Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," belongs to the period known as American romanticism, the period called, by F.O. Matthiessen, the American Renaissance. The American Renaissance took place roughly from 1840-1865, though the most significant work of this period was produced from 1850-1855. See F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, written in 1941. Matthiessen was influential in determining the canon of American writers from this period: Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.
Recent texts have challenged Matthiessen's notion of an American Renaissance, pointing out that the work of major American authors of this period did not occur in a vacuum. They were, instead, significantly influenced by the popular literature of the period. .
See, in particular, David S. Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville, written in 1989. Reynolds points out that a subversive literature existed prior to the work of the major authors of the American Renaissance, in the form of sensational crime novels, erotic writings, humor writing, etc. .
In fact, there were a number of stories circulating which focused upon sexually transgressive clergymen, and this may have been an influence on Hawthorne's portrayal of Arthur Dimmesdale. .
Romanticism as broadly considered arose so gradually and exhibited so many phases that a straightforward definition proves impossible. Generally, romanticism marks a reaction in literature, philosophy, art, religion, and politics from the neoclassicism and formal orthodoxy of the preceding period. Although romanticism was not a clearly conceived system, it does tend to present certain characteristics: there is often a tendency toward primitivism, an interest in nature and the natural world, a pressuring of the past, and a foregrounding of the concerns of individualism.