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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Gothic Undercurrents – Activities

Overview Questions

  • American gothic writing tends to question and analyze rather than offer helpful answers. How do these texts critique the common nineteenth-century assumption that America stands as the unique moral and social guiding light for the world (that it is, as John Winthrop said in 1630, “a City on a Hill”)?
  • If the gothic explores what we might call the “dark side” of American life, what cultural fears and anxieties do we find expressed here? How does the form of this literature (especially narrative voice and point of view) help convey these anxieties?
  • Gothic writers addressed key nineteenth-century cultural trends, such as westward expansion, technological and scientific progress, romantic individualism, the cult of true womanhood, and the debate over slavery and abolition. How can you see some of these trends reflected in the texts of this unit?
  • Who are the inheritors of the gothic mode today? Do they share similar concerns with these writers or are their concerns new to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
  • How do these writers explore and critique the ideas of self-reliance, free will, and the self-made man that you saw expressed by Franklin and Emerson in Unit 4?

Video Activities

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: How did America’s Puritan heritage influence Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”? Describe Rappaccini’s scientific experiment with his daughter. In what sense is the Pequod a microcosm of American society?
Context Questions: How did the Civil War and the tensions that precipitated it influence these three writers?
Exploratory Questions: What do you think constitutes “an American”? Do these writers support or challenge your views about America?

What is American literature? What are its distinctive voices and styles? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?
Video Comprehension Questions: How is gothic literature different from other kinds of writing that are contemporaneous with it? What were some nineteenth-century social conditions that contributed to the critical outlook of gothic literature? Why is the dash important in Dickinson’s poems?
Context Questions: In what sense are these texts “pessimistic” compared to others of the nineteenth century?
Exploratory Questions: All three of these writers are now considered “canonical,” or essential for a complete understanding of American literary history, and many would call Moby-Dick the most important American novel ever. Melville’s book was widely condemned during his lifetime, however, and only found broad appreciation by readers in the twentieth century. Why do you imagine so many people rejected it in the nineteenth century? How can a literary work be considered worthless at one time and great at another? Do you think Moby-Dick is a great novel? Why or why not?

What characteristics of a literary work have made it influential over time?
Video Comprehension Questions: What happens to Young Goodman Brown in the forest? Describe Ahab’s quest: what is he looking for, and why? What themes or topics does Dickinson tend to write about?
Context Questions: Many of the gothic’s concerns apply as well to the twenty-first century as to the nineteenth. What do these writers have to say about human nature and the human mind?
Exploratory Questions: Why wallow in the swampy regions of human nature? Are these works merely depressing, or do they have any positive or useful effects?

Swamps, Dismal and Otherwise

[2767] H. L. Stevens, In the Swamp (1863), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2522].

According to David C. Miller in his book Dark Eden, the idea of the swamp underwent an important change in the mid-nineteenth century. The swamp, he says, had long been full of theological and folk loric implications: “It was the domain of sin, death, and decay; the stage for witchcraft; the habitat of weird and ferocious creatures.” But the Romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau in the first part of the century had changed how nature was viewed. For many, nature was neither an impediment to be overcome by rational social progress nor a howling “wilderness” to be cultivated by Christian piety. Rather, nature became an object of human experience, a field of signs in which the apprehending consciousness could see analogies to his or her (usually “his”) truest “nature.” So the swamp, too, began to exhibit shifting associations as it became a screen on which the observer could project his or her own fears or desires. It was potentially threatening and consuming, but also potentially generative, creative, and thrilling. One could get lost and swallowed up in the swamp (could get, that is, “swamped”), or one could find a new source of energy and power. This shift was associated with socio-cultural issues, as Miller observes: first, with “the erosion of patriarchal patterns of culture, motivated by an urge to control or suppress a ‘female’ nature as the source of heretical and potentially anarchic meaning”; second, with the South’s power, conceived either as thrillingly resilient (as the South is assaulted by the North for its practices) or as cruelly inhuman (insofar as it practices slavery). The swamp, then, acts during this time as a figure for a variety of social and philosophical issues. And insofar as it tends to blend the threatening and the thrilling, it can be associated with gothic themes in general.

