Hawthorne came at the end of the literary movement called romanticism, when the American version had evolved in several different directions. In Hawthorne, and in his contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, the ideals of romanticism came to manifest themselves as an offshoot that literary critics refer to as ‘‘dark romanticism.’’
The romantic movement developed in Europe in the late eighteenth century. Its precursor was the Enlightenment, a period of scientific curiosity and social theorizing that centered on the accomplishments of the human mind. The range of interests and accomplishments attributed to Enlightenment thinkers varied widely: philosophers John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, for instance, focused their attention on abstract questions such as what knowledge actually is; scientists such as Isaac Newton looked to measuring and understanding the physical world; and social philosophers, most notably Rene´ Descartes, theorized about political and social order. Overall, the focus of intellectualism from the mid-1600s to the late 1700s was on the power of rational thought.
Romanticism is considered the backlash against that age. As with the Enlightenment, or with any literary movement, theories differ widely on what should be included in this period. One thing that makes it difficult to pin down an exact definition is the range of fields that this word is used to describe, from art to music to architecture. Rather than looking at the human mind, early romantics tended to look to the human condition as it existed before ‘‘civilized’’ culture existed. Writers such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose introduction for their collaboration, the 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads , is considered by many to be the starting point of romanticism in British literature) focused on nature and humans’ relationship to it, usually showing humanity as being separated from the purity of a natural life. Other themes that developed in romanticism included a fascination with the past, and in particular one’s cultural history (which for most Europeans included interest in Greek and Roman mythology) and eventually the kind of sensuality that readers associate with the genre’s most identifiable authors: John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Gordon Byron.
In the United States, romanticism took hold later, in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. The New England transcendentalists, led by Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, are considered to be followers of a form of romanticism, continuing the emphasis on the natural person, untainted by society, and presenting nature as being significant as a manifestation of the individual mind.
This view of reality took an eerie turn in some of the writings of Hawthorne and Melville. While the transcendentalists viewed the human mind as mastering nature, the dark romantic vision presented nature as the manifestation of human thought that was as often as not unbalanced. Nature was controllable, but the dark romantic world view often included a place for the threat presented by supernatural occurrences that were beyond human control. romanticism showed the negative ramifications likely to occur if the romantic view is true: if, instead of being pure and innocent in their natural state, humans are inclined toward evil, then the primacy of the human in this world would lead, more often than not, toward disaster.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale Group, 2010