At the very heart of Romantic period writing is rebellion stemmed from experimentation, a desire to push boundaries, and a newfound interest in the psychology of the individual. However, although these same ideas are the root of both American Romanticism and British Romanticism (and one can therefore find many parallels between the two) the way that they are actually expressed in writing differs quite significantly. To explore this comparison further, I took a look at the short fiction story “Young Goodman Brown” by a famous American Romantic, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
A seemingly obvious feature of “Young Goodman Brown” that I felt set it apart from many of the British Romantic writers (at the very least the ones that we have read) was the fact that it was written in the form of a short fiction story. With the exception of “Belinda” and Hazlitt’s writings, the British Romantics seem to prefer to express their ideas via poetry or via an essay. As short fictional stories were quite popular with the American Romantics, I’d consider this a fairly large distinction between the two. Because of this distinction, the overall feel of the writings from these two groups differed greatly. With the common essay format of the British Romantics, the reader knows before they even begin reading that he or she is going to be reading the direct thoughts and ideas of the author. With an American Romantic short story, these thoughts and ideas tend to be a bit more muddled and take more analysis to extract. In “Young Goodman Brown,” for example, the most basic of summaries is that the main character, Young Goodman Brown, ventures into the woods for an unknown mission, has something of a dream or vision in the woods, and then returns to his town a completely changed and now miserable man. If the reader were then to investigate further and beyond the obvious, he or she could see that this tale has deeper meaning and can be considered a tale of lost faith (both in humanity and religion) as well as a critique of organized religion and those who blindly follow it. Although the British Romantic poems also require that the reader search beyond the base meaning and words of the poem, I found the particular style of the American Romantics in addressing a topic such as religion more pleasurable to read and easier to relate to.
Although the format and writing style differs between the two romantics, I’ve found that the two address many of the same topics albeit in different manners. As mentioned in the above paragraph, a major focus of Hawthorne is the idea of religion and what he believes to be wrong about it, not unlike Blake’s critique in “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” However, in readings of other American romantics, I’ve found their viewpoints to be more exploratory than those of the British romantics who tend to remark on God and their faith in a matter-of-fact way and be more exploratory in other topics such as nature and the human response to it. The American romantics also wrote frequently on nature and the human response which can be seen in“Young Goodman Brown.” In this story, nature (or the woods) are presented as a “dark wilderness…peopled with frightful sounds (392)”. This type of description of nature as something supernatural and potentially frightening is something that can be seen in British romantic writings such as Robinson’s “The Haunted Beach,” Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with the mysterious and powerful albatross.
Overall, although there were many differences between the type and feel of the writings of the American romantics and the writings of the British romantics, there are several key topics and ideas that tied the two groups together.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.