In the early 1800s, Neoclassical writing was par for the course; works were typically very restrained, conservative, and focused on structure more than anything else. However, as the 19th century rolled along, more and more authors (including Washington Irving and
James Fenimore Cooper) found themselves writing stories of passion, full of experimentation and discovery. In these works, notions of established language and literary structure were challenged, as the Romantics ceased believing in the established systems of literature and created wholly new works that were free from restraint. While the works of Smith demonstrate the observational, dry and formal writing of the Neoclassicists, Irving and Henry David Thoreau, in their depictions of the lives of people still becoming used to the expanding New World, managed to tap into the anxieties people had toward their new government, the nature of family, and man's connection to nature.
In the chapter "What Happened Till the First Supply," John Smith notes the landing of the settlers upon New England, which occurred on the cusp of starvation between the crews of the ships in the expedition. Smith's writings are chronological in order, the plot structure following a linear pattern of event-event-event, clearly modified to describe and convey the events as they occurred. Smith's writings take the third-person point of view of Smith himself, as he writes about his experiences as if he were a fictional character. We hardly get the Native American perspective, only Smith's guesses as to the behavior of Powhatan, Pocahontas and others. Observing them in that way, the writings become a bit of an anthropological study of this alien culture. In Smith's writings (and in Neoclassicism), the symbolism is fairly overt and direct; Smith focuses on the use of paint, coal and oil that the Indians use to coat themselves to explore their native behaviors, and the pow-wow around the fire after his life is spared is indicative of starting life anew, as well as a symbol of him joining the Indian community in which he lives for quite some time.
The coming of Romanticism, however, saw a much greater emphasis on fable, unconventional structure and subtle metaphor. With Washington Irving's short story "Rip Van Winkle," the author found a way to provide a cautionary tale to children of the dangers of alcoholism, and the negative consequences of idleness. The titular character, in essence, is a drunk whose inactivity can be directly related to his own unhappy marriage and life. Rip Van Winkle, at the beginning of the story, minces no words in expressing his displeasure at being hen-pecked so much by his wife; "his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going" (Irving). Here, the author is making plain to children the reasoning behind Rip's distance and lackadaisical nature toward life; it is a coping mechanism to help him deal with feeling so powerless and beaten down by his shrewish wife. "Times grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle as years of matrimony rolled on; a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener by constant use" (Irving). Rip Van Winkle is non-confrontational by nature, and so he simply avoids his wife and marriage in order to pursue strict idleness.
Despite this treatise on idleness and alcoholism, Rip Van Winkle is also shown as an idealistic figure; this idleness is shown as a wonderful dream, as he manages to escape the horrors of the Revolutionary War. In this way, Irving provides a pacifist message in the wake of American nationalism and patriotism, stating that the perfect world would be one in which war could simply be skipped. The changing of George Washington's portrait in place of King George's portrait being one of the only changes Rip really notices is Irving's way of noting the insignificant changes that America experienced under its change of leadership. These unique messages are shown through this magical fable, where Irving uses the plot device of a magical time-traveling alcohol-induced coma to comment on overt idleness in unhappy, hen-picked men, who also manage to avoid the horrors of war.
Another strong element of Romanticist writers is the idea of Transcendentalism, a philosophy that espoused the strength and value of the individual, grounding thoughts and religion around the idea of individual power and idealism. According to transcendentalism, reality is centered around the idea of the self; man relies on itself in order to continue existing and thriving, and there is a kind of spirituality that comes from being able to sustain oneself and succeed on their own. Henry David Thoreau, in his works Walden and “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” showcases his transcendentalist ideas in a number of ways.
In his novel Walden, Thoreau details the two years he spent living by himself on Walden Pond, learning about himself and how to survive in meager conditions. The entirety of the book is inspired greatly by transcendentalism, especially the ideals of self-reliance and autonomy. From the start of the book he states, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau, p. 15). In his way, Thoreau wanted to break the cycle of materialism and the pursuit of wealth, which he felt made their lives shallower and not as philosophically rich. The ‘desperation’ of the people came from a desire to have something important in their lives, and transcendentalism, according to Thoreau, could provide it.
In his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau states the responsibility of the self to its own beliefs and conscience, stating that allowing a government to force a person to sacrifice their beliefs make them party to these injustices. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,– the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence” (Thoreau, 1849). This quote comes from his opposition to slavery, and the call for abolitionists to simply stop contributing to the system that does something they oppose by ceasing to pay taxes. In this way, the essay follows transcendentalist ideals of focusing on the self and not lending credence to any higher society or government that could have power over them.
In conclusion, the shift from Neoclassicism to Romanticism revealed a substantial change from rote structure and characterization to greater experimentation, both with form and with content. Beforehand, white imperialism was extremely prevalent, as man demonstrated his desire to control nature. However, with Irving and Thoreau, it is shown that Romantic authors are more willing to show vulnerabilities in their characters, noting their inability to deal with their marriages, their families, and society in general, while still learning about the world around them.