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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents

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What was haunting the American nation in the 1850s? The three writers treated in this program — Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson — use poetry and prose to explore the dark side of nineteenth-century America.

Instructor Overview

Americans saw many reasons to be optimistic in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Philosophically, much of the nation had abandoned the bleak, deterministic theology of Calvin and had embraced either the Enlightenment faith in the power of human reason or a more gentle Protestant faith in a generous and forgiving God, or both. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 proved that a self-made man could rise from humble origins to the presidency. Requirements that voters own land were being relaxed or eliminated, so that democracy became a more achievable ideal. Spurred by a wide-spread belief in “Manifest Destiny,” the young nation was expanding rapidly, growing well into the Midwest and eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean by the 1840s, gathering momentum and resources along the way. Industry became a powerful economic force, and cities began to bulge with immigrants eager for work. Reform and improvement (of daily life and labor by technology, and of social conditions by progressive activists) were spreading. And in the world of letters, writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were arguing that Americans were in a perfect situation to cast off the fetters of European prejudice and habit and create a culture full of self-determined, empowered, and enlightened beings.

But if this picture represents one truth about nineteenth-century America, there are others as well. Almost 15 percent of the population was legally considered property (there were about 900,000 slaves in 1800 and about 3,200,000 by 1850). Only white, male property owners could vote. Women were largely confined to the home and certainly not expected to rise to positions of social authority. Native Americans were losing most of the power–and virtually all of the land–that they once held. How could all of these conditions exist, many asked, in the world’s one modern nation created with the explicit purpose of establishing freedom and equality for all? In addition, rapid change was causing anxiety about the future: Where was America heading? How could it both grow exponentially and retain its unity and coherence? What if it lost its agricultural self-reliance and became beholden to the whims of European trade? Were the millions of immigrants good for the country, or did they bring dangerous and contagious influences? What were the human costs of city life and urban labor conditions? Was the Mexican War justified, or was it only a base attempt to grab more land and resources for European Americans?

It is this spirit of anxiety, fear, and even despair that writers in the gothic mode tap into. The three writers treated in the video, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson, as well as the others represented in this unit, explore the “dark side” of nineteenth-century America. Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Ward Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ambrose Bierce, and William Gilmore Simms, among others, ask probing questions of their nation, challenging its tendency toward blind faith and unremitting optimism. Although these authors do at times write in styles that are not easily called “gothic,” they illuminate their mutual concerns when they compose in the gothic mode. For the purposes of this unit, it will be useful to think of gothic literature as that which plunges its characters into mystery, torment, and fear in order to pose disturbing questions to our familiar and comfortable ideas of humanity, society, and the cosmos.

Sometimes these questions are asked in explicitly sociopolitical forms: for example, Gilman portrays a woman so oppressed by the patriarchal assumptions of her husband that she is driven insane; and Hawthorne rejects the promise that science will ameliorate the human condition when he tells the story of one researcher’s obsessive and destructive botanical experiment on his daughter. But at least as often, these writers unveil their dark prophecies only by indirect glimpses–in the words of Dickinson, they “tell it slant.” Sometimes by couching their insights in allegories, sometimes by focusing on the uncertainties and contradictions of the psyche, and often by combining allegory with psychological investigation, gothic writers often challenge America’s optimism only by implication, forcing the reader to come to his or her own ethical conclusions. Thus, Melville’s Pequod becomes not only a whaling vessel but also the American ship of state as a fractious and multicultural crew is led to a terrifying fate by a dangerous and potentially insane demagogue. Similarly, Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is both a tormented seventeenth-century Puritan and a representative of America’s heritage of religious intolerance and self-righteousness. Charles Brockden Brown and Poe offer us characters who may be encountering the supernatural or may only be experiencing the projections of their own worst selves, their most base and uncontrollable prejudices and desires. In Dickinson’s poems, a speaking subjectivity wonders how many of its sensations it can trust, and whether there is any comfort to be found beyond the visible world. It is best, then, not to look for direct political pamphleteering in these writers–no polemics against slavery or imperialism here. Rather, we see the cheery political assumptions of the nineteenth century challenged by the staging of characters and situations that seem impossible or out of place in an America of autonomy, optimism, and freedom. Finally, these writers urge us to ask: What is an American? What are our ideals, and to what extent does it seem within our power to realize them? What power, if any, rules us? How much are we in control of ourselves? How well do we even know ourselves? To what extent can we ever be sure of anything?

“American Gothic” contextualizes these questions in terms of five nineteenth-century cultural trends: (1) the image of the swamp; (2) interest in the occult; (3) the image of America as a “ship of state”; (4) abuse of reason and science; (5) the senti-mentalization of death. Other American Passages units that bear comparison to this include Unit 3, “Utopian Promise,” and Unit 4, “The Spirit of Nationalism,” which lay out the forward-looking ideals established by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Unit 7, “Slavery and Freedom,” which explores the explicitly political literature of the most serious challenge to American ideals in the country’s history; Unit 13, “Southern Renaissance,” which shows how much of twentieth-century southern writing follows in the gothic tradition; and Unit 16, “The Search for Identity,” which emphasizes literature that stages the fractures and contradictions of our own time.

