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ARTS IN MID-19TH CENTURY AMERICA

Art defines a culture, and culture is a pretty good predictor of the actions people as a group will take. In the 1800s, the United States developed a national culture of music and writing that helped the young country identify its own character.

Stephen Foster and the American songbook

Stephen Foster (1850) was one of the most popular composers in American history and the only songwriter to try to make a living from the art until the 1900s. He wrote "Oh! Susanna," "Camp-town Races," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Beautiful Dreamer," and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)" — songs so popular 150 years after their composition that an album of them won a Grammy award in 2005.

Showing how thoroughly mixed American culture was on the eve of the nation's tearing itself apart in the Civil War, Foster, who was from the North, wrote about the South. The man who wrote the music used in the North's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was from South Carolina. "Dixie," the theme song of the South, was written in New York City by a Northerner.

The rise of American literature

American literature came onto its own with the increased popularity of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others:

- Ralph Waldo Emerson: Emerson was a giant of American letters for almost 50 years. His Transcendentalist (1840) philosophy stressed self-reliance and personal spiritual unity.

- Henry David Thoreau: Emerson's friend and colleague Thoreau wrote Walden (1854), about man's connection to nature, and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), a book that influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

- James Fenimore Cooper: Cooper brought American Indians as well as frontiersmen, women, and black Americans to life in novels such as The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

- Washington Irving: Irving is famous for his short stories such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle."

- Walt Whitman: Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass (1855), a collection of poems that broke down the conventions of poetry with bold language:

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O Pioneers!"

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Longfellow was an American poet who was also widely popular in Europe. He wrote "Paul Revere's Ride," "A Psalm of Life," "The Song of Hiawatha," "Evangeline," and "Christmas Bells."

- John Greenleaf Whittier: A poet of human freedom, Whittier stood up to angry mobs for the abolition of slavery.

- Louisa May Alcott: Alcott showed the man-centered Victorian world that women can write beautifully with Little Women (1868).

- Emily Dickinson: Dickinson demonstrated the universality of even a quiet human heart with more than 1,000 poems published after her death.

Not all writers saw much good in human beings. The following writers, whose themes were darker, served a useful purpose in helping the world see that good and evil are never pure and that living well means making moral choices every day:

- Edgar Allan Poe: Poe lived on the dark side of madness and evil with stories like "The Fall of the House of Usher" and poems like "The Raven."

- Nathaniel Hawthorne: Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter (1850), about a woman who had a secret affair with a minister, bore his child out of wedlock, and had to wear a scarlet A for adultery.

- Herman Melville: Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), one of the greatest American novels, tells the story of a sea captain's obsessive hunt for a great white whale.

Painting began to show the beauty of the American landscape. The Hudson River School, active from 1850 to 1875, painted dramatic American landscapes, especially featuring the Hudson River area in northern New York. This movement made people stop to appreciate the wonders of nature.

Example

Question: What was the Hudson River School of painting?

Answer: The Hudson River School painted dramatic American landscapes, mostly featuring the Hudson River area in northern New York.

 
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