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

3. Gothic Undercurrents

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Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
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 powerč--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.

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