Monday, February 21, 2011

American vs. European Romanticism

In America there was no extreme reformist tendency to introduce the kind of conspiratorial socialism that emerged in Europe. Instead, Romanticism in America took its own particular style from the strong legacy of 17th century rebellious Puritanism, a severe Calvinist form of Protestantism. American Romantics developed a philosophy of individualism with the unique American frontier. American colonists felt a sense of sacredness in the new land. James Fenimore Cooper idealized the self-reliance of frontier culture in historical romances like The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Moby Dick by Herman Melville reflected a moral ambiguity in the American soul- a conflict between pioneering free will and the “mystical blackness” of Puritan doctrine. (Boreham & Heath. 2002).

American Romanticism was more about individualism and social relevance in that everyone should have a chance to maximize one’s own worth. With Emerson looking inward to find divine essence, which he claims we all share in common, and Emily Dickinson not going “public” by publishing her verse, American Romanticism is distinctly different from European in each artist. American Romanticism evolved from a frontier that promised opportunity for expansion, growth, freedom, Europe lacked this element. The spirit of optimism invoked by the promise of an uncharted frontier was portrayed in many paintings of American Romanticism. Immigration to America brought new cultures and perspectives to the American Romanticism. Growth of industry in the north that further polarized the north and the agrarian South and search for new spiritual roots influenced the American Romanticism and made it distinctly different from European Romanticism.

Although America did not have the ruins of a classical civilization or an intellectual heritage comparable to Europe’s, it did have a wilderness more primeval than anywhere in Europe, or at least it did for a while. In painting, Romantic art returned to the idealized landscape, but not the landscape of classical civilizations. Instead, painters like Bierstadt, Church, and Moran used their keen observations of the West to transform it into the promised land of America
Bierstadt’s paintings of the Rockies or Moran’s portrayals of the geological wonders of the west depict the American landscape in primeval majesty which transports the spectator to a virgin land of nearly prehistoric character. Almost every landscape painting done by these artists lacks any sign of human civilization, European or other, and instead focuses solely on the primacy of the landscape. To the artists, the admiration of nature was merely technique; they wished to convey the impressions of the wilderness.

The one artist that seems to be unique from European romanticism and that would be Emily Dickinson. She is the true definition of Transcendentalism. She was being true to herself and being an individual at all costs, as opposed to conforming to a world of followers. Keeping Dickinson's famous reclusivity in mind, one could say that in her lifetime she was neither a leader nor a follower. Dickinson never tied herself to a specific school of thought or philosophy, she was simply herself. Dickinson spent the latter part of her life as a recluse, due to an extremely sensitive psyche and possibly to make time for writing (for stretches of time she wrote about one poem a day). Her day also included homemaking for her attorney father, a prominent figure in Amherst who became a member of Congress. She sometimes shows a terrifying existential awareness. Like Poe, she explores the dark and hidden part of the mind, dramatizing death and the grave. Yet she also celebrated simple objects – a flower, a bee. Her poetry exhibits great intelligence and often evokes the agonizing paradox of the limits of the human consciousness trapped in time. Her wit shines in the following poem (288), which ridicules ambition and public life:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong
June –
To an admiring Bog!


Boreham & Heath. (2002). Introducing Romanticism.

The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Essayists and Poets Fresh new vision electrified artistic and intellectual circles. (03 May 2008). Retrieved from

Strickland, Dr. Brad. American Romanticism Overview. (1997). Retrieved from

Reuben, Paul P. American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction Ch 4. PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. Retrieved from

Johns, Joshua. (1996). A Brief History of Nature and the American Consciousness
Retrieved from