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. define what “gothic” means;
  2. understand which American hopes, fears, and anxieties are explored and critiqued by writers in the gothic mode;
  3. recognize the centrality of gothic literature to nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and culture;
  4. evaluate the generally skeptical, pessimistic, or critical positions adopted by gothic writers;
  5. discuss the role of gender and race in shaping the forms and themes of the American gothic tradition.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson

Who’s Interviewed:
Karen Halttunen, professor of history (University of California, Davis); Priscilla Wald, associate professor of English (Duke University); Emory Elliott, professor of English (University of California, Riverside); Nina Baym, general editor, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Robert Stone, author, poet, and professor of English (Yale University)

Points Covered:

  • The gothic explores the dark or uncertain sides of human nature.
  • Rapid social changes in the nineteenth century cause anxiety in America, nurturing a gothic sensibility in literature.
  • Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”: “Goodman” as working through the painful inheritance of rigid Puritan faith; “Rappaccini” as expressing anxiety about both science and the oppression of women.
  • Melville’s “Hawthorne and His Mosses” and Moby-Dick: Melville’s laudatory review of a book by Hawthorne shows their similar interest in the dark truths of humanity; Melville’s adventurous life; the white whale as a symbol of ambiguity and uncertainty, and the ship as a microcosm of mid-nineteenth-century society; Ahab’s hunt as a rage against God.
  • Dickinson’s poetry: Dickinson composes the terror of ordinary life; her Melville-like insistence that, because it is dangerous, the “truth” must be revealed only carefully and by glimpses; her use of the dash and popular verse; brief discussions of three poems.


  • Preview the video: Alongside the optimism of writers like Emerson, the nineteenth century produced a body of writing meant to question Americans’ essential goodness. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson wrote narratives and poems in which they asked difficult questions about God, truth, and humanity. They rarely provided hopeful answers.
  • What to think about while watching: How do these writers expect their work to be received by the reader? How do they express the social and personal anxieties of their time? What assumptions or beliefs do they challenge? Why do they remain compelling today? What do they hope to achieve through their writing?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: These writers are only three of the most important practitioners of the gothic mode in the nineteenth century. Many others also explored the disturbing or repressed aspects of American life, asking questions like: What are we afraid of? What is the worst we are capable of? What do we have a right to believe in? To what extent can our will and reason evade the lures of habit, prejudice, ignorance, and desire?

Suggested Author Pairings

Herman Melville and Washington Irving
In their texts treated in this unit, Herman Melville and Washington Irving arguably present veiled allegories of American experience. In Moby-Dick, the Pequod can stand as the mid-nineteenth-century ship of state, America’s diverse and contentious community navigating treacherous waters and wary of the designs of its captain. Ahab might be the inverse of the messianic Andrew Jackson, the latter as confident of the divine sanction of westward expansion as the former is confident of the transcendental necessity of flouting God’s cruelty. Aboard, too, are the African American Pip and the Native American Queequeg, members of two American groups who suffered during the Jacksonian expansion. Meanwhile, Irving constructs two conflicting worlds in his stories: the colonial Dutch community of easy aestheticism and the liberal-progressive United States of base commercialism. Rip Van Winkle has to construct a new identity when earthy colony becomes political country; and Ichabod Crane, the venial, craven representative of Yankee self-delusion, is punished for his blind hypocrisy.

Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Brockden Brown
Dickinson, Poe, and Brown all ask us to explore a consciousness that doubts and questions its own reflections. All three employ death as the focal point of self-consciousness, the unknowable center around which our thoughts inevitably swirl (whether we are aware of it or not). Dickinson, in poem #315, emphasizes that our uncertainty about God is perennial, because only at or after death (“the Ethereal Blow”) do we have any hope of sureness. She also ends her meditation on the subjective experience of winter light by suggesting that it withdraws “like the Distance / On the look of Death–.” Neither Poe’s nor Brown’s narrators can be fully sure of the evidence of their senses: in each case, the narrative suggests that what the characters experience could be at least in part the projection of their own desires (“Ligeia”) or fears (Wieland). And in each case, the threat of death looms large: the narrator of “Ligeia” cannot bear that death will have robbed him of his beloved, and Brown’s Clara fears her own possible implication in the homicidal tendencies of her brother. (Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” can also fit with this grouping.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Henry Ward Beecher 
These authors, each in wildly different ways, reflect on how gender influences the supposedly objective progress of reason. For Hawthorne in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Giovanni’s desire for Beatrice distracts him from the pursuit of scientific truth; and Rappaccini claims to perform his botanical experiment on pseudo-feminist grounds (so that Beatrice can now have some power in the world). Precisely what Hawthorne is saying about gender is debatable, although he seems to position the men as dangerously self-deluded and Beatrice as a social victim. Gilman’s feminism is much more clear: her narrator is oppressed and psychically annihilated by the “objective” inhumanity of patriarchal psychiatric medicine. It is precisely her own creativity, thwarted as John forbids her from writing, that returns to assault her sanity in the form of the wallpaper. Henry Ward Beecher, equally unambiguous but far from feminist, depicts the seductive deviltry of the female body in his lecture. If they are to succeed in their social ambitions, suggestible young men must be careful to avoid the Satanic snares of prostitutes. The female body here is the gothic threat, the dangerous and irrational force that threatens the American man.

