history” of America. However, for the sake of this post, we will only speak on behalf of Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” It is in this story that we see the portrayal of a “lost” character (peculiarly named Rip Van Winkle) who cannot identify with the world around him due to some rather self-inflicted discombobulation. He is a simple man who likes simple things and one day, while roaming through the forest and partying with some dwarves, Rip Van Winkle dozes off into a deep sleep that lasts some twenty odd years. After awaking and returning home, he realizes that nothing is the same and finds the world around him to be chaotic and confusing.
The story is obviously utterly unrealistic, but perhaps it might be better to look at what the story is trying to say underneath all of the fantastical elements. It would seem that it is a sort of commentary on how, following the Revolutionary War, the United States, in becoming an independent nation, had lost its way, for it was abandoning an already forming history (connected to Britain) prior to the war. America had decidedly dropped all ties with the old world so that it could start afresh, but much of the country’s populace felt “lost in time” – as if they had slept through half of their lives. In ways, it was considered to be a type of living without any instruction on how to live. Irving’s writing may have been constructed primarily of fantasy and fiction, but with the occasional application of historical fact, Irving helped to create an American “history” that gradually became true, for the falsehoods were almost indistinguishable from the certainties.
Another Romantic writer who took part in shaping the American Identity of the times was James Fennimore Cooper. In Cooper’s The Pioneers, the segment titled “The Slaughter of the Pigeons” presents us with a strong focus on how, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, man and nature did not quite see eye to eye. Instead, it seemed that man looked down on nature as something lesser than himself. In this short chapter, Cooper tells the story of a town’s thoughtless massacre of the migrating pigeons flying overhead. The towns-people consider this slaughter to be a sort of sport, competing with one another to see who can kill the most. Whereas the main character of the novel, Natty Bumppo, only kills one pigeon, intending to keep it for his next meal. Natty Bumppo, for Cooper, is a man of nature. He lives off the land respectfully, believing that one must only take from nature what they need as a means of survival.
For the American Romantics, living to excess, otherwise known as greed or gluttony, is not considered to be a quality characteristic; Rather, an influence that seems to have been left behind by the Europeans. One might think of manifest destiny and the mindless slaughter of the indigenous population of the so-called “New World” or perhaps, the deforestation of trees on their own continent. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Western Europe harvested nearly all of their forests in order to build ships for their navy (the largest in the world at the time) as well as for all of the sorts of trade they were engaged in at the time. It would seem that Cooper’s chapter, “The Slaughter of the Pigeons,” is speaking directly to that desecration of the natural landscape. Still a brutal quality that humanity has still yet to shake. Perhaps Cooper is using this story as a means of advising the American people not to take the natural world for granted.
Similarly, another group of writers, known as the transcendentalists (still part of American Romanticism), also incorporated the thematic influences of nature into their work, helping to further develop the American identity and its literary voice. Particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of which, it would seem, were the original architects behind the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was as much a literary movement as it was a philosophical movement. This group believed that the individual could only find the true meanings of life through that of nature. The natural world offered truth and to understand that truth, one must use their intuition rather than their logical reasoning.
From the end of the 18th century all the way into the latter half of the 19th century, America created for itself, an identity that the rest of the world could recognize as new and inimitable. However, to get there, America had to face the many challenges that were both already inherently part of the land as well as the ones left behind by European influence. The land surrounding them was so vast in scale and so rough in terrain yet so beautiful and inspiring; how overwhelming it all must have been! The American people were faced with a past full of conflict and contention, not to mention a revolution that had left the nation full of all sorts of doubts and uncertainties. Because they lacked an original history and had a strong absence of tradition, they had to boldly create their own; an opportunity that we may never see again. Let us hope that this American identity they helped to create was for the better. Not for the worse.
(As always… These posts are strictly for my own train of thought – to see what is it is that I truly think about what I am engaging with… I love to read, but to make sense of what I read, I must write.)