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Forces that Shaped American Culture, The Emergence of an American Voice

Albert Bierstadt, Hudson River School, art trends, radiant light, Herman Melville

American culture first developed a unique American voice during the 19th century. This voice included a cultural identity that was strongly connected to nature and to a divine mission. The new American voice had liberating effects on how the culture was perceived, by Americans and by others. Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau proposed that the American character was deeply individualistic and connected to natural and spiritual sources rather than to the conventions of social life. Many of the 19th century’s most notable figures of American literature—Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain—also influenced this tradition. The poetry of Walt Whitman, perhaps above all, spoke in a distinctly American voice about people’s relation to one another, and described American freedom, diversity, and equality with fervor.

Landscape painting in the United States during the 19th century vividly captured the unique American cultural identity with its emphasis on the natural environment. This was evident in the huge canvases set in the West by Albert Bierstadt and the more intimate paintings of Thomas Cole. These paintings, which were part of the Hudson River School, were often enveloped in a radiant light suggesting a special connection to spiritual sources. But very little of this American culture moved beyond the United States to influence art trends elsewhere. American popular culture, including craft traditions such as quilting or local folk music forged by Appalachian farmers or former African slaves, remained largely local.

This sense of the special importance of nature for American identity led Americans in the late 19th century to become increasingly concerned that urban life and industrial products were overwhelming the natural environment. Their concern led for calls to preserve areas that had not been developed. Naturalists such as John Muir were pivotal in establishing the first national parks and preserving scenic areas of the American West. By the early 20th century, many Americans supported the drive to preserve wilderness and the desire to make the great outdoors available to everyone.

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