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The development of an American culture

The early 19th century saw a cultural shift in the United States, moving from European imitations to unique American art, literature, and architecture. This transition, influenced by Romanticism, led to the emergence of the Hudson River School, Transcendentalism, and distinctive architectural styles. These developments laid the foundation for American culture and artistic expression.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In this video I'm gonna take some time to talk about the culture of the young United States that developed in the early 19th century. At the beginning of this period, most of the dominant artistic and cultural productions in the United States, the paintings, architecture, literature, and even philosophy, were either borrowed from or imitations of what was being produced in Europe. The United States itself was born in the midst of an intellectual movement that crossed the Atlantic from Europe, the Enlightenment. And if you read the Declaration of Independence, you can hear the echoes of the Enlightenment: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, "that all men are created equal, "that they are endowed by their Creator "with certain unalienable Rights, "that among these are Life, Liberty, "and the pursuit of Happiness. "That to secure these rights, "Governments are instituted among Men, "deriving their just powers from the consent "of the governed..." Jefferson looks at the evidence, the rational reasons for self-government. Now contrast that with a piece of writing from an American at the end of this period. Here's the last stanza from Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven, first published in 1845: "...And the Raven, never flitting, "still is sitting, still is sitting "On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's "that is dreaming. "And the lamp-light o'er him streaming "throws his shadow on the floor; "And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating "on the floor "Shall be lifted, nevermore!" What is going on here? Poe's talking about demons, and souls, and shadows. He's clearly not interested in reason or logic. Where Jefferson is cold, Poe is hot, emotional, imaginative, concentrating on the unseen world instead of the observable world that Jefferson prizes. This is because Poe, writing nearly 70 years later, was a product of the Romantic era. The Romantics rebelled against the Enlightenment ideas of pure reason and the scientific method, arguing instead that individual experience and emotion mattered more. So why do we care about this transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic era in the history of the United States? Well, for one thing, because it helps us explain the Second Great Awakening, that period of intense religious devotion that emerged in the first half of the 19th century, and drove not only the creation of new religious moments in the United States, but also major reform movements. But we also care because it was during this time of transition that the first truly American art and literary movements emerged. Artists and writers stopped merely imitating European styles, although they were certainly still influenced by them, and began trying to capture a unique and different American culture. What they produced not only tells us a lot about their time period, but also created the foundation of what's considered American art or American literature today. One of the ways that Americans began to distinguish their culture was through architecture. In the late 1700s, American architecture started to move away from the Georgian style it had borrowed from Britain, the very symmetrical brick homes that were built during the era when kings named George were in power, and they started to draw more from the models of Roman and Greek architecture. Americans saw themselves as carrying on the traditions of the Roman Republic and Greek democracy, so they started employing some of the same architectural language. The Federal style started incorporating Roman elements into Georgian buildings, like Roman arches. Here you can see a bit of the transition from this Georgian building on Harvard's campus to this Federal building in Salem, Massachusetts. You go from square windows and doors to Roman arches. And this transition continued as the U.S. Capitol was built in Washington D.C. Starting in the 1820s, the Greek Revival style became prominent for monumental buildings, incorporating triangular pediments and Greek columns. Here you can see the original design of the U.S. Capitol building, which houses Congress. It has a central dome like the Pantheon in Rome, and then a full-on Greek temple pasted to its face. By adopting these elements, American architects sent the message that the United States wasn't just imitating British styles. Instead they were crafting an architectural form that was suitable for a republic. American art also began to diverge from its European forbears during the early 19th century. American-born painters in the Revolutionary era, like Gilbert Stuart, went to Europe to study and start their careers before heading back to the United States. Stuart's portraits of important American figures like George Washington followed the conventions of classical portraiture. It wasn't until the 1820s that American art began to come into its own with the Hudson River School. This was started by a group of painters working in Upstate New York who captured the majestic nature of the American landscape. They were influenced by the Romantic movement's emphasis on emotion and the sublime, which is the awe-inspiring, untamed aspect of nature that you find in mountains, and storms, and wilderness. The painters of the Hudson River School explored the relationship between the American environment and the march of settlement. Let's take a look at one Hudson River School painting, The Oxbow, which was painted in 1836 by Thomas Cole. The painting depicts a bend in the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts. You can see that a thunderstorm is passing with dark clouds here on the left. And there's this twisted tree and downed limbs, which show how violent the storm was up on the mountain. It feels dangerous and unpredictable. That's the sublime right there. Then, on the right side, you have this river valley with farms and little plumes of smoke from houses. There's a boat on the river and some sheep grazing down here, and just barely visible in the foreground is a little self-portrait of Thomas Cole out with his easel. He's kind of saying, "Yeah, that's right. "I'm out here dodging lightning to show you "how the real deal looks." So you can see in this painting that there's kind of a tension between the settled society on the right side and the wilderness on the left side. The vastness of the American West and the march of the first wave of industrialization gave painters a unique American subject for their art. Lastly, the first American writers and thinkers came on the scene during this era. Remember the Romantics glorified the experience of the individual and their emotions. The first American fiction writers to gain traction for an international audience described unique aspects of American society. Washington Irving, who we remember today for the Headless Horseman in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," another romantic ghost story like Poe's The Raven, achieved renown by telling folk tales about the lingering Dutch culture in Upstate New York. James Fenimore Cooper's protagonist in his "Leatherstocking Tales," Natty Bumppo, was a white frontiersman who grew up among the indigenous Delaware People. His nickname was Hawkeye, and yes, the Marvel character is named after him, which gives you a sense of how these first American characters have continued to live on in our contemporary culture. In New England, particularly Boston and the surrounding areas, American intellectuals embraced Romanticism in the philosophy of Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists were a group of writers, poets, and philosophers who believed that truth transcended the observable world of the Enlightenment, and that spiritual meaning could be found in nature. Henry David Thoreau is probably the most famous Transcendentalist. He wrote a book about his two years living simply in a cabin he built on the edge of Walden Pond, on fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson's property. The Transcendentalists also emphasized the individual and freedom of thought. Emerson, who's generally considered the founder of the Transcendentalist movement, wrote essays encouraging Americans to think for themselves, not just go along with the crowd. Some of the most influential Transcendentalists were women, like Margaret Fuller, who wrote about the state of women in the 19th century and edited the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial. Poet Emily Dickinson has sometimes been classed among the Transcendentalists, as has Louisa May Alcott, the author of "Little Women." The freedom of thought that the Transcendentalists espoused also led them to become some of the strongest opponents of the institution of slavery. Thoreau refused to pay his taxes in protest of the Mexican American War, which he and many Northerners saw as an unjust land-grab to extend southern territory and spread slavery west. He wrote an essay about his experience called "Resistance to Civil Government," sometimes shortened to "Civil Disobedience," which encouraged individuals not to obey unjust laws. His ideas would go on to influence Mahatma Gandhi and later Martin Luther King, Junior.