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What do you do with a new nation filled with thousands of miles of untamed wilderness? Shucks, you romanticize it. Anything west of where you live is full of the promise of new jobs, new adventures, new weird animals (have you seen a bison recently? those things are freaky), and a whole new life. All you have to do is use your imagination and your survival skillz—and not care about the Native Americans who already populate the continent (but we digress).
American Romanticism was the first full-fledged literary movement that developed in the U.S. It was made up of a group of authors who wrote and published between about 1820 and 1860, when the U.S. was still finding its feet as a new nation.
These guys and gals were influenced by the Romantic movement that had developed back in Britain. Like the British Romantics, their work emphasized emotion, a love of nature, and imagination. You know how you feel when you see Old Faithful? Or the red rocks of Utah? Yeah. That feeling. That ohmygoshthisiscrazyandamazing feeling.
American Romanticism ain't called "American" Romanticism for nothing. That's because while the writers who made up this movement had a lot in common with their European buddies across the sea, they also developed their own distinct brand of Romanticism.
The U.S.'s unique history and landscape influenced the movement in special ways. The American Romantics were preoccupied with questions of democracy and freedom, which were rooted in the American Revolution that had led to independence from Britain back in 1776. USA! USA!
And the U.S.'s natural landscape—very different from Europe's—also influenced the writers of this movement in special ways. "The frontier," for example, is a big idea in the work of American Romantic writers. Also: bison. No, really—those things are insane-looking. Insane.
A lot of the values and ideas we often associate with American culture—values like individualism and democracy and competitive eating (um, maybe not that last one)—are reflected in American Romantic writing, which played a really important role in spreading those values.
Whether you like it or not—whether your favorite holiday is the 4th of July or you can't get enough of this bald eagle fail—the U.S. is a superpower. But it's only been a country for a little over two hundred years (if we start counting with the Declaration of Independence in 1776): America is still a teenager in country-years.
But America is kind of the Lorde-circa-2013 of teenage countries. You may love it, you may hate it, you may float conspiracy theories about how it's actually way older than it claims to be… but you know all about it. You probably even have its anti-Royalist stance stuck in your head.
There's no getting away from 'Murica.
But what is it, exactly, that makes America American? Is it scrumptious barbeque? Is it Celia Cruz? Is it the Hollywood sign? Is it Toni Morrison (um, yes please: that would make our book nerd hearts very, very happy)?
No, it's something more ineffable than that, right? It's the X factor of Americanism: the American character.
So what is the American character? Well, if we want to get an idea, we might have to dig into the American Romantics—way back in time to the first big American literary movement. These writers reflect for us the values that make the American character unique. Heck, they played a big part in creating those values in the first place.
IIP Digital: The Romantic Period 1820-1860
This website, published by the U.S. Department of State, gives a great overview of this period in American literary history.
The Walt Whitman Archive
This digital database gives us access to all of the works of the great bard of American Romanticism. Including those gazillion editions of Leaves of Grass.