Swamps are part of the symbolism of slavery’s suffocating evil in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dred, A Tale of the Dismal Swamp. Swamps can also be seen as symbolic of the problems of knowledge and repression in Herman Melville’s Pierre and The Confidence-Man. According to Miller, however, swamps are most prominent as a symbol for, depending on the text, either the best or worst of southern society. They figure prominently in the work of southern writer William Gilmore Simms, for whom, in such novels as The ForayersThe Scout, and Woodcraft, the swamp stands for the conflicting connotations of the South. On the one hand, we have slavery and defeat, with their associations of stagnation, infirmity, self-pity, and lassitude. On the other hand, we have stalwart and fraternal community, with its associations of vigor, power, fecundity, and renewal. In the alternation between these two poles much of the gothic springs forth: When does comfort become stagnation? When does vigor become violence?

  1. Comprehension: Which of the texts in Unit 6 contain swamps?
  2. Context: Why was the swamp important in mid-nineteenth-century life and culture?
  3. Context: What is the swamp’s relation to society? What is its relation to more obviously threatening natural forces or objects such as storms, mountains, and volcanoes? Is the swamp a force or an object?
  4. Context: Consider François Regis Gignoux’s 1850 painting ViewDismal SwampNorth Carolina in relation to the opening pages of William Gilmore Simms’s novels The Scout and The Forayers. How are these three swamps similar and different? What significance do Gignoux and Simms give them?
  5. Context: To what extent does Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” draw on the symbolism of the swamp? In what ways does this story respond to the archive image of the runaway slave, “In the Swamp”?
  6. Context: Analyze the significance of the swamp, or “tarn,” in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
  7. Exploration: Have you ever seen a swamp? What was your reaction? What representations of swamps have you seen in the media or popular culture? What response did those images inspire?
  8. Exploration: What comparisons can you make between Simms’s swamps and other natural objects or phenomena in this unit: Melville’s ocean or whale? Hawthorne’s forest? Dickinson’s winter light? Irving’s Catskill Mountains? Gilman’s botanical-motif wall-paper? What generalization can you make about gothic literature’s vision of nature?

[1876] François Regis Gignoux, View, Dismal Swamp, North Carolina (1850), 
courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Copyright 2002 Musem of Fine Arts, Boston, François Regis Gignoux; American (born in France), 1816-1882. View, Dismal Swamp, North Carolina, 1850; Oil on canvas; 78.74 x 120.01 cm. (31 x 47 1/4 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Henry Herbert Edes, 1923, 23.184. Oil on canvas; southern swamp at sunset. As notions of nature changed in the mid-nineteenth century, the swamp began to be associated with the human potential to effect change on social problems.

[2719] Alfred Rudolph Waud, Pictures of the South–Negro Quarters on Jefferson Davis’s Plantation (1866), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-116582]. 
Sketch of slave quarters and slaves on the plantation of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

[2767] H. L. Stevens, In the Swamp (1863), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2522]. 
The swamp could be a refuge, especially for escaped slaves, displaced Native Americans, and exiled white communities such as the Acadians.

[3356] War Department, Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; He discharged the overseer. The very words of Poor Peter, Taken as he sat for his picture. Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1863), 
courtesy of the Still Picture Branch, National Archive and Records Administration. 
For slaves, escape became increasingly difficult over the course of the nineteenth century because of the rigid laws enacted in response to abolitionist activity.

[5931] Worthington Whittredge, The Old Hunting Grounds (1864), 
courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 
The decaying Indian canoe among birch trees symbolizes the death of the Native American culture sentimentalized in Cooper’s work and other frontier literature.

[8095] Alfred R. Waud, Cyprus Swamp on the Opelousas Railroad, Louisiana (1866), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-108302]. 
The image of the swamp–dark, mysterious, and potentially dangerous–provides an apt allegory for many social and philosophical issues faced by the United States during the nineteenth century.

The Spirit Is Willing:
The Occult and Women in the Nineteenth Century

[7053] A. J. Dewey, There’s a Charm about the Old Love Still (1901), courtesy of the Library of Congress and Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.

The nineteenth century saw an upsurge of interest in occult and supernatural phenomena, especially attempts to contact the spirits of dead loved ones. Enlightenment reason had by now taken its toll on the Calvinist faith of early America and its belief in original sin: far fewer people believed in a God who directly intervened in the affairs of the world, dispensing generous or harmful miracles as appropriate to convey his judgment. Indeed, the “invisible world,” as Cotton Mather called the realm of divinity and spirits in 1693, had by the 1850s largely receded from the daily thoughts of many Americans. The Deist God was now prominent: this was the famous “clock-maker,” who established the laws of the universe at the creation, but who never interfered with the mechanism after winding it up.

