Southern History Series: German Romanticism’s Impact on the Antebellum South

The following excerpt about the impact of 19th century German Romanticism on intellectual life in the antebellum South comes from the English historian Michael O’Brien’s book The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941 which arrived in the mail this morning:

“It may be the impulse of the outsider, but this study is posited on the contrary assumption. To the author, the South is centrally an intellectual perception, closely tied to the organicist tradition of Romantic social theory, which has served to comprehend and weld an unintegrated social reality …”

“The supersession of Enlightenment ideas by Romantic social theory reversed these sentiments. Romantic nationalism posited very different perspectives. Whereas the Enlightenment had been cosmopolitan, Romanticism located the wellspring of man’s being in national groups. Where man had been held to be uniform and his experiences similar, the new order decreed that he and they were diverse. No longer could one leap from Greek to Roman and from ancient to recent times without elaborate exegesis on the shifts in cultural context. Mechanistic theories of society were transmuted into organic analogies. Society was not a machine, from which one could subtract or add cogs at one’s leisure, but a living thing which might die if the gardener was too cavalier. Rationalism was modified by a mysticism of the Volk. Where the Enlightenment had skipped gladly over a superstitious Middle Ages to return to the classics, Herder encouraged a dallying over the folk origins of modern nations. Old folk songs were collected, Ossian celebrated, Medieval Christianity reconsidered. Where the Enlightenment had been cosmopolitan about language, Romanticism insisted that language contained the essence of national individuality: Germans, especially German intellectuals, should abandon the parroting of French for their “native” tongue. A skeptical faith in human progress was replaced by a more devious belief, in which men might win progress through a difficult process of self-awareness, alienation, and rediscovery, and in which the recognition of national diversity meant a splitting of universal moral judgments into the separate assessment of right and wrong in particular milieux. Above all, Romantic nationalism taught that man was part of a whole, his individuality defined and expressed through his membership in the group.

Such ideas were to find their way to the United States, and were domesticated in the South. Partly, they came directly from Germany. Herder was read in Charleston; Hugh Swinton Legaré traveled from Brussels to Bonn expressly to meet August Schlegel; one can find in antebellum periodicals articles that betray direct knowledge of German texts, as well as English translations. Partly, they were translated through the mediation of Britain. Few read Kant, but many did understand Coleridge, the popularizer of Kant’s disciple, Schelling. Thomas Carlyle, above all, carried the torch of the new German philosophy. Walter Scott helped establish the new vogue of the Middle Ages and disperse the new faith in historicism. Byron, to be found in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger, brought the Bildungsroman south of the Potomac. And the South did not merely imitate. In Edgar Allan Poe, it produced a thinker whose variations on the Romantic theme were sufficiently original that the later heirs of Romanticism, the French Symbolist poets, found in him something new.”

In Southern History Series: Review: Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 and Southern History Series: Review: Shifting Grounds: Nationalism & the American South, 1848-1865, we have already seen how it is a mistake to isolate the antebellum South and the Confederate States of America from the larger international context of the early 19th century West.

The South didn’t cease to be influenced by European intellectual trends at the close of the Enlightenment. It was also heavily influenced by German Romanticism. It was influenced by the nationalist movements in Germany, Italy, Poland, Ireland, Hungary, Greece and other nations. White Southerners were beginning to think of themselves as an ethnic minority group.

This comes across clearly in George Fitzhugh’s writings who didn’t defend the South on the basis of constitutionalism. The single best example of this though is John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, who saw himself as a modern day Brutus striking down a murderous tyrant who had spilled an ocean of blood in the South who came from a family of actors who were immersed in Romanticism.

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  1. Part of my German family settled in Oklahoma in the late 1800’s. I think most Germans settled in Ontario and the mid-west but some went south.

  2. Were there a lot of fans of Goethe and Novalis in the antebellum South, HW? Or of the Sturm und Drang aesthetic?

  3. Germans, especially German intellectuals, should abandon the parroting of French for their “native” tongue.

    For a very very very long time, French was the powerful second language in the German city-states. Just as today, English is infiltrating commonly spoken German, so it was for French in the 18th century.

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