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Romanticism: Social Reform in an Emerging Society

Updated on March 23, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Romanticism: 1800-1850

Prior to the reasonable, collective, and civilized period of Realism, there was Romanticism. The Romantic period tended to stray away from reason; this resulted in a madness of emotion.

Romanticism celebrated passion by putting a great faith in human agency. The people of Romanticism conformed to social “norms;” always ready to believe anything they were told, but never bothering to propose anything that was out of the commonplace. The Romantic period was content with a general affirmation of life and nature, but as human consciousness progressed, great thinkers began to incorporate Romantic initiative and move towards a Realistic society.

Romantic Painting by Phillipp Otto Runge (1808)

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The Move Toward Realism

In an attempt to break free from the traditional Romantic views of their time, William Dean Howells and Mark Twain set out on an artistic literary journey to change the way Romantic society viewed the world. Howells and Twain believed that in order to create such a change, they must first change the views of the people. In order to bring about the change of Realism, society had to establish reason over social superstition, and had to see the constraints of total faith in human agency when understanding the limits its social conditioning.

In order to break away from of the conventional bonds of society, both authors understood that they needed to change the way people viewed the world. “For Howells, realism was a democratic movement in the arts, a focus on the normal and commonplace” (Lauter 256). Howells felt that the largest obstacle when establishing a Realistic society was the fact that Romantic society had lost its reasonable imagination and ability to “cultivate the ideal” (259). He viewed Romantic ideals as emphasizing the “bizarre and the sentimental,” and in his letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, titled “The Editor’s Study,” he saw the people as having “been ‘amused and misled’ ... ‘by the false lights’ of critical vanity and self-righteousness” (258). He urged society to “test any work of the imagination” (256), and to question all aspects of the conventional lifestyle.

Realist Painting by Gustave Courbet (1854)

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Questioning Romantic Ideals

One of Howells favorite authors was Mark Twain, because in Twain’s works, this is exactly what he did. In Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the main character, Hank Morgan, embarks on a medieval journey to reform the monarchal society of sixth-century England into a nineteenth-century democracy.

In this novel, Twain establishes that medieval England is controlled by the church, and that anything the church dislikes, becomes a negative superstitious anomaly for society. As Hank becomes aware of his predicament, he begins to devise a plan to modernize the medieval world. Hank first notices that the people are accepting everything and anything that is said when it came to storytelling and recounting past events.

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Shifting Perception in Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"

Twain first shatters the Romantic viewpoints of medieval England when Sir Kay is describing his first encounter with Hank. “Everybody took in all the bosh in the naïvest way, and never smiled or seemed to notice that there was any discrepancy between these watered statistics and me” (30).

Suggesting from the beginning of the book that there should be no faith in human agency, Hank first focuses on saving his own life. As a Realist, Hank uses his recent understanding of the limits of social conditioning within the courts. He establishes his right hand man, Clarence, as a messenger boy between the king and himself, and tries to instill a fear throughout the kingdom. He accomplishes this task by taking hold of the Romantic superstitious belief in magic, and then coupling it with his Realistic belief in scientific reasoning and intuitive knowledge.

The limits of the Romantic social conditioning occur to him in his prison cell when he realizes that, “these animals didn’t reason; that they never put this and that together” (Twain 35), so he began to devise a plan. At high noon, just before his death, Hank declared that if any harm was done to him, he would “blot out the sun” (Twain 43) from the sky, sending all of medieval England into a dark age.

After Hank’s plan works, he escapes his death, and is declared “The Boss” and the king’s right hand man. From this point on, Hank only uses society’s superstition as a means to show that he is a magician himself, thus keeping him alive. However, as it is Hank’s main goal to change the Romantic society into a Realistic one, he begins to establish small schools across the country. In these schools he starts educating the naturally intuitive thinkers he comes across, in the arts of reasoning, mathematics, literacy, and science. He realizes the effects of social conditioning and begins training his men with realistic viewpoints, teaching objectively of knowledge over imagination.

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Healthy Skepticism, Especially in Religious Realms

Hank teaches that it is important to form individual discrepancies and suspicion of human nature, so that as a collective group they can cultivate the ideals of democracy and establish a solid foundation for a new beginning civilization. As the novel proceeds, Hank does not end his quest to establish reason within the social conventions of medieval England. He continues to break down the conventional pedestals of the church, and the pompous attitude of the chivalric estates when he cautiously appoints confidential agents “whose office was to undermine knighthood by imperceptible degrees, and to gnaw a little at this and that and the other superstition, and so prepare the way gradually for a better order of things” (Twain 70).

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The Democratic Artist

Realizing that Hank is a manifestation of Twain’s mind, it is easily understood why Howells promotes Twain. In Twain’s novel, Hank’s dream to establish a democracy across medieval England is the dream achievable by any man. Howells hopes that “the time is coming when not only the artist, but the common, average man, who always ‘has the standard of the arts in his power,’ will have also the courage to apply it” (Lauter 259).

In conclusion, by observing the blunders of the old Romantic community–the gullibility and superstition that people held, Hank is able to reform part of society so that the people began using reason over pure faith in human agency. Also, as Howells and Twain clearly point out in their views of Realism, understanding the limits of social conditioning is a way to bring about a greater good for the world and the communities within it. People can still see the beauty in life; they just have to derive reasonable meanings for each piece of information given. Howells feels that art and literature is, in itself, the “expression of life” (Lauter 258), and that only when society begins to understand how to cultivate their own ideals, will they successfully make the switch from Romanticism to Realism

Works Cited

Lauter, Paul, Richard Yarborough, and John Alberti. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014. Print.

Twain, Mark, and Daniel Carter Beard. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Minneapolis, MN: First Avenue Editions, 2015. Print.


"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" by Mel Damski (1989)

© 2017 Luke Holm

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    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 5 months ago

      As a romantic at heart, I feel a bit conflicted about the shift in perception and interpretation of reality. It seems too mechanical, which is how I feel our society is today. Alas, I suppose progress is progress, and I really don't get much of a say for the whole of humanity. Thank you for reading. I really appreciate all your kind comments :)

    • SakinaNasir53 profile image

      Sakina Nasir 6 months ago from Kuwait

      Great hub Luke! :) I had learnt about Romanticism in poetry, how the writers came about with the change and what was the society's reaction to it. Your hub is written so well and it made me learn new things.