Colonial Literature

Civil War & Realism


European Romanticism


Harlem Renaissance

American Romanticism

19th century Naturalism

Beat Generation/Whitman

New England Renaissance

American Realism & Regionalism



Anxiety of Influence


The New England Renaissance, 1840-1855

A renaissance is a rebirth, a vital period in a culture, a ripeness that calls forth a concentration of great writers and artists. Such flowering periods took place in ancient Athens, in fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italy, and in Elizabethan England. The United States, by mid-nineteenth century, began to flower.

As the nation consolidated and grew, its problems grew too: slavery, materialism, child labor, and political corruption had become crucial dilemmas in America, and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) provoked heated debates about American expansion.

Democracy, a concept that in the eighteenth century few people thought would actually work, was indeed working. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, the first real "man of the people" to become President, dramatized the democratic spirit in the new, easy, not always graceful ways of Americans, freed from European constraints of class and tradition.

Transcendentalist: Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller,

Transcendentalism is a formidable term describing the movement in American culture that energized much of the literature of this period. To transcend something is to rise above it, to pass beyond its limits.

Transcendentalism is based on the belief that the most fundamental truths about life and death can be reached only by going beyond the world of the senses. The Transcendentalists believed, democratically, that each and every man and woman, living as a true individual, free from restraining dogma and dull habits of thought, could rise above the material world. They believed that each human mind could know something of the ultimate spiritual reality but could not know it through logic or the data of the senses. Rather, that knowledge came through a deep, free intuition, which they recognized as the "highest power of the soul."

Transcendentalist is a fairly loose term referring to a large group of men and women who were very different from one another both as individuals and as writers. They did not have a strict doctrine or code to which they all subscribed. Transcendentalism is more of a tendency, an attitude, that is a philosophy in any well-defined way. Nevertheless, we are able to define some aspects of it.

The Darker Side of Transcendentalism: Hawthorne, Melville

The optimism of the Transcendentalists was not shared by all the great writers of the time. There were those, Hawthorne and Melville are the outstanding examples, who saw the universe as a more confusing and difficult place. Nature, they thought, is ambiguous, not easy to read, interpret, and harmonize. Evil and suffering had to be accounted for and were not to be brushed airily aside. Human nature was obstinate. Life was, as it always had been and always would be, mysterious.

Emerson could not read Hawthorne with pleasure, for he found Hawthorne's tales too gloomy. Hawthorne admired Emerson but thought him "a mystic, stretching his hand out of cloud-land, in vain search for something real." Melville had no use at all for Transcendentalism and the optimism of Emerson. To him it was all "nonsense," a much too easy dismissal of life's "disagreeable facts." For Melville life was a matter of compromises, not ideals; a spectacle of disappointment and illusion.

A good link to Hawthorne's work:

The following material was copied and gleaned from Literature: The American Experience. Ed. Ellen Bowler. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994.