The American Gothic
The writers of the late 1700s and the early 1800s in the new United States were acutely aware that they were establishing a new American voice and identity, and most of them were consciously trying the shape that voice in their works. These early writers were strongly influenced by the Romantic tradition of European--especially English--literature, which included writers such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and John Keats. Romanticism was based on the idea that art should derive from the inner world of the individual writer. Thus, the focus of interest in Romantic poetry is often on the mind, spirit and feelings of the poet. The Romantics saw themselves as revolutionary, rejecting the old methods and ideas for new techniques and subjects. Along with this, there was the sense that human beings were inherently good and that their potential was limitless. The Romantics' interest was in the human psyche rather than social mores, and they tended to feel that literature should serve beauty as well than truth--that is, poetry should be beautiful and should reveal emotional and spiritual truths, rather than teach a social or moral lesson.
The English Romantic poets often focus on nature as a subject. "Nature," however, usually serves as a metaphor or a catalyst for an emotional state, problem, or issue. Landscape, thus, is given human qualities. For example, in "I wandered lonely as a cloud," Wordsworth writes,
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
The English Romantic poets believe that Nature gives human beings direct access to God; thus, Nature replaces organized religion as the route to Truth. For this reason, symbolism, both in nature and in Romantic poetry, plays a large role. "A puddle," says Hazlitt, "is filled with preternatural faces" ("On Mr. Wordsworth's Excursion"). The Romantic poets preferred to use symbolism rather than exposition, since they felt that implication and deduction were more effective than overt preaching.
In keeping with the democratization of the political world, Romanticism glorifies the common. Blake, for example, writes about chimney sweeps; Keats finds universal truths in an ordinary Grecian urn.
Many of the Romantics were fascinated with magic and the supernatural, especially Coleridge, Blake, Byron, and Shelley.
Individualism and nonconformity are prized; a common subject is the outcast.
The ideas of the European Romantics were appealing to many American writers at the time, with their emphasis on revolutionary change, the goodness of human nature, and unlimited human potential. The vastness of the physical landscape, with so much left to explore, gave a peculiarly American twist to the Romantic ideas on nature and her role.
Not all American writers felt the same way, of course. Many believed that, given the size of the country and its diversity, an "American" literature was impossible; they attempted only regional literature. But others--Irving, Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville among them--wanted to create a unified vision of the new country. They knew that they could not avoid being influenced by their European roots, but they wanted to be more than "Europe West"; they wanted to shape an identity and tradition that was unique.
Washington Irving was born in 1783, the year that the new country officially came to be; he was named after its first president. He was the youngest of 11 children. His father was a wealthy New York merchant. He began studying law at age 16, but preferred writing. His brother started a newspaper to which Irving contributed a number of pieces gently satirizing New York life; he signed them "Jonathan Oldstyle," and they were a huge success. He travelled in the Hudson Valley (which would later serve as a setting for his stories) and in Europe before returning to New York and being admitted to the bar at age 23. With his brother and another partner, he produced the Salmagundi papers in 1807, and in 1809, published his first book: History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, a satirical--and very funny--history of early Dutch settlers.
In 1810, he travelled to Washington to represent the family firm's interests, and in 1815 he went to live in England to manage the family business there. The business failed in 1818, and he took up writing for a living. He travelled in Germany and France, and spent three years in Spain on diplomatic business. He spent two more years as secretary of the American legation in London, and then moved back to the United States, where he settled near Tarrytown, New York, in the area he'd written of years before as "Sleepy Hollow." He lived there (except for 3 years as minister to Spain) for the rest of his life. He died a happy man and respected writer in 1859.
In his writing, Irving combined the neoclassical style of Addison and other English essayists with Romanticism and extravagant humor. The characters in his stories find value in the past and in Old World traditions, and look with skepticism on the idea of the New World as a Utopia-in-the-making. And although he did engage in gentle political satire, his real interest is in human nature. Rip Van Winkle notices after he awakens that "King George" has given way to "George Washington," but his real happiness is not because of the country's freedom, but because of his own freedom from the domination of his wife.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most controversial figures in American literature. There are numerous biographies of him, yet no one really knows who the "real" Poe was.
The basic biographical information, then, along with some of the mysteries:
- Poe was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachussetts, the second of three children of Elizabeth and David Poe, impoverished actors. Elizabeth died in 1811, when Edgar was 2; his father's fate is unclear. He may have abandoned the family, or he may have died in 1810 or 1811.
- The children were taken in by different foster parents. Edgar went to live with John and Frances Allan in Richmond, Virginia. John Allan was the well-to-do co-owner of a profitable import-export business. The Allans made sure Poe went to good schools and gave him a good upbringing; although they never formally adopted him, they changed his name to Edgar Allan Poe. The family lived in England for time, and Poe attended a school in London (the Manor House School) which, years later, became the setting for "The Fall of the House of Usher." Some biographers say that Edgar and John Allan had a good relationship. Others claim that their relationship was troubled from the time Edgar was a small child.
- In 1826, Poe entered the University of Virginia, which had been established the preceding year by Thomas Jefferson. He did well in his studies, but also was introduced to drinking and gambling. He is said by some biographers to have run up huge gambling debts which he could not pay; thus, the university expelled him. Other say he was withdrawn by his foster father after he learned of the gambling and drinking. Still other biographers say that Poe never got into trouble with gambling at all; that his stepfather had, in one of his mercurial changes in temperament, simply decided not to keep paying his university fees, which were substantial. Whatever the case, Poe left the University, broke with Allan, and moved to Boston.
