The American Renaissance

A literary coming of age
 In
the mid 1800’s, it was not
clear whether America would
ever produce a writer as good
as William Shakespeare.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne and
Herman Melville thought that
we could, and wrote that
Americans should support
American authors.
In the mid 19th century, writers like Hawthorne,
Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David
Thoreau produced some of the early
masterpieces of American Literature.
 The Americans called this time
a renaissance, comparing it to
the European Renaissance (a
period of tremendous artistic and
intellectual growth).
 It was really more of a “coming of
age,” as America was finally
finding ways to compare to other
literature around the world.
Much of this burst of American
literature can be attributed to a
focus on self-improvement and
intellectual inquiry taking place
in New England.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson was one
of the primary forces behind
this flowering of culture.
 He helped inspire numerous
reform movements that aimed
to improve public education,
end slavery, elevate the status of
women, and generally improve
social conditions.
 Numerous
utopian projects were developed
in the 1840’s – plans for creating a perfect
 Emerson belonged to a club of
 Transcendentalism was based on the
philosophy of idealism, as well as the ideas
of previous American thinkers.
 Transcendentalists viewed Nature as a
doorway to a mystical world holding
important truths.
 Everything
in the world (including human
beings) is a reflection of the Divine Soul.
 The physical facts of the natural world are a
doorway to the spiritual or ideal world.
 People can use their intuition to behold
God’s spirit revealed in nature or their own
 Self-reliance and individualism must
outweigh external authority and blind
conformity to custom and tradition.
 Spontaneous feelings and intuition are
superior to deliberate intellectualism and
 Emerson
believed in the
power of intuition.
• Intuition is our ability to learn
directly without conscious use
of reasoning.
 He
emphasized the importance
of each individual.
 He had an optimistic outlook –
he believed that each of us
could access God and do the
right thing if we trusted
ourselves and not society.
 The
flip side to Emerson’s
optimistic coin came in the
form of the Dark Romantics –
Melville, Hawthorne and Edgar
Allan Poe.
 These writers acknowledged
the existence of sin, pain, and
evil in human life.