Ambrose Bierce and William Gilmore Simms
These authors each depict the American South in gothic terms. For Simms, the South is the region of persevering self-reliance but, after the Civil War, also a shattered and beleaguered community that needs to rebuild its identity. When his characters journey through the swamps, they are both wandering in dangerously ill-defined territory and proving their mettle. In Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the southern Farquhar intends to burn a strategic bridge in order to thwart the Union forces. However, he is deceived twice: first by a mendacious Union scout, and second by his own imagination, as it conjures for him an elaborate scenario of heroism and bravery. Like so many other characters in the works treated in this unit, he cannot trust his own senses or awareness–even when he feels “preternaturally keen and alert.” Unlike many of the other characters, though, his self-delusion provokes socio-historical questions: Was the South fooling itself in the face of the inevitable? Did slavery render the South ethically dead even as the region imagined it was heroically struggling to free itself from northern bondage? What, after all, is the identity of the South?


ambiguity – Doubtfulness or uncertainness of interpretation. Much gothic literature is considered ambiguous insofar as it rarely presents a clear moral or message; it seems intended to be open to multiple meanings.

American Renaissance – Standard if limiting description of the flowering of American art and thought in the mid-nineteenth century. The restricted “canonical” version is usually thought to include Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Dickinson.

cult of sentiment – Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cultural phenomenon in which emotions and feelings, as opposed to reason and logic, were seen as the routes to moral and social improvement. Sentimentality emphasized the ability to empathize with another’s sorrow or to experience profound beauty. It was associated especially with literature written by and for women.

cult of true womanhood – Influential nineteenth-century ideal of femininity that stressed the importance of motherhood, homemaking, piety, and purity. While men were expected to work and act in the public realm of business and politics, women were to remain in the private, domestic sphere of the home.

gothic – In the eighteenth century and following, generally used for “of the Middle Ages.” Then, through negative association with the medieval–often seen as the “Dark Ages” following the intellectual and social flowering of Rome–the term “gothic” shifts to literature, art, or architecture which attempts to disturb or unsettle the orderly, “civilized” course of society. Gothic works probe the dark side of humanity or unveil socio-cultural anxiety.

Manifest Destiny – Prevalent in America from its early days through the nineteenth century, the belief that divine providence mandated America to expand throughout the continent and to stand as a social model for the rest of the world.

original sin – The Calvinist belief that, because of the fall of Adam and Eve, all humans are born inherently sinful. Only God’s free grace can save us from hell.

Romanticism – European American late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century intellectual movement that stressed human creativity, sensation, subjectivity, emotion, and fulfillment. Often associated with nature as an inspiring force, Romanticism emphasized the radically innovative individual, as opposed to the Enlightenment focus on the rationally ordered society. Gothicism is sometimes called “dark Romanticism.”

ship of state – A metaphor for conceiving of society and government, in which the state is seen as a ship traversing treacherous waters (i.e., social conflict) and needs the steady guiding hand of a trustworthy captain (i.e., leadership) to steer it to safe harbor (i.e., peaceful consensus) before it founders (i.e., fails as a unified society). This metaphor represents part of the American tendency toward thinking via analogy (comparing how two apparently unlike things might clarify or explain each other) and typology (seeing cosmic or national history expressed or symbolized in everyday details).

spiritualism – A more comforting and optimistic idea of the afterlife than that offered by Calvinism: the belief that the human personality or soul continues to exist after death and can be contacted through the aid of a medium. Many in the mid-nineteenth century were hopeful that science would eventually prove the existence of spirits.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Baym, Nina. American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth-Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002.

Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001.

Burns, Stanley. Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Altadena: Twelvetrees Press, 1990.

Elliott, Emory, ed. The Columbia History of the American Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Halttunen, Karen. Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

Heimert, Alan. “Moby-Dick and American Political Symbolism.” American Quarterly 15.4 (Winter 1963): 498-534.

Leverenz, David. Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford UP, 1941.

Miller, David. Dark Eden: The Swamp in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Wald, Priscilla. Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Welter, Barbara. Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio UP, 1976.

Further Resources
American Decorative Arts: Gothic Revival Library (1859) (virtual and actual exhibit). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York, NY 10028-0198. General Information: (212) 535-7710. TTY: (212) 570-3828 or (212) 650-2551.

American Photographs: The First Century (exhibit). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC 20560-0970. Phone: (202) 275-1500.

Dickinson Electronic Archives. Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia.

Eisner, Will. Moby-Dick (comic book). Adapted from Herman Melville. NBM Publishing.

Godey’s Lady’s Book (online and in hard copy). UVM Electronic Text Archive.

Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Poe Museum. 1914-16 East Main Street, Richmond, VA 23223. [email protected] Phone: (804) 648-5523 or (888)-21E-APOE.

Schultz, Elizabeth. Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1995.

Stone, Robert. Outerbridge Reach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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