"The Gothic as an Aspect of American Romanticism"
In 1820, one of the British critics, Sidney Smith wrote: "Literature the Americans have none." Words uttered by Smith were really insulting and hurt American's national pride. The overwhelming desire to prove to British and other nations that Americans are able to produce literature led to the American Romanticism arising.
Naturally American writers could not avoid references to European experiences, particularly British romantic poets and German philosophy. However they succeeded in adapting them to their own cultural circumstances. American response to British Romanticism accelerated in two directions. One of them was Transcendentalism.
The "founding father" of Transcendental movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who expressed admiration for romantic values in his book Nature and essay Self Reliance. Emerson praised five tenets: "intuition is more trustworthy than reason, expressing deeply felt experience is more valuable than elaborating universal principles, the individual is at the centre of life and God is at centre of the individual, nature is an array of physical symbols from which knowledge of the supernatural can be intuited and we should aspire to the Ideal, to changing what is to what ought to be."
He believed in power of intuition: "the capacity to know things spontaneously and immediately through our emotions rather than through reason and logic."He also expressed the conviction that founding God is possible directly through nature. That faith let him to treat even tragic natural events, like death and disease as something positive. The intense feeling of optimism was the hallmark of his philosophy.
It is not hard to believe that Emerson's Transcendentalism was very popular and highly influential. To his followers and friends belonged Margaret Fuller and David Thoreau. Still Ralph Waldo Emerson had opponents. Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville did not accept his optimistic vision of the world and did not believe in happy future of mankind.
Because of them American Romanticism waited up its more darkly dimension- American Gothic. For the sake of pessimistic nature and strong relationship with Romanticism it was described as Dark Romanticism. Gothic and romantic writing are closely related chronologically and share some themes and characteristics, for example the character of tormented with pangs of conscience man. Most importantly, Gothic as well as Romanticism are considered as definitive shift from neoclassical ideals of logic and reason, toward romantic belief in emotion and imagination. Both are preoccupied with the individual, the human mind and thus with interior mental process.
However American Gothic constitutes the darker side of Romanticism. Its nature was accurately captive by Leslie Fiedler "American fiction became 'bewilderingly and embarrassingly, a gothic fiction, non-realistic, sadist and melodramatic- a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.'"
American Gothic arose in the world of optimism, in the country filled with vision of freedom and endless happiness. As Eric Savoy rightly noticed, this paradox has its explanation in the history of the United States. It shows the other side of the coin, the nightmare which hides under the "American dream". In the world of American Gothic the ghosts of the past never sleep and constantly haunt the present.
American Gothic writers did not have spooky old castles, monasteries and legends like their European "professional colleagues", but they did have: the frontier, Puritan legacy, slavery and political utopianism. Puritan's heritage was the consciousness of good and evil coexistence, the sense of guilt and fear from the Day of Judgment. Outwardly optimistic character of utopianism, in turn entailed less optimistic consequences, like: undisciplined rule of majority, rule of the mob or the danger of collapse.
Of course American Gothic could not be indifferent to British models, which were the "perpetrators" of gothic fiction great popularity. It adapted all main conflicts, settings, motifs and narrative situations, like: the feeling of fear and anxiety, the gloomy atmosphere, unexplainable, supernatural events or motif of haunted place. However, Gothic in American writers depiction gained its own special character, for example they replaced haunted castles, which naturally did not exist in the American landscape, with haunted, old houses. There was also more significant difference. While gothic fiction was focusing on the aspect of fear and terror, American gothic was placing emphasis on mystery and skepticism toward man's nature.
That skepticism was one of many other significant factors which differentiated Romanticism and Dark Romanticism. G.R. Thompson in Introduction: Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition, in order to visualize this distinction, said as follows: "Fallen man's inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind--these were major elements in the vision of man the Dark Romantics opposed to the mainstream of Romantic thought."
While Transcendentalists were convinced that perfection is inborn quality of mankind and ignore less praiseworthy nature of human, Dark Romantics uttered something completely opposite, meaning that human beings were equally capable of evil and good, individual is vulnerable to sin, self-destruction, not so enriched with divinity and wisdom and took it as a duty to remind the world about that fact. American Gothic filled its mission by presenting humans horrible actions, psychological effects of guilt, sin and madness.
In spite of the fact that Dark Romantics and Romantics agree in seeing nature as deeply spiritual force, here also the difference is really distinct. For Dark Romantics, the natural world was dark, decaying and mysterious. As always Transcendentalism saw everything in bright light while Gothicism exactly the opposite- Transcendentalist saw heaven yet Gothic saw hell. Finally, Transcendentalism believed in human goodness and ability to achieve perfection whereas Dark Romanticism wanted to prove that human will is weak and because of that, in spite of attempts, man will fail in his quest for the better.
