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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Gothic Undercurrents

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry Ward
- Ambrose
- Charles
Brockden Brown
- Emily Dickenson
- Charlotte
Perkins Gilman
- Nathaniel
- Washington
- Herman
- Edgar
Allen Poe
- William
Gilmore Simms
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: 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?

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