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American Renaissance: the Light & the Dark

The American Renaissance—perhaps the richest literary period in American history, critics argue—produced lettered giants Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson. Much like the social and historical setting in which it was birthed, this period was full of paradoxes that were uniquely American. Literary historians traditionally distinguish between the light authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville). Dickinson, like daybreak, ionically bonds both the dark and the light.

The optimistic ones delved into themes of nature’s beauty, spiritual truths, the primacy of poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. The gloomier set, however, explored paradoxes, haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, and ambiguity.

Using the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature we rounded up the prominent figures and the themes they popularized during this period:

The Light

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882): Historians customarily say that the American Renaissance started with the New England philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He set out to forge a literary that was distinctively American: fresh, vigorous, adventurous. He admired the brash individualism he saw in frontier legends Daniel Boone and David Crockett. In his literature he pushed for concepts like self-reliance, nonconformity, the primacy of the imagination, an appreciation of nature for both physical beauty and spiritual resonance. These ideas spread to the intellectual life in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Image credit: Ralph Waldo Emerson by User:Scewing. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862): In his senior year at Harvard, fellow Massachusetts native Henry David Thoreau read Emerson’s Nature and was inspired. Key Emersonian concepts can be found in the central themes of Thoreau’s Walden. It is a testament to Thoreau’s impact on political and philosophical ideas that while in jail Mohandas Ghandi read Civil Disobedience. Through the mid-twentieth century, Thoreau’s reputation as a critically important writer and thinker on many fronts continued to grow.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892): After discovering Emerson’s work in the 1850s, Walt Whitman wrote, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” The New Englander philosopher’s influence can be seen in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: his flowing, prose-line poems threading Emerson’s idea about organic styles that followed the rhythms of nature. Though the Poet of Democracy—as he is also called—is a central and influential poet in the American canon, he was still stubbornly ignored by the literary establishment of his time. The objections, which lasted until the 1940s, were that his style was written in slang and obscene in content because of its references to sex and parts of the body. Now, his fame as America’s seminal poet is secure.

The Dark

Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849): When Edgar Allan Poe died, some critics predicted that his works would be forgotten. Writers such as Conan Arthur Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Stephen King answered them with a resounding “Never.” In stark contrast to the optimistic writers of the American Renaissance, Poe wrote tales that teemed with bizarre or macabre images: murder, necrophilia, live burial. He did not approve of senseless gore or sensationalism, which he found cheapened many of the literature that was common in the “Penny papers.” His attention to psychology, logic, and methodology influenced generations of sci-fi and detective novelists.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804 – May 19, 1864): Sometimes called a ‘dark romantic,’ no other major American author of this period expressed greater doubts about the fundamental premises of the Light group than Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was confounded by and explored the contrasting strain in American culture, associated with darkness, violence, and piety. The Scarlett Letter grappled with America’s seamy, Puritanical past. Hawthorne followed popular sensational novelists who used subversive characters to attack pious contradictions. However, Hawthorne bestowed these stereotypical characters with new resonance and depth. By incorporating these 19th-century characters into Puritan era, his masterpiece exudes irony, symbolism, and psychological complexity.

Image credit: Daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson, c. early 1847. It is presently located in Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891): Paradoxes are at the heart of America: how does a country built upon the principles of liberty and freedom practice slavery? Herman Melville compresses paradox into his body of work. In the towering novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville mixes an array of uniquely rich and paradoxical characters: the irreverent yet likable Ishmael; the savage but humane cannibal Queequeg; and Captain Ahab, who is described paradoxically as “a grand, ungodly, god-like man,” on a mad yet justified vengeful quest.


Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886): The shy, home-centered Emily Dickinson was fascinated with the sensational newspapers of the time. The war years (1861-1865) opened up complex and existential questions for Dickinson, which led to her most prolific period: of her nearly 1,800 poems, approximately half were written during those years. Skepticism and musings on death and the afterlife permeated her work. Yet, she refused to tie herself solely to melancholy. In many ways, themes that the previous writers explored culminated in her poetry. Her skepticism, discussion of mental illness, and unmasking of false appearances evoke the works of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. There were moments that matched the brightest passages in Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. There is one area, however, in which Dickinson stands apart from the others: her unusually flexible treatment of womanhood. Dickinson could satirize female gentility or the cult of domesticity and elsewhere play the strong woman defending her “Master” or the devoted lover.

Featured image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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