Our current notions of a clear distinction between science and religion did not exist much before the twentieth century. At least until the eighteenth century, science was called “natural philosophy” and was only one way of deepening one’s understanding of self, nature, and divinity. Cotton Mather had also been a scientist, fascinated by God’s creation as a way of reading the attitudes of the Creator, and Sir Isaac Newton wrote a lengthy treatise on the Book of Revelation. As Ann Braude argues in her book Radical Spirits, it should not be surprising, then, that many nineteenth-century Americans saw no less reason to believe in ghosts and mediums than they did to believe in what seemed like the equally improbable idea of the telegraph: both involved communication that crossed apparently insuperable barriers. Spiritualism, as the spirit-contacting movement was called, allowed Americans who were becoming more inclined to trust science than miracles to retain a belief in the afterlife based on what appeared to be repeatable, objective evidence and experiment.

It is not accidental that women were the main agents of nineteenth-century spiritualism. A science/religion that allowed direct contact with the invisible world without institutional hierarchy, it carved a place for women to provide religious leadership. In 1848, the Fox sisters, Margaret, Leah, and Catherine, reported hearing spirit rappings in their Arcadia, New York, home and went on to be the driving force in American spiritualism. They organized “performances” in which they demonstrated their abilities as mediums and drew condemnation from some male clergy. Women interfering with established religious structures had been an American anxiety at least since Anne Hutchinson in the seventeenth century–an anxiety especially apparent in the heavily gendered accusations of the Salem witch trials. Perhaps in response to the women who attempted to cross patriarchal boundaries, a social phenomenon sometimes called the cult of true womanhood developed and began to have widespread influence in nineteenth-century America. This ideology, or set of assumptions and beliefs, solidly relegated women to the home and explicitly rejected the possibility of women engaging in public leadership. Scholar Barbara Welter suggests that, through such vehicles as women’s magazines and religious literature, the cult of true womanhood prescribed four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women, it was thought, had as their proper roles nurturer, comforter, and homemaker. In the public realm–whether political or religious–women, like children, were meant to be seen and not heard. “True” women in this sense were patriotic and God-fearing; anyone who opposed this ideology was seen as an enemy of God, civilization, and America itself. One of the most famous women to challenge this idea of womanhood was Victoria Woodhull, who combined a belief in spiritualism with crusades for women’s suffrage and free love. She was also the first woman to address a joint session of Congress and ran for president in 1871 (an attempt that ended in failure when her past as a prostitute was exposed).

For all these reasons, we should not be surprised to see gothic writers reveal concerns about how gender relates to the spirit world. The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” imputes a witchlike, supernatural willpower to his beloved. He imagines that she is able to transcend the boundary between life and death and is therefore both exciting and threatening. Henry Ward Beecher, in his sermon “The Strange Woman,” displays a similar fear as he warns against the almost supernatural power women’s sexuality can wield over impressionable young men. He comes close to suggesting that prostitutes, devil-like, are capable of mesmerizing and entrapping otherwise rational males. Arguably, Emily Dickinson exploits the association of the female with the mystical as she interrogates the assumptions of the largely patriarchal nineteenth-century worldview: although one must tell the truth “slant,” Dickinson implies that she has access to it. Ironically, perhaps, given Beecher’s social moralizing, spiritualism, whose proponents also critiqued marriage and advocated alternative medical treatments, became closely associated with the antebellum social reform ethos in general. The reform movements had always attracted many women who had a particular interest in creating a more equitable culture. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry’s sister, was the most famous nineteenth-century literary woman to argue, through Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), for social reform. It is useful to compare her reform ethos with the spiritualist one: for Stowe, it is the mystery of Christianity that shows the way to truth and justice.