Romantic writing expresses the faith in some higher order and existence of higher answers. Gothic writing instead of giving such answers, leaves the reader with contradictions and paradoxes, forces him to face the moral and emotional ambiguity.
The path to that world of confusion was set by Charles Brockden Brown, a lawyer from Philadelphia, who is regarded as the first professional author in the United States. His novel Wieland in turn is considered as first mayor novel, in which the conventions of British Gothic were adjusted to American conditions.
Brown's novel was inspired by true events. In 1781 deeply religious farmer ritually killed his wife and four children, after hearing religious voices, which commanded him to commit that horrible crime.
Wieland is a story of Theodor Wieland who violently murders his family after hearing what he believes are heavenly voices, which are actually produced by an evil ventriloquist. The next victim was supposed to be Wieland's sister but fortunately he decides to take his own life rather than beloved Clara.
The novel expresses Browns anxiety about how much people are able to preserve common sense and self-control in the face of new American republic instability. Charles Brockden Brown shows that even self-governing and responsible man can transform in murderous monster. That kind of monsters, monsters with human faces appear in writings of many gothic writers.
An interesting case makes up the American poet and writer Washington Allston. Allston was mainly known as a talented painter. His literary activity had been ignored and his works disappeared. However, there is no doubt that while discussing American Romanticism his writings cannot be omitted. Allston gothic romance- Monaldi was ready at 1821, before even famous Edgar Allan Poe started with his gothic tales. Unfortunately Monaldi was not published until 1841, the time in which Poe made the running.
Monaldi includes many features characteristic for Gothic like: power of imagination, day dreaming, human weakness and evil which does not hide under the form of ghost but exists inside man. There is also another significant theme- husband, who kills his wife. The main character of Allston's romance is a painter, who has a beautiful wife but also very jealous childhood friend, who envy him his talent and of course wife. The feeling of jealousy is what destroys Monaldi, who in a fury murderers, as he think, his innocent wife and drives himself to madness.
The character of man, who kills innocent woman also appeared in Allston's brother-in-law and closest friend writings- Richard Henry Dana Sr. Dana was the first American literary critic. He wrote for the North American Review and even planed to be its editor but his candidacy was rejected. Dana did not disincline and in order to gain national audience started to publish under the pseudonym, the Idle Man.
Richard Henry Dana in his writing was focusing on young romantic heroes, who were inspired by romantic principle to "feel deeply." Their lives were always highly influenced by their imagination.
At the beginning Dana's fiction was optimistic, expressing the conviction that man can see the spiritual meaning in nature by his imagination. He was proclaiming that man should completely surrender to his imagination in order to encompass the dualism between man and God.
However, at some point Dana turned away from optimistic philosophy of Transcendentalism. The "collision" with full of conflicts, temptations and evil real world unveiled the absurdity of romantic principle to follow the heart. Dana criticized Transcendentalism by saying: "Emerson and the other Spiritualists, or Supernaturalists, or whatever they are called, or may be pleased to call themselves... [have] madness in their hearts."
The parting with romantic Transcendentalism Dana blatantly announced in his last story published at Idle Man, Paul Felton. Paul is a perfect example of romantic hero, focused on imagination and deep feelings. Unfortunately, his obsession with his own mind precludes finding happiness and leads Paul into destructive egoism. He loses control of his emotions, starts to believe that is demented by Satan, who finally commands him to kill his wife. After Paul realizes what he has done, the shock kills him.
The message is pretty clear- the power of imagination can be pernicious for those, who are unable to leave beyond the transcendental vision and see themselves. For Richard Henry Dana the expressing of this opinion also turned out to be disastrous. He was abused by critics and after his wife death stopped writing.
Naturally that was not the end of romantic considerations, on the contrary.
The man's relationship to the natural world as well as mysterious, disturbing nature of human life also preoccupied Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the leading writers of his time. In The Haunted Mind Hawthorne wrote: "In the depths of every heart there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, these dark receptacles are flung wide open. In an hour like his....pray that your grief may slumber."
His novel House of Seven Gables constitutes the part of early American Gothic. It includes many characteristic features like: fascination with location, reference to the supernatural, irrational, horrifying events.
