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AMERICAN ROMANTICISM: INTRODUCTION. ROMANTICISM: THE MOVEMENT. - dominated cultural thought from the last decade of the 18th century well into the first decades of the 20th century

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Romanticism the movement l.jpg

- dominated cultural thought from the last decade of the 18th century well into the first decades of the 20th century

  • First appearance in Germany in the 1770s (“Sturm und Drang”); flowering in England in the 1790s; importation to America from the 1820s onward

  • To a large degree, Romanticism was a reaction against the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, especially its emphasis on formal propriety, classical style, and decorum

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  • The Enlightenment faith in a perfectible material and spiritual universe through the power of human reason was shaken by the revolutions that ended the century (The American Revolution, The French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars—some Romantic artists actually—for a while—exalted Napoleon as the ultimate Romantic hero—e.g., Beethoven in his “Eroica Symphony,” which later was used in Hitchcock’s Psycho…)

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  • Question: What comes to mind or what do you associate with the term “Romanticism”?

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  • Although we usually associate a quaint or exaggerated effusion of emotion with Romanticism (hence, the shift in meaning of the word “Romantic” to everything relating love…), the Romantic age brought about concepts of the individual and his/her relationship to the world/society that we still largely subscribe to, even champion today.

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  • Romanticism is the cult of the individual--the cultural and psychological birth of the I--the Self

  • Belief in an inner spark of divinity that links one human being to another and all human beings to the larger “Truth”

  • In poetry, visual art, and music, artists became increasingly preoccupied with articulating the personal experience that becomes, in turn, a representative one

  • IMAGINATION becomes the source of artistic vision/creativity (during the neo-classical age, imagination was linked to “fancy,” which implied the fantastic, fictive, and even false)

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  • The artist (especially, the poet): takes on quasi-religious status not only as prophet and moral leader

  • The poet/artist as a divinely inspired vehicle through which Nature and the common man find their voices

  • Esp.: See William Wordsworth, “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads

    • Poet as Prophet

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  • Concern for the common man: came from both the democratic changes of the age of Revolution, as well as an interest in folk culture

  • In part, the search to preserve the stories, songs, legends, and verse of the common people came from a nationalistic impulse

    • E.g. in Germany, the Grimm brothers collected the fairy tales of their region and country while assembling a comprehensive dictionary of the German language (the German equivalent of Webster’s in the 19th century!)

  • But: the Folk Movement also produced an international language of human commonality, at whose center stood the images of home and the heart.

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  • aesthetic changes: individuality translated into the revolution of feeling against form

  • Poets, painters, and musicians no longer trying to make their expression fit conventional forms, but carving out new forms to capture their feelings and thoughts

  • Emphasis on the language of the Soul

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  • Quintessential Romantic figures: the hero, the wanderer, and the genius:

    • all journey to new lands (literally and figuratively), defy limitations, and overcome obstacles

    • SHREK, anybody???

    • Hero/wanderer fascination also came from the Romantic identification and exploration of everything Medieval (the Middle Ages were thought to be characterized by mystery and irrationality)

  • Typical Romantic motifs:

    • Exotic lands (Melville, especially his South Sea novels and Moby Dick)

    • Amorphous world of dreams (Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”)

    • Dark terrors of the psyche (E. A. Poe!)

    • Dizzying heights—in both nature and human creativity (Frankenstein…)

    • Sublime vistas in nature reflecting the divine and potentially terrifying powers o f the human mind, spirit, and soul

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  • For the Romantic, nature was a constant companion and teacher--both benign and tyrannical

  • Nature became

    • the stage on which the human drama was played

    • the context in which man came to understand his place in the universe

    • the transforming agent which harmonized the individual soul with what the Transcendentalists would call the Over-Soul.

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  • Throughout all of Romantic literature, music, and art, Nature is a dynamic presence, a character who speaks in a language of symbols at once mysterious and anthropomorphic (i.e. speaking with a voice similar to human voice, i.e. sharing human qualities and characteristics, especially in personification of natural objects, phenomena, etc.)