  1. Comprehension: Why was spiritualism threatening to some men? In the image “The Age of Brass, or the Triumph of Women’s Rights,” how are the women represented? What did the social empowerment of women have to do with spiritualism?
  2. Context: What different emphases are provided by a reform movement that focuses on spirits, rather than one that focuses on traditional Christianity? What kind of reforms were Victoria Woodhull and the Fox sisters associated with? How can you relate women’s reforms and spiritualism to Henry Ward Beecher’s “The Strange Woman” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”?
  3. Context: Why would women have a particular interest in social reform movements?
  4. Context: Why might spiritualism appeal to so many people (over one million Americans by 1855)? How might this popularity relate to the contemporaneous popularity of the gothic mode?
  5. Exploration: Do you believe in spirits? Is it possible to reconcile such a belief with orthodox faiths?
  6. Exploration: Is it fair to say that Dickinson presents herself as a latter-day mystic in her poems? How would this approach revise your reading of her work?
  7. Exploration: What are the similarities and differences between Poe’s character Ligeia and Beecher’s “Strange Woman”?
  8. Exploration: In what sense could you say all gothic literature is interested in social reform?

[2245] Alexandre-Marie Colin, The Three Witches from “Macbeth” (1827), 
courtesy of the Sandor Korein. 
Paintings like this resonated with the mid-nineteenth- century American interest in the occult and the fear of what some saw as the supernatural power of women.

[2498] Currier & Ives, The Age of Brass; or, The Triumphs of Women’s Rights (1869), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1921]. 
In this lithograph one woman scolds a cowed man, and another, in pantaloons, holds a sign reading “Vote for the Celebrated Man Tamer.” Such cartoons played to predominantly male fears about the reversal of men’s and women’s public and private roles and were designed to reinforce the cult of true womanhood.

[2503] Unknown, The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives Receiving a Deputation of Female Suffragists (1871), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-2023]. 
Victoria Woodhull, backed by a group of women suffragists, is shown reading a speech to a skeptical judiciary committee. Her speech, about the legality of women’s suffrage, was based on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional amendments.

[7053] A. J. Dewey, There’s a Charm about the Old Love Still (1901), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress and Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, NC. 
This sheet music illustration shows a man and a woman using a Ouija board. The nineteenth century witnessed a growing interest in spiritualism and the occult.

[7248] N. Currier, Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox: The Original Mediums of the Mysterious Noises at Rochester, Western N.Y. (1852), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-2586]. 
The sisters, who claimed to communicate with the dead, are credited as the originators of modern spiritualism.

[9013] Henry Ward Beecher, The Strange Woman (1892), 
from Addresses to Young Men, published by H. Altemus, Philadelphia. 
In this sermon Beecher warns young men against the dangers of female sexuality, which he saw as a force possessing near-supernatural power over an unguarded man’s will.

America on the Rocks: The Image of the "Ship of State"

[7261] Currier & Ives, A Squall off Cape Horn (1840-90), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5632].

Writers often create coherence in their writing by employing literary motifs–themes, characters, or verbal patterns that recur throughout the work. Sometimes writers draw these motifs out of their imagina tion, but other times they are popular symbols from a writer’s era. One important cultural motif for nineteenth-century political discourse was the image of America as the ship of state and its history as a voyage. As David C. Miller observes, this is an ancient trope, reaching back at least to Sophocles, in whose Antigone Creon says to the chorus that “our Ship of State, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come safely to harbor at last, guided by the merciful wisdom of Heaven.” And in the United States, the figure goes back at least to Roger Williams and John Winthrop, in the seventeenth century, who exploited its association with the Israelites’ journey into the wilderness toward the promised land of Canaan. But in the years around Moby-Dick‘s composition, as the nation seemed more and more headed toward sectional conflict over the issue of slavery, many voices warned that the ship of state was threatening to strike the rocks of civil war. For many Americans, America was not so much sailing into harbor as nearly foundering in treacherous socio-political seas. In 1850, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poem “The Building of the Ship,” which became popular with Unionists as it reminded Americans of the “blood and tears” that went into the creation of the Union. Significantly, in the same year Daniel Webster defended the Compromise of 1850 in these terms: “The East, the North, and the stormy South combine to throw the whole sea into commotion, [. . .] I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of all.” The Compromise was meant to unite once and for all the North, the South, and the West, newly acquired in the Mexican War of 1848-49. Among other provisions, it allowed the admittance of California into the Union as a free state but required northern states to return escaped slaves to their former masters. However, it eased tensions between North and South only temporarily, and the Civil War came eleven years later. In fact, in 1851 Melville’s own father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, putting the law officially into practice. One commentator responded to abolitionists who decried this law by figuring slavery as an implacable force: “Did you ever see a whale? Did you ever see a mighty whale struggling?”

