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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
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

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?

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