The Pyncheon family is haunted by the death of Colonel Pyncheon, who seems to have died with "marks of fingers on his throat, and the print of a bloody hand on his plaited ruff." Everything points that the original house landlord, Matthew Maule, has returned to kill the Colonel, thereby anathematized the entire family.
The story contains every necessary element: the obsession with the house, family curse , ghost tale. Of course, the ghosts that haunt the Pyncheon family are not supernatural beings brought on by the curse but very human deeds and sins passed down from generation to generation.
Nathaniel Hawthorne liked to explore the theme of sin, penitence and morality. The best reflection of Hawthorne's interests makes up his most famous novel The Scarlet Letter. The plot is set in 19th century Puritan Massachusetts and presents the story of Hester Prynne, a fallen woman, who gave birth to a child after an affair. It was really controversial theme but Hawthorne was not focused on the affair's course but its effects, like: sin, shame, envy.
The Scarlet Letter became one of America's first mass-published books, thanks to which Hawthorne gained respect among New England's literary establishment. Nathaniel Hawthorne soon after that befriended with Herman Melville. Melville dedicated him his great Moby Dick.
Hawthorne probably did not know how great honor was that. Herman Melville is a major American literary figure of the nineteenth century and his novel is considered a classic of world literature. Melville in Moby Dick presents the story of Ishmael, who after several cruises on the traders decides to go on whale expedition. Along with his new friend Queequeg lands on Pequod ship, which is lead by gloomy and mysterious Captain Ahab. Ahab in the follow-up of fight with whale lost his leg. Soon it turns out that the captain is possessed by mad desire of revenge. He wants to get and destroy his "assassin," the legendary giant sperm whale.
The conclusion of the story, a eventful three-day combat between the white whale and the Pequod's crew is viewed as mans struggle with forces of natural world. Moreover, the whale has been interpreted in various ways: as God, evil, good, and symbol of the ambiguity of nature. The critics opine that Melville's purpose was to capture the psychological terror by using claustrophobic setting and mysterious, unexplainable events. Although Herman Melville is not qualified as gothic writer, all those facts enforce his connection with gothic literature.
The discussion about American Gothic should be "crowned" by the most dark figure of Dark Romanticism- Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was the king of horror tales and the inventor of detective story. He was extremely talented and full of paradoxes. Poe was viewed as drunkard and mentally ill while he successfully edited The Southern Literary Messenger. Unlike his contemporaries Poe was very popular and interested in beauty not morality.
In terms of style Edgar Allan Poe was the adherent of the short poetry. He believed that there is no such thing like long poem and that the shortness of poem increases his effectiveness. The most important components of his poetry were imagination and language, which did not reflect the outside world but created its own reality. The language game that Poe liked to practice was supposed to help him in dealing with fear of death. In the world in which words have the power even the dead man can be alive: "I'm dead" writes Poe, which means "I'm not dead because I'm speaking."
He did not believe in the existence of spirit and used to say that God is also a matter. In his fiction the reader will not find ghosts, vampires or werewolves. Poe as befits Dark Romantic was interested in dark side of human nature, obsessions, fantasies, madness : "The horror in my tales it is not of Germany but of the soul," said Poe. He believed what is the human mind is horrible.
In 1839 Poe published collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which contained one of his most famous work, The Fall of the House of Usher. The novel was inspired by two factors: Empiricism and Transcendentalism.
Poe's opposition toward the transcendental believes is obvious here, every element of his novel confirms his convictions, from the main characters Roderick Usher and Madeline Usher, the environment to the eponymous house. Roderick Usher represents central transcendental views: morbid sharpness of senses, connection with the "oversoul." His sister, on the other hand, suffers from "a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character.” Poe uses Ushers to prove his point, he shows that there is no brightness and goodness only blackness and evil. In his opinion means too bright, too optimistic and also unrealistic. Edgar Allan Poe mocks the transcendental belief in life and rebirth by leading the characters into decay and death. Poe's destruction of transcendental ideas was completed by the final Fall of the House of Usher.
Edgar Allan Poe also completed his life but his dark works, as well as works of his "colleagues," still terrify readers. Benjamin Franklin Fisher, professor of English, specialized in Victorian and Gothic subjects wrote: "The growth of gothic novel reflected the development of the enormous Victorian and American novel, which in this period is becoming a serious, ennobled literary genre. Ensued a turn from fear, expressed by victims' vicissitudes and mean actions of their knackers, toward internal anxiety. Emphasis was placed on the motivation instead of horrifying consequences. The ghost in sheet paved the way for, just as in Dickens Christmas Carol, haunted mind, which allowed to scare poor victims with even bigger power."
mgr Aldona Witkowska