It is possible to argue, then, as Alan Heimert did forty years ago, that Melville’s epic consciously allegorizes America as the ship of state. He points out not only that the Pequod is manned by thirty isolates all “federated along one keel” (there were thirty states in the Union by 1850), but also that each of the three mates stands for one of the three major regions of the country: North, South, and West. Moreover, each one employs as harpooner the precise racial minority that the region he represents was built upon: a Pacific Indian serves Starbuck, the Yankee; a Native American throws for Stubb, whom Melville describes as “essentially Western”; and the African Daggoo carries Flask, who represents the South.

But even if the symbolism is not as tight as Heimert suggests (many readers might find this reading a little claustrophobic), there is no question that the spirit of the “ship of state” was in the air as Melville wrote. Other important literary texts of the time to evoke this image are Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Of course, the other symbolically prominent vessel of the age was itself horribly literal: the slave ship. Its significance can be seen in images like The Africans of the Slave Bark ‘”Wildfire,” which was the kind of visual rhetorical statement that abolitionists seized on to decry the cruelties of slavery. The two ships were symbolically inextricable, as the repeated but direct voyages of the one had much to do with the single but tumultuous journey of the other.


  1. Comprehension: Why was there national tension in the 1850s?
  2. Comprehension: In what sense might Melville’s Pequod be allegorizing America?
  3. Context: What aspects of a country are emphasized when it is thought of as the “ship of state”?
  4. Context: How did the outcome of the Mexican War add to anxiety about the “voyage” of America?
  5. Context: How do you imagine a typical northern white American of the mid-nineteenth century would react to the image of the slave bark Wildfire? A typical southern white American?
  6. Exploration: Do you see any way to have avoided the Civil War? What advice would you have given Americans about the ship of state in 1850?
  7. Exploration: In what ways is a country not like a ship? Why might employing the image of the ship of state actually be politically dangerous?
  8. Exploration: Closely examine the details of the Pequod as described in Chapter XVI of Moby-Dick, “The Ship.” What details support the idea that Melville intended this novel–at least in part–to represent America’s voyage in the mid-nineteenth century?

[1541] Unknown, Ship William Baker of Warren, in the South Atlantic Ocean (1838), 
courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. 
Page from a ship’s logbook. Whaling ship logbooks provide insight into the whaling industry’s impact on the international market, the changes in population and behavior of whale species, and the cultural changes whaling brought to different social and ethnic groups.

[1666] Anonymous, The Harpers Ferry Insurrection–The U.S. Marines storming the engine house–Insurgents firing through holes in the doors (1859), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-126970]. 
This illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicts the end of the raid led by John Brown on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The raid deepened beliefs in both the South and the North that there could be no compromise over slavery.

[2603] Harper’s Weekly, The Africans of the Slave Bark “Wildfire”–The Slave Deck of the Bark “Wildfire,” Brought in to Key West on April, 30, 1860–African Men Crowded onto the Lower Deck; African Women Crowded on an Upper Deck (1860), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-41678]. 
Importation of slaves from Africa was outlawed in 1820, but continued illegally until the Civil War. Such depictions of the inhumanity of slavery helped strengthen the abolition movement in the United States.

[7261] Currier & Ives, A Squall off Cape Horn (1840-90), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5632]. 
This print captures the popular ideal of America as “ship of state,” as well as the sense of nationalism and exploration that fueled the expanding physical and economic borders of the country.

Unnatural Reason/Weird Science

[3161] C. F. Wieland, Dr. Wieland’s Celebrated Sugar Worm Lozenges (1856), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-102488].

Alongside the enthusiasm for technological progress and the Industrial Revolution, the nineteenth century experienced widespread anxiety about the costs of technology and resulting urbanization and alienation. Herman Melville, in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” and Rebecca Harding Davis, in Life in the Iron Mills, wrote of the dehumanizing potential of industrial labor. Melville, in “The Bell-Tower,” and Hawthorne, in works like “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birth-Mark,” followed Mary Shelley’s lead in Frankenstein, suggesting that scientific ambition can be easily associated with hubris–dangerously overweening pride that inevitably led to the destruction of the scientist. Moreover, industrial labor was seen by some as a challenge to republican individualism: the worker became a cog in the machine, no longer an autonomous producer. Many felt technology as a threat, a kind of monstrous “machine in the garden”–to borrow Leo Marx’s term–one that invaded people’s lives, producing potentially catastrophic side effects.


