The American Renaissance

Purpose of Course  showclose

As most famously defined by F. O. Matthiessen in his groundbreaking book, The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), the “American Renaissance” demarcates a period of tremendous literary activity between the 1830s and 1860s that marked the cultivation, for the first time, of a distinctively American literature.  For Matthiessen and many other critics, its key figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville—sought to define and explore the new American identity, carving out new modes of expression and self-identification.  In the years since Matthiessen’s important work and especially in the past several decades, this characterization of the literary period has been challenged on several fronts, for overstating the innovations of these few authors, for the exclusion of women, African-American, and more popular authors from its account of the United States during a period of social and cultural upheaval and transition, and for its acceptance of a myth of American exceptionalism.

We begin this course by taking a look at context: What was it in American culture and society that led to the dramatic outburst of literary creativity in this era?  We then explore some of the period’s most famous works, approaching them by genre category.  Finally, we attempt to define the emerging American identity represented in this literature.

Course Information  showclose

Welcome to ENGL405, The American Renaissance.  Below, please find general information on the course and its requirements. 

Course Designer: Robert Bullington and Paul Gilmore

Primary Resources: This course is comprised of a variety of free online resources.  Most of the material consists of literary texts from the mid-nineteenth century, some of it quite lengthy.  Secondary materials (criticism, historical background, literary analyses) similarly come from a variety of free online resources.  Some of the sources that appear most frequently include the following:


Requirements for Completion: In order to complete this course, you will need to work through each unit and all of its assigned materials.  Your main task is to read the primary texts fully and carefully, using the secondary resources—introductory essays, video materials, and so forth—to help you understand the literary works more fully.  At the end of the course, you will need to complete the final exam.

In order to “pass” this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam.  Your score on the exam will be tabulated as soon as you complete it.  If you do not pass the exam, you may take it again.

Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of approximately 118 hours to complete.  Each unit includes a “time advisory” that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit.  These should help you plan your time accordingly.  It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then set goals for yourself.

Tips/Suggestions: As noted above, much of the work in this course consists of reading long literary works (often novels).  Determine what format allows you to read these materials most easily for comprehension.  Consider taking notes, electronically or in longhand, as you read, and if you have questions after reading the texts, go back to the secondary materials for more sources and for clarification.

Learning Outcomes  showclose

Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Discriminate among the key economic, technological, social, and cultural transformations underpinning the American Renaissance,
  • Define the transformations in American Protestantism exemplified by the second Great Awakening and transcendentalism.
  • List the key tenets of transcendentalism and relate them to romanticism more broadly and to social and cultural developments in the antebellum United States.
  • Analyze Emerson’s place in defining transcendentalism and his key differences from other transcendentalists.
  • Analyze competing conceptualizations of poetry and its construction and purpose, with particular attention to Poe, Emerson, and Whitman.
  • Define the formal innovations of Dickinson and their relationship to her central themes.
  • Describe the emergence of the short story as a form, with reference to specific stories by Hawthorne and Poe.
  • Distinguish among forms of the novel, with reference to specific works by Hawthorne, Thompson, and Fern.
  • Analyze the ways that writers such as Melville, Brownson, Davis, and Thoreau saw industrialization and capitalism as a threat to U. S. society.
  • Develop the relationship between Thoreau’s interest in nature and his political commitments and compare and contrast his thinking with Emerson and other transcendentalists.
  • Analyze the different ways that sentimentalism constrained and empowered women writers to critique gender conventions, with reference to specific works by writers such as Fern, Alcott, and Stowe.
  • Define the ways that the slavery question influenced major texts and major controversies over literature during this period.

Course Requirements  showclose

In order to take this course, you must:

√    Have access to a computer.

√    Have continuous broadband Internet access.

√    Have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g., Adobe Reader, RealPlayer, or Flash).

√    Have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer.

√    Have the ability to open Microsoft files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, etc.).

√    Have competency in the English language.

√    Have read the Saylor Student Handbook.

√    Have completed ENGL101: Introduction to Cultural and Literary Studies (or its equivalent). (ENGL301: Introduction to Literary Theory is also highly recommended, but not required.)

Unit Outline show close