  • allows man to come into dialogue with the life-force

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  • Germany:

    • Authors: Goethe (esp. The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust), Schiller (esp. William Tell); Novalis, Eichendorff, Schlegel, and the Grimm brothers

    • Painters: Caspar David Friedrich

    • Composers: Beethoven, Schubert (songs), Mendelssohn (wedding march from Midsummer Night’s Dream), Richard Wagner,

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  • Great Britain:

    • Authors: Robert Burns, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley.

    • Painters: William Blake, John Constable, Joseph Turner

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  • Often associated with the terms “American Renaissance” and “Transcendentalism”

  • Poets: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson

  • Prose Writers: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville.

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    • What distinguishes American Romanticism?

    • How was AR influenced and shaped by the political developments of the early national and ante-bellum period (circa 1820-1860)?

    • What does the term “American Renaissance” (a later coinage by literary critic F. O. Matthiesen) imply about the distinctiveness of American Romanticism and its relationship to European Romanticism?

    • Is there any connection between AR and an emerging cultural identity in the United States?

    • How did the geographic and social landscapes of the United States influence AR?

      • The frontier, the wilderness, expansion

      • Slavery, racism, sectionalism, class conflict, industrialization, gender inequality, Indian removal, etc.

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    • General: to what degree can artists/authors both exemplify/represent and stand outside of or critique a culture at the same time?

    • Where, how, or to what degree do the writers we are encountering sanction/affirm and/or challenge, critique, or even subvert the spirit of the age?

    • How can we appreciate radical departures from or challenges to perceived wisdom, standard ways of thinking, political culture, power structures, tradition, and convention?

    • To what degree do these challenges still matter to us and possibly even offer useful correctives to our own mode of thinking and living?

    • Or: where, how, and to what degree was the “Romantic challenge” actually part of the “machine”?

    • In other words, can the “establishment” ever critique itself? (E.g. the problem of the Transcendentalists’ obvious male bias, or the Emerson-Thoreau tension)

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  • The first coherent school of American art, the Hudson River painters, helped to shape the mythos of the American landscape

  • Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

  • Asher B. Durand (1796-1886)

  • Frederick Church (1826-1900)

  • Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

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Thomas Cole, “The Falls of Kaaterskill” (1826)

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Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, 1836)

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Asher Durand, “Kindred Spirits” (1848) Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, 1836)

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Asher Durand, “Kindred Spirits” (1848) Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, 1836)

  • In it Durand depicts himself, together with Cole, on a rocky promontory in serene contemplation of the scene before them

  • In the foreground stands one of the school's famous symbols--a broken tree stump-- what Cole called a "memento mori“

  • I.e. a reminder that life is fragile and impermanent; only Nature and the Divine within the Human Soul are eternal.

  • Tiny as the human beings are in this composition, they are nevertheless elevated by the grandeur of the landscape in which they are in

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Frederic Edwin Church, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, 1836)“The Natural Bridge” (1852)

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Alfred Bierstadt, “Emigrants Crossing the Plains” (1867) Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, 1836)

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  • Though influenced by European Romantic painting, they tried to define a distinct vision for American art

  • Began with the grand views of the Hudson Valley and surrounding Catskill Mountains in NY

  • They celebrated the vast resources and magnificent landscapes of the new nation (“Nature’s Nation”)

  • Depicting a wilderness in which man is small in comparison but still formed an essential element in a divine harmony

  • As Thomas Cole maintained, if nature were untouched by the hand of man--as was much of the primeval American landscape in the early 19th century--then man could become more easily acquainted with the hand of God

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  • Influence of Transcendentalists on Hudson River School

  • Emerson had written in his 1841 essay “Thoughts on Art” that painting should become a vehicle through which the universal mind could reach the mind of mankind,

  • Thus: Hudson River painters believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation.

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  • William Cullen Bryant, “To a Waterfowl” and “The Prairies”

  • Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, “Niagara”

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life” and “The Fire of Drift-wood”