  1. Comprehension: What sense do you get of the factory in view of the “Architectural Iron Works, 13th & 14th Sts., East River, New York”? Does this seem like an inviting place to work? Why or why not? Compare this image with the depiction of the factory in Herman Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.”
  2. Context: How could you see “Molten Metal to Casts,” in the archive, as an argument against industrial labor? How is this argument similar to and different from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist stance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
  3. Exploration: The archive images of “Dr. Wieland’s Celebrated Sugar Worm Lozenges” and “Moorhead’s Improved Graduated Magnetic Machine” implicitly promise that technology can improve daily life. Do you see these promises explored in any of the texts of Unit 6? In your own life? Do you trust these promises? Do these promises bear any resemblance to Rappaccini’s experiment?

[3159] Sarony, Major & Knapp, View of the Architectural Iron Works, 13th & 14th Sts., East River, New York (1865), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2787]. 
D. D. Badger and Company Architectural Iron Works in New York City. Cast-iron building facades were an industrial alternative to those made of the more traditional, and more expensive, hand-carved stone.

[3161] C. F. Wieland, Dr. Wieland’s Celebrated Sugar Worm Lozenges (1856), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-102488]. 
Patent medicine label with an illustration of respectable-looking women supervising children in a sitting room and smaller illustrations of laboring women (and one man). As science and medicine gained acceptance in the mid-nineteenth century, such medications became popular. This one was marketed to female consumers.

[3162] Bald, Cousland & Co., New York & Philadelphia, Proof for Bank Note Vignette Showing Men Carrying Molten Metal to Casts (1857), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99585]. 
This engraving for a bank note proof shows iron workers transferring a crucible of molten metal to the casting area. Many states, and some private companies, printed their own notes prior to the nationalization of currency during the Civil War.

[7249] Anonymous, Carter’s Little Liver Pills (c.1860), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Samuel Rosenberg Collection [LC-USZ62-75898]. 
Trade card advertisement for liver pills, depicting a woman with a “wretched nervous headache” who is amazed that her husband could be chipper after a late night. The success of such nineteenth-century medications was due to the growing belief that science could improve the daily life of Americans.

[8650] Emory Elliott, Interview: “Hawthorne’s Relation to the Puritan Past” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Emory Elliott, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, reads an excerpt from Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

"Sleeping Beauty": Sentimentalizing Death in the Nineteenth Century

[2651] N. E. Talcott and J. H. Bufford, Allegorical Representation of the Dying Christian (1847), courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-3150].

In the mid-nineteenth century, death was less often seen as the occasion for a final judgment of the sinning soul and more often as the passage to a comforting “home.” As it had always been in America, death was still a family affair, much more a part of everyday life than in our own day; rather than in hospitals, people died at home, cared for by women relatives. With events like Unitarian Minister William Ellery Channing’s repudiating the Calvinist theory of infant damnation in 1809, however, death–especially the death of children– became more an occasion for melancholy than an opportunity for pious reflections on depravity.

The cult of sentiment that continued from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century suggested that sympathy with another human was a paramount virtue. Especially associated with literature written by and for women–and the cult of true womanhood in general–the sentimental tradition taught that the homely virtues of empathy and pity were the route to moral edification for both sexes. This movement produced many tearful deathbed scenes in literature and art: the death of little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is only one of many examples of angelically innocent children dying gracefully in order to rend the hearts of the onlookers and readers (in fact, childhood mortality was 30 to 50 percent in this era). On the other side of the Atlantic, Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and Charles Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop employed this image as well. Through a sympathetic reaction to such a death, it was hoped that people would become more virtuous by tapping into their sentimentality, which would ease the demands of callous reason. Starting in the 1830s, “consolation literature”–roughly comparable to today’s self-help books on dealing with grief–became popular, and life insurance companies took root. As Stanley B. Burns shows in Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, by 1841 the brand-new technology of the daguerreotype was encouraging a vogue in post-mortem photography. In an age without public records, the dead could, in a way, be captured and held onto indefinitely.

Gothic literature responds to this era of sentimental death in a number of ways. Some writers, like Stowe, exploit the trend for socio-political purposes. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sentimental deaths of Eva and Uncle Tom are meant to edify the reader: as Stowe wrote in the novel’s concluding chapter, “the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race.” Writers like Poe and Brown inject death scenes with graphic physical descriptions to transfer the intense emotionality of sentiment into an aesthetic effect of horror. Dickinson, however, frequently writes about the moment of death–or its anticipation or aftermath–in decidedly unsentimental terms, as if to undercut the usual effect of the sentimental death.


