American Renaissance in Literature

Taking its name from a phrase coined by F. O. Matthiessen in 1941, the American Renaissance was an era that saw the publication of the most significant works of nineteenth century American literature. Major writers of the period developed a distinctly American literature that used the vernacular language of the young republic to describe the uniqueness of its people, cultures, and geographies.

Summary of Event

The literature of the American Renaissance marks the fulfillment of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called for in The American Scholar (1837), his watershed Phi Beta Kappa speech at Harvard College: an indigenous American literature that would describe the people, language, and cultures of the United States in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. As early as 1850, Herman Melville, in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” could argue that such a distinctively American literatus already existed in Nathaniel Hawthorne, an argument confirming the productivity of the period and the development of a unique American literary identity. American Renaissance
[kw]American Renaissance in Literature (c. 1830’s-1860’s)
[kw]Renaissance in Literature, American (c. 1830’s-1860’s)
[kw]Literature, American Renaissance in (c. 1830’s-1860’s)
[kw]Literature, American Renaissance in (c. 1830’s-1860’s)
American Renaissance
[g]United States;c. 1830’s-1860’s: American Renaissance in Literature[1490]
[c]Literature;c. 1830’s-1860’s: American Renaissance in Literature[1490]
[c]Philosophy;c. 1830’s-1860’s: American Renaissance in Literature[1490]
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
[p]Emerson, Ralph Waldo;and American Renaissance[American Renaissance]
Fuller, Margaret
Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Melville, Herman
Poe, Edgar Allan
Thoreau, Henry David
Whitman, Walt

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, a Harvard professor named F. O. Matthiessen Matthiessen, F. O. coined the term “American Renaisssance” with the publication of his eponymous critical text in 1941. He strictly limited the term to the period between 1850 and 1855. These years undeniably mark the most significant years of the movement, which saw the publication of masterpieces of American literature such as Hawthorne’s Hawthorne, Nathaniel
The Scarlet Letter
Scarlet Letter, The (Hawthorne) (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale
Moby Dick (Melville)
Melville, Herman (1851) and Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852), Henry David Thoreau’s Thoreau, Henry David
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
Walden (Thoreau) (1854), and Walt Whitman’s Whitman, Walt
Leaves of Grass
Leaves of Grass (Whitman) (1855). It is reasonable, however, to begin an examination of the period in the decade of the 1830’s, the decade when Hawthorne, who had recently graduated from Bowdoin College, began to write and later publish his short stories, collected in Twice-Told Tales
Twice-Told Tales (Hawthorne)[Twice Told Tales (Hawthorne)] (1837, expanded 1842) and in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Also, Edgar Allan Poe’s Poe, Edgar Allan short stories and poems began to appear in East Coast periodicals in the 1830’s, culminating with the publication of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). Poe’s international reputation, which came after his early, untimely, and suspicious death in 1849, came principally from the publication four year earlier by Wiley & Putnam of his work The Raven, and Other Poems (1845).

Margaret Fuller.

(Library of Congress)

The young American republic continued to grapple with divisive issues, most notably slavery and the tariff, which often split along regional lines. The African Americans;and American Renaissance[American Renaissance] subgenre of the slave narrative developed at that time. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) Douglass, Frederick
[p]Douglass, Frederick;autobiography and Harriet Jacobs’s Jacobs, Harriet
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) are the best known of a number of antebellum slave narratives Slave narratives that poignantly describe slavery in the United States that would require a civil war to correct.

Slave narratives express only one area of the complex cultural matrix of issues that affected American life at midcentury and that the writers of the American Renaissance attempted to describe. Even though the writers were concentrated in the northeast, they all showed an appreciation for the changing frontier Frontier, American;and American Renaissance[American Renaissance] line that defined the American West, including issues of westward expansion, imperialism, foreign affairs, America’s diplomatic place in the world, and the treatment of American Indians. At the same time writers were looking West, they were well aware of the influences of British Romantic thought from across the Atlantic, which emphasized the primacy of the individual artist.

Another phenomenon of the American Renaissance was the changing understanding of the role of women Women;and American Renaissance[American Renaissance] in society. One can easily trace a line from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Wollstonecraft, Mary
A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) to Margaret Fuller’s Fuller, Margaret
Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) to the Seneca Falls (New York) women’s rights convention of 1848 to view the expanding role of women in American life and literature.