- In March of 1827, Poe enlisted in the U. S. Army. He gave his name as "Edgar A. Perry," listed his age as 22 (he was really 18) and his occupation as "clerk." That summer, Poe published his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Poe did well in the army and was rapidly promoted to sergeant major. He decided the army was the career for him, and entered West Point in May of 1830. In January of 1831, he left West Point, but again, accounts of his leaving differ. Some biographers say that he was asked to leave because he failed to perform well enough. Others say he felt out of place there and deliberately disobeyed orders to get himself released.
- In May of 1831, penniless, he moved in with his aunt, Maria Clemm, who had a daughter named Virginia. Poe's brother William Henry also lived there (he died that August of tuberculosis), along with his grandmother, whose tiny pension kept the family afloat. From this time on, Poe tried to make a living as a writer, reviewer, critic, and editor, with varying success. Most of his life was spent in poverty, moving from job to job up and down the Eastern seaboard; he rarely knew where his next meal was coming from, and never achieved any permanent financial security.
- Poe married Virginia Clemm, his first cousin, in May 1836 (they may have been secretly married the previous September; the records are unclear). She was 13 years old. It was fairly common for first cousins to marry in those days, but it was unusual for girls to marry at such a young age. Poe's marriage to Virginia has been one of the most controversial episodes of his life. Rufus Griswold, Poe's first "biographer," claimed he was a child molestor. Some biographers claim that Poe and Virginia did not share a bedroom for the first two years of the marriage; others say it was a marriage in name only until she was 18. There is also some speculation that the marriage was never consummated at all. Whatever the nature of the marriage, there is no doubt that Poe loved Virginia deeply. She became ill in 1842 and never recovered her health. She died of tuberculosis 5 years later, in 1847. Her death left Poe devastated.
- Poe died two years later, in 1849. His death is, like so many other details of his life, a matter of debate. Some accounts say he was discovered by a friend in a gutter, delirious from fever, and taken to the hospital. Other accounts say he was found drunk in a tavern by his uncle and taken to the hospital. Still another account says he was found by a friend semi-conscious outside a polling booth and taken to the hospital. Some accounts say he was drunk; others that he'd been beaten and robbed; others that he was suffering a high fever and delirium. He died several days later, unable to tell anyone coherently where he'd been or what had happened to him. It has been theorized that he died from exposure; from rabies; from a combination of alcohol poisoning and diabetes; a brain tumor.
As you can see, many of the very facts of Poe's life are uncertain, and various biographers have placed their own interpretation on them. Some facts are certain, however:
- Poe did drink too much. He may or may not have been an alcoholic, depending on your interpretation of the facts. But his drinking was not sustained over long periods of time. Rather, he had a very low capactity for alcohol--that is, he could get roaring drunk on very little--and he did go on binges. While that seems clear, however, when and how long the binges were is a bit fuzzy. In several instances, some people reported seeing him drunk while others reported that he was sober on the same occasion. Poe had loyal friends and bitter enemies, and their accounts of his actions are not always reliable.
- Griswold wrote an obituary of Poe after his death that blackened his name; later, he wrote a much longer and even more slanderous article, and that was the accepted account of Poe's life for a many years after his death. To get the rights to Poe's work, Griswold defrauded Poe's mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. He went to her and told her that Poe had asked him to be his lterary executor (Poe had done no such thing; the two men were rivals, in fact). He told her he would print a collection of Poe's works, and she would share in the profits. She was destitute at the time, and she signed a contract giving Griswold possesion of Poe's papers and manuscripts. When the volume of Poe's work appeared, it included Griswold's "Memoir of the Author," in which Griswold painted Poe as an insane, drunken, opium-addicted libertine. Mrs. Clemm was horrified, but was powerless to do anything about it. Some time later, she received her share of the profits from the collection: Griswold sent her six copies and told her to sell them for any profit she could get.
- Poe was not insane. He could be difficult to get along with, but he was by no means mad. He several times wrote vividly from the point of view of madmen ("The Tell-tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," etc.) but these stories are compelling, not because the writer was insane, but because of Poe's imagination and mastery of technique.
- Griswold painted Poe as an opium addict; this, like so many of his assertions, is false. Opium appears as a plot device in several of his stories (opium was legal at the time and was popular in some circles), but Poe did not take it. He could barely afford to keep food on the table; he had no extra money for a drug habit. This is one of the few things on which Poe's many biographers agree.
Regardless of the mysteries of his life, Poe's literary contributions are clear. He was the first American to write a detective story. In his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, he laid out the rules by which short stories are to be written, and American authors have conformed to these rules ever since. He demanded a national literature with its own "American" identity, and rejected the idea that literature must be regional. He experimented with gothic, horror, mystery, and psychological fiction, science fiction and political satire, and wrote volumes of poetry as well. Poe's ideas and imagery directly influenced the French writer Baudelaire, the Russian writer Dostoevsky, the Pre-Raphaelite writers Rossetti, Pater, and Wilde, the English writers of adventure stories such as Stevenson and Kipling, the great novelists Conrad and Joyce, Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and American authors such as Melville, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, and Tom Wolfe. Allan Tate said of Poe, "Poe is the transitional figure in modern literature because he discovered our great subject, the disintegration of personality."
For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism.
4. Ed. G. R. Thompson. The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Norton Critical Edition.
5. Jeffrey Meyers. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy.
--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.
--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.