  1. Comprehension: What seems to be the message of the “Allegorical Representation of the Dying Christian”? How do you imagine it meant to make its viewers feel? How do Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died” or Melville’s Moby-Dick (e.g., the death of Pip) challenge this allegory?
  2. Exploration: Can you spot the use of sentimental death-scenes in literature or film today? How do they function in films like TitanicSteel Magnolias, and Terms of Endearment? Why are films like these sometimes called–sometimes with affection, sometimes with disdain–” chick flicks”?

[2651] N. E. Talcott and J. H. Bufford, Allegorical Representation of the Dying Christian (1847), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3150]. 
This lithograph shows a man on his deathbed making a peaceful transition to the afterlife. He is surrounded by Jesus Christ, angels, and women.

[2654] James S. Baille, The Mother’s Grave (1848), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1842]. 
Here a rosy-cheeked brother and sister dressed in mourning are joined by a dog at their mother’s tombstone.

[2656] D. W. Kellogg, Woman Mourning by Tomb (c. 1842), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4- 1840]. 
Painting of crying woman lean-ing on tomb inscribed with the words “to the memory of Capt. John Williams, died April the 1, 1825.”

[3111] James William Carling, The Raven (c. 1882), 
courtesy of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia. 
This illustration, created by James Carling for an 1882 edition of “The Raven,” reflects the dark and foreboding tone of Poe’s classic poem.

[8658] Priscilla Wald, “Dickinson Reading ” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Wald, associate pro-fessor of English at Duke University, reads Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a cer-tain Slant of light.”

Creative Response

  1. Journal: Write a letter to Goodman Brown, Rappaccini, Ahab, or Emily Dickinson in which you try to soothe their anxieties. What could you say to these tormented figures that might comfort them and ease their fears about people, society, or God? Do you think you could persuade them to adopt a more optimistic outlook? What points would you have to emphasize? Do you believe your own arguments?
  2. Poet’s Corner: First, try summarizing the “argument” of Dickinson’s poem #1129 [Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–] in prose form. What problems do you encounter in doing so? Can you take into account all of the words and punctuation of the poem as you write your summary? If not, what do you have to leave out in order to make the argument coherent? Second, try writing a poem in the style of Dickinson that expresses one of your beliefs. Imitate her spare style, use dashes, and see how briefly and efficiently you can express your views. Are you able to translate the belief into a Dickinson-like poem? What problems do you encounter?
  3. Doing History: Consider some gothic “texts” of our own day: you can find myriad examples in literature, film, television, and video games. Do you find in the current upsurge in gothic subject matter the spirit of Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson? Why or why not?
  4. Multimedia: American gothic representation has always been interdisciplinary: as a mode that is meant to affect the emotions as well as the intellect, it can be seen in painting, photography, drama, film, television, and video games. Using the American Passages image database, construct a multimedia presentation in which you use visuals to develop a definition of “gothic.” What elements or characteristics cause these images to cohere into an identifiable set of concerns, ideas, or assumptions?
  5. A Woman’s View: In 1999, Sena Jeter Naslund published Ahab’s Wife, or, The Star-Gazer. In this novel Naslund imagines what life was like for Ahab’s young wife. Write a response to one of the works you have read using the perspective of someone who is not given voice in the text. For example, you might rewrite the opening of Moby-Dick from Queequeg’s perspective or a scene from The Scarlet Letter from Pearl’s point of view.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. Because you have just studied the writers in this unit, you have been asked to help organize a new course being offered by the psychology department of your school, “Gothic Psychology.” The idea is to introduce students to human psychology as represented by writers in the gothic tradition. Referring to the texts of this unit, outline the syllabus for the course.
  2. Congress is commissioning you to prepare a study about the effects on readers of violent, disturbing literature–i.e., gothic literature. You are told that among sociologists there are two schools of thought: one is that such literature acts to “purge” the violent tendencies of people, allowing them to vicariously “let off steam” in a safe environment; the other is that such literature only desensitizes people and therefore makes them more prone to violence. How would you evaluate this problem, and what recommendations would you make? What information would you need, and what resources would you have to consult? Who would you ask?

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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