A multifaceted movement in music, painting, and literature that originated in Germany and Britain during the 18th century. Although it is notoriously impossible to define, romanticism is generally a reaction against rationalism and materialism.
It can be broadly represented as a series of beliefs: in the primacy of the imagination rather than in a purely rational mode of apprehending and understanding reality; in the imagination's transformative power to invest reality with meaning; in the importance of individuality and personal freedom, and in the value of spontaneity and self-expression as opposed to artificiality and restraint. Commonly, there is also a pastoral element to romanticism, an exaltation of untamed nature and a consequent desire to find and express one's own individual nature. Other romantic characteristics include an admiration for the individuated hero who has broken from social restraints and a representation of the poet as prophet or visionary. Although often represented as primarily an aesthetic movement, romanticism has important political, social, and nationalistic dimensions. Its support for the ideals of democracy and republicanism derives from a fundamental belief in human equality, while as an optimistic, utopian philosophy, romanticism also envisions the perfectibility of the individual and of society through self-realization, progress, and reform. In romantic thought there is often an idealization of primitive "natural" societies, and antagonism toward what is perceived as repressive artificial civilization.
Romanticism is crucial to American culture, to the extent that the very creation of the United States has been considered an expression of romantic thought. It was the central movement of the American Renaissance, being most readily mediated through transcendentalism, and it continues to exert a profound influence on American thought and writing. In this respect the importance of Ralph Waldo Emerson can hardly be exaggerated, since he both mediated European romantic thought and adapted it to the American intellectual situation. Romanticism perhaps has its fullest and least ambiguous expression in the work of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, but it has been a central concern in the work of numerous writers, notably James Fenimore Cooper
, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville
, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain
, Kate Chopin
, Wallace Stevens, F. Scott Fitzgerald
, Hart Crane (1899-1932), Vladimir Nabokov
(1899-1977), and Sylvia Plath.
THE ECHOING GREEN (1984) by Carlos Baker; AMERICAN ROMANTICISM AND THE MARKETPLACE (1985) by Michael T. Gilmore; ROMANTIC REVOLUTIONS (1990), edited by Kenneth R. Johnston et al.; AMERICAN ROMANTICISM, two volumes (1987) by David Morse, and ROMANTIC RE-VISION (1982) by Bryan J. Wolf.
From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson
. Reprinted by permission of the author.