There was no collective interplay between all of the American Renaissance writers, but there were occasional and worthwhile interactions, perhaps most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson’s tutelage of Henry David Thoreau Thoreau, Henry David . Although the patrician Emerson and the plebeian Whitman Whitman, Walt kept their geographic and intellectual distance for most of their careers, Emerson recognized the power and vision of Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass
Leaves of Grass (Whitman) and wrote a laudatory letter to Whitman, who treasured it for the rest of his life. The letter included the memorable sentence, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

Walt Whitman.

(Library of Congress)

Herman Melville Melville, Herman and Nathaniel Hawthorne Hawthorne, Nathaniel were often solitary writers, but as neighbors in the Berkshire Mountains in the summer of 1850, they were, nonetheless, personal and professional friends at a time of remarkable literary productivity for both. Their Monument Mountain climb in early August of that year is perhaps the best-known nineteenth century “picnic” in American literary history.

Like many other eras of literary productivity, the American Renaissance was relatively short-lived. Poe Poe, Edgar Allan died in 1849, and Fuller Fuller, Margaret drowned in 1850. Thoreau Thoreau, Henry David died in 1862, and Hawthorne died in 1864, though Hawthorne spent much of his last decade principally as a diplomat rather than a writer. Although Melville Melville, Herman lived until 1891, he essentially stopped working as a full-time writer after publishing The Confidence Man: His Masquerade
Confidence Man, The (Melville) in 1857, a work that did not receive significant notice for a full century. Spending most of his last two decades as a customs-house officer in New York City, Melville published some short Civil War poems and a lengthy narrative poem called Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), and he wrote Billy Budd, Foretopman
Billy Budd, Foretopman (Melville) in the last three years of his life, but the text was not discovered and published until 1924. Therefore, it would be quite accurate to classify Melville as an American Renaissance writer.

Emerson continued to write essays and poetry throughout his life, but his reputation was established through his signature essays of the 1830’s. Whitman also continued to write poetry and to augment Leaves of Grass through the revised editions that were published up to the 1892 “deathbed” edition. His notable contributions to American letters, however, are the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass
Leaves of Grass (Whitman)
Whitman, Walt and some of his post-Civil War essays, especially Democratic Vistas (1871).


The American Renaissance established American literature as an equal player in the pantheon of world literature. The seminal texts of the era—especially Hawthorne’s Hawthorne, Nathaniel
The Scarlet Letter, Scarlet Letter, The (Hawthorne) Melville’s Melville, Herman
Moby Dick, Moby Dick (Melville) and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—remain part of the canon of American and world literatures.

The antebellum slave narratives fix in time a compelling social dilemma that contributes to both the historical and literary traditions of the nation. Talented African American African Americans;and American Renaissance[American Renaissance] writers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, whose literary subjects reflected their life experiences, would in future generations be freed from the physical and intellectual limits of slavery. In a similar manner, Margaret Fuller’s Fuller, Margaret philosophical treatise on the condition of women helped forge a new agenda for female artistic productivity.

Further Reading

  • Abrams, Robert E. Landscape and Ideology in American Renaissance Literature: Topographies of Skepticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Abrams describes how mid-nineteenth century American writing incorporated new concepts of space and landscape as a means of negotiating certain chaotic dilemmas of antebellum American culture.
  • Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865. 1936. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. This elegant narrative, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, describes how New England authors defined and created a national literature.
  • Grey, Robin, et al., eds. The Complicity of Imagination: The American Renaissance, Contests of Authority, and Seventeenth-Century English Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. This collection of essays investigates seventeenth century English allusions in the works of Emerson, Fuller, Melville, and Thoreau.
  • Grossman, Jay. Reconstituting the American Renaissance: Emerson, Whitman, and the Politics of Representation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. A discussion of the American Renaissance through the differing ways that Emerson and Whitman viewed the political efficacy of their literary productions.
  • Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. 1955. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Traces the Adamic myth in American thought and literature of the period 1820 to 1860.
  • Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. 1941. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. The first, and an enduring, study of the America literary Renaissance of the mid-nineteenth century, emphasizing the importance of the particular poets who defined an age.
  • Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Examines the products of popular culture (from 1820 to 1855) to argue how such influences as reform literatures, religious evangelical style, and popular fiction were “beneath” the creative process of many texts of the period.
  • Versluis, Arthur. The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. An analysis of the influence of the Euro-American discovery of Asian religions on American Transcendentalism and on the American Renaissance.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson; Margaret Fuller; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Herman Melville; Edgar Allan Poe; Henry David Thoreau; Walt Whitman. American Renaissance