Major Literary Movements in America

**(This handout was adapted from several statements in a variety of texts)

Neoclassicism: American poems of the Enlightenment era were (like the prose works of the same time) often political in content, satiric in tone, and didactic in purpose. Neoclassical might be the best label for them since it indicates their close resemblance to English poems of the period. Imitation, to the eighteenth-century neoclassicist, was not the ugly word it would be to the nineteenth-century romantics. The British neoclassicists imitated the writers of ancient Greece and Rome; the American neoclassicists imitated the writers of ancient Greece and Rome and their British imitators. However, imitation often resulted in adaptation as American poetry, like American architecture, mixed the classical with the indigenous.

The neoclassical poetry of America and that of England resembled each other in three important aspects:

1. The couplet form. This was the preferred form. The couplets could be open or closed, pentameter or tetrameter. Occasionally, writers even experimented with blank verse, Spenserian stanza, and other kinds of meter and rhyme.

2. Poetic diction. Words like "blade" and "steed" were considered more appropriate to poetry than were words like "knife" and "horse." American applications of this theory sometimes appear absurd, as when a farmer is called a "shepherd" or a panther a "tiger." Because the neoclassicists used generalized diction in striving for universality, they also overworked the device of personification. Eighteenth-century iconography shows the same tendency in medals, wallpaper, engravings, and other objects that represent such topics as America Guided by Wisdom or Liberty Triumphant over Oppression.

3. Satire. The neoclassicists favored satire because it seemed an effective way to bring about the rule of reason. These writers excelled in working with ideas, in explaining and arguing, in exposing vice and folly. When they tried to wax lyrical, however, they often failed.

Romanticism: Although Romanticism was not always a conscious revolt against neoclassicism, it did replace the neoclassic emphasis on reason with its own emphasis on the imagination and emotions, and the neoclassic emphasis on authority with an emphasis on individuality. Remoteness and strangeness are also often cited as clues to romanticism. Linked to these qualities are other romantic traits:

Mysticism, pantheism, and transcendentalism

Sentimentalism, sensibility, and melancholy

Gothicism (both gothic horror and Gothic architecture)

Humanitarianism and democracy

Love of nature, animals, plants, wild (picturesque) scenery, and rural life

Primitivism (belief in the superiority of the simple life, often of a society remote in time or place)

Antiquarianism (interest in the prehistoric, medieval, and recent pasts as well as the classical past; interest in the early Celts, Scandinavians, Amerinds, and so on, as well as in the Greeks and Romans)

More freedom in poetry: greater use of lyrics (sonnets, elegies, odes, and other vehicles of emotion), narratives (ballads, metrical romances), and verse forms other than the heroic couplet (blank verse, Spenserian stanza, and -- in the nineteenth century -- free verse); less use of "poetic" diction

The personal or informal essay: This genre, popular in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often displayed a willingness to sacrifice strict form and logic to wit, humor, and the expression of individuality.

America had its counterparts to Gray, Goldsmith, and the other English preromantics. None of these writers was completely romantic, but all possessed some aspects of the romantic spirit. Even Barlow and Dwight, who are considered primarily as neoclassicists, had their romantic side. Other eighteenth-century preromantics include gothic novelist Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810); nature writers Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), John Bartram (1699-1777), and his son William Bartram (1739-1823); poet Nathaniel Evans (1742-1767); essayists Joseph Dennie (1768-1812) and Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) (Hopkinson's "On White-Washing" [1785] is a charming example of the informal essay); and St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) and Philip Freneau (1752-1832).

Transcendentalism: Transcendentalism is a form of idealism that encompasses belief in intuitive (nonsensory) knowledge, the indwelling of divinity in man and nature, and the consequent inalienable worth of man. It stresses the unity of being -- viewing God, man, and nature as sharers in a universal soul, which Emerson called the Oversoul. In order to feel the divine flowing through him, the transcendentalist turned to nature, seeking it in solitude. He had little use for religion in the traditional sense. His was a religion of nature, and he served as his own priest. (Transcendentalism tended to be nonsectarian and at times anti-Christian.) In nature he not only worshiped but also learned, seeing even the smallest element of nature as a microcosm of the universe containing all its laws and meanings. With its emphasis on the individual, nature, and solitude, transcendentalism qualified as an important branch of romanticism.

Realism: The detailed presentation of appearances, especially of familiar experiences and circumstances. The French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) called himself a "realist" because he painted life as (he claimed) it shows itself to be, filled not with nymphs, swains, and exotic figures, but with dirty workmen. Literature has from earliest times occasionally included careful descriptions of middle- and low-class life, but "realism" is the name applied to a movement in the nineteenth century which presented descriptions of observed details of every-day life. William Dean Howells, a notable realist, said that realism sought "to front the every-day world and catch the charm of its work-worn, care-worn, brave, kindly face." This movement, with its affection for the common world, was sometimes closely allied to the local color movement, which dwelt on picturesque details (usually scenery, quaint customs, and dialect) characteristic of a particular region. Though often sentimental, when local color went beyond an infatuation with externals and penetrated to character, it was an important aspect of realism. Especially after the Civil War, American realists (notably Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Hamlin Garland) showed a note of disillusion not found in Howells, depicting little people as having a full share of little vices. In its humble subject matter, realism shows it s debt to romanticism, but realism, claiming to record life as it passes the window, generally avoids the romantic interest in the mysterious, in the exotic, in the depths of the abnormal imagination which are beneath the simple appearances -- i.e., it avoids what Wordsworth called "strange seas of thought." Realism should not be confused with naturalism, which generally implies a deterministic view of man. Consult A. Kazin, On Native Grounds.

Naturalism: Sometimes defined as the technique of portraying "a scientifically accurate, detached picture of life, including everything and selecting nothing." More commonly, however, it alludes not to a panoramic view or even to the detailed presentation of a narrow slice of life (French: tranche de vie), but to a particular attitude held by some writers since the middle of the nineteenth century. Though claiming to be dispassionate observers, they were influenced by evolutionary thought, and regarded man not as possessed of a soul and of free will, but as a creature determined by his heredity and environment. For example, Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, who are often indignant at the destructive effect of the factory system on the lives of the workers, present detailed accounts of biologically and/or sociologically predestined characters. Naturalism should not be confused with realism. Consult O. Cargill, Intellectual America.