Lecture 9:
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

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:

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:

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.