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American Romanticism

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 9 months ago

American Romanticism


I have always considered Romanticism to be the first real movement in the American arts. In my opinion, the Romantic period, also known as the American Renaissance, is when American literature really starts to get interesting. One of the things I find very interesting about artistic movements, like Romanticism, is the fact that they influence all of the arts -- painting and sculpture, music, and literature. I think students find this interesting, too. It shows logical progression and unity in culture. Before I start teaching American Romanticism, I want them to understand it as a movement, so I begin with this introductory Power Point Presentation. In order to get the full benefit of this Power Point, you will need to present it using a computer with Internet access, because there are links to sound files. Also, the hearts in the corners of the screen are hyperlinked to the section of the Power Point to which the next slide needs to progress. If you don't have MS Power Point on your computer, you can download a player which will enable you to view and screen this presentation, though you won't be able to edit it.


Washington Irving is considered the first Romantic writer, and his stories are usually included in literature texts. Following Irving, I usually teach William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis." This poem can be difficult for high school students, and I found that Jana Edwards' study guide was helpful (answers). Moving on from Bryant to the Fireside Poets (Power Point introduction), I like to teach "The Cross of Snow" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, because it is a good example of the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. I also like to relate "The Chambered Nautilus" by Oliver Wendell Holmes to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I read the section in which Langdon recalls a lecture he gives to a class about the Golden Ratio, or Phi. Not only do students find this very interesting, but it is a great opportunity for cross-curricular teaching with both math and biology. Some articles you might find helpful in teaching the poem this way are: Wikipedia: Chambered Nautilus and Wikipedia: The Golden Ratio.


Students usually love Edgar Allan Poe. I highly recommend A&E's Biography of the author. Fun Poe facts:


  • Poe is considered the inventor of the modern detective story, emulated masterfully by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Edgar Award is given to mystery writers each year.
  • He married his cousin Virginia Clemm when he was 26 and she was 13.
  • The Baltimore Ravens football team was named for his poem "The Raven."
  • Although "The Raven" was a huge hit, Poe only earned $14 for it.
  • His death remains a mystery. He was found in a Baltimore gutter, dressed in someone else's clothes, in a delirious state. Theories posited to explain his death include:
    • Rabies
    • Rare brain disease
    • Syphilis
    • Alcohol poisoning
    • Diabetes
    • A scheme involving being kidnapped, drugged, and used as a repeat voter in ballot-stuffing fraud
  • Each year since 1949, the 100th anniversary of the year of Poe's death, on Poe's birthday, a mysterious visitor known as the Poe Toaster leaves a half-empty bottle of Martel cognac and three roses on this grave. The roses are assumed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm.


Following a study of Poe, I usually begin Transcendentalism, focusing on the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Depending on the makeup of your students, Transcendentalism can be really successful, especially if they are ecologically-minded. I recently discovered that a kind soul has transcribed Thoreau's journals in a blog. Check it out! This year, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Boston with my students. It was winter, but we still went to Walden Pond, and we had the unique experience of being able to walk on Walden.


Dana's feet on Walden Pond

This is a picture of my feet, standing on Walden Pond.


Transcendentalism itself was barely a blip on the radar of literature, but its influence was great. Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were both influenced by Thoreau's ideas of Civil Disobedience and Emerson has been very influential in philosophy.


I usually teach The Scarlet Letter during the Colonial period, but I do like to teach Hawthorne as a Romantic as well. My favorite story to teach is "Rappaccini's Daughter," which was also made into a short film. "Young Goodman Brown," while set in the Colonial era, is great for teaching allegory. Following Hawthorne, my classes watch Moby Dick. I believe that knowing something about Moby Dick is essential for cultural literacy, and the movie is very exciting. However, I do not think I'd try the novel with high school students, even advanced students. Jana Edwards was kind enough to create and share an excellent movie study guide. While two good movie versions of this have been made, one starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, and the other starring Patrick Stewart, I show the Patrick Stewart version. While I love Gregory Peck, I just happen to prefer this version. I believe the video guide would work with either film. By the way, Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne.


Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the "stars" of the 19th century American literature scene. While Walt Whitman is generally believed to have been homosexual, and Emily Dickenson is one of our most famous recluses, I have often found it entertaining and educational for students to write a creative writing piece in which they set Walt and Emily up on a blind date and record the results. They must use five lines from each poet and integrate the lines seamlessly into converstion. Students generally really enjoy this activity, and it encourages them to dive into the poems and consider their meaning, while at the same time comparing and contrasting two great literary figures in a creative way. Instructions for the activity can be found here. Over the course of the years, my students have:


  • Created a movie in which they dressed the parts of Walt and Emily on a date at McDonalds, where Emily downed five Big Macs, several large fries, three Frosties (yes, I realize those are served at Wendy's), and a diet Coke.
  • Had Emily murder Walt with an axe, screaming "much madness is divinest sense!"
  • Interpreted Song of Myself as the ultimate egoist's hymn, and made Walt fall in love with himself rather than Emily.
  • Made a true love connection between Emily and Walt; this is rare, as most students conclude the poets are too different to really get along.


Another activity which I adapted from an idea presented at 2004's Georgia Independent School Association's Annual Conference, is to have students complete a web quest designed to familiarize them with Romanticism across the arts and create an (almost) paperless project called "A Declaration of Romanticism," in which they declare their right to be Romantic, based upon the Declaration of Independence. This works very well if you have a group of students who are artistically-minded and free-spirited.



All of these handouts (along with many others) are gathered at my handouts page.

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