Aspects of American romanticism in short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 18 Pages

American Studies - Literature



0. Introduction

1. American Romanticism

2. Gothic Horror and Lost Love in Poe’s “Ligeia” and “Morella”

3. Nature and Science in Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful” and “The Birthmark”

4. Conclusion: Poe and Hawthorne Compared


0. Introduction

Few writers exist outside of the currents of the times in which they live, and Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne are no exceptions. They are clearly products of their time, which in terms of literature, is called the Romantic Era. The Romantic Movement was one which began in Germany, moved through all of Europe and Russia, and, almost simultaneously, changed the entire course of American literature. Among England’s great Romantic writers are William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. Romantic writers in America who were contemporaries of Poe and Hawthorne include Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Hence, Poe and Hawthorne became key figures in the nineteenth-century flourishing of American letters and literature. Famed twentieth-century literary critic F.O. Matthiessen[1] named this period the American Renaissance. He argued that nineteenth-century writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe,[2] Melville and Whitman crafted a distinctly American literature that attempts to escape from the long shadow of the British literary tradition. These writers wrote in a Romantic vein, with a marked emphasis on subjectivity and an interest in scenes of early American life and pristine American landscapes. Yet, most of these writers in different ways also exhibited the darker tones of Romanticism when dealing with American life.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) is perhaps the best-known American Romantic who worked in the so-called Gothic mode. His poems and stories explore the darker side of the Romantic imagination, dealing with the Grotesque, the supernatural, and the horrifying. Poe also rejected the rational and the intellectual in favour of the intuitive and the emotional, a dominant characteristic of the Romantic Movement. Hence, in his critical theories and through his art, Poe emphasized that didactic and intellectual elements had no place in art. The subject matter of art should rather deal with the emotions, and the greatest art was that which had a direct effect on the emotions.

For Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) literature also seemed to depend on the possibility of the Gothic. Hence, of particular interest to Hawthorne was the nature of evil. As his most famous works The Scarlett Letter,“Young Goodman Brown” and The Minister’s Black Veil” demonstrate, evil often coincides with his studies of religion, particularly Puritanism. Like his contemporary Poe, Hawthorne also made extensive use of symbols. His scarlet letter ranks alongside Poe’s pit and pendulum, and symbols generally play important roles in all of his major short stories, including the tales to be analyzed: “The Birthmark” and “The Artist of the Beautiful”. What is more, Hawthorne’s works also often hint at the supernatural, the unreal, or the uncommon.

One of Hawthorne’s and Poe’s distinctive concerns is also that of separating head and heart, intellect and soul. In his notebooks, Hawthorne, for instance, wrote that an unpardonable sin is “a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity, - content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart.”[3] Hawthorne explored these Romantic ideas and the themes of obsession, loss and the impossibility of perfection extensively in his short stories “The Artist of the Beautiful” and “The Birthmark”.

However, in Poe’s life and works and thus also in “Ligeia” and “Morella”, the stories to be treated in this analysis, love, death and loss, are indissolubly entwined, and serve as the apotheosis of his science and the springboard for his horror. Some critics think that Poe was only a marketer of Gothic horror borrowed from the German models popular during his time. Nevertheless, Poe himself put to rest this assessment when he proclaimed in the preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque“(…) that terror is not of Germany but of the soul.”[4] Hence, the pertinent issue in Poe becomes the origins for the terror of the soul.

In the following, it will be analyzed which aspects of American Romanticism are treated in Poe’ short stories “Ligeia” and “Morella” and in Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful” and “The Birthmark”. For this reason, it is necessary to take a closer look at American Romanticism as a literary movement first.

1. American Romanticism

Literary historians have traditionally recognized the decades before the America Civil War (the 1820s through the 1860s) as “the Romantic period in American literature”, which occurred about a generation after the Romantic Movement in European literature. American Romanticism (or the American Renaissance, cf. 0. Introduction) was not only a literary but also a cultural movement: as with the European Renaissance, the American Renaissance was marked by the growth of cities, by westward expansion (“Manifest Destiny”), including the founding of Texas, by “modernization”, especially in terms of advances in science, technology, and literacy and also by a reactionary interest in popular religion and in the occult.[5]

The rise of Romanticism in Britain contributed to the emergence of literature in America. Romanticism challenged conventional ways of thinking and aesthetic traditions and championed the authority of the individual mind responding to the environment without regard to social conventions or moral prohibition. Romanticism shared Enlightenment’s values of individualism and freedom but sought to challenge the boundaries imposed on the imagination by reason and moderation. English Romanticism was thus influenced by the Gothic and characterized by an internalization of Gothic forms: Gothic objects, settings, situation became figures of inner states of the mind and the emotions.

Romanticism differs significantly from Classicism, the period Romanticism rejected. Hence, Romantic literature rebelled against the formalism of eighteenth-century reason, being more concerned with emotion than rationality. It generally values the individual over society, nature over the city. What is more, it also questions or attacks rules, conventions and social protocol. It sees humanity living in nature as morally superior to civilized humanity. What is more, it also conceives of children, essentially innocent by nature, as being corrupted by their surroundings. Hence, Romantic literature places an emphasis on the individual and on the expression of personal emotions.[6] An interesting schematic explanation calls Romanticism the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (Classicism) and over the sense of fact of the actual (Realism).

There are some characteristic features of American Romanticism. However, before dealing with them it seems to be useful to take a closer look at European Romanticism: the German Romantic writers and painters were most prolific from the 1780s through to the early 1800s. The main elements of German Romantic works are fascination with nature and natural beauty, feelings of national pride, emotionalism, Germany’s medieval past and the mystical and mythological. In England, the Romantic Movement started in the 1790s and continued through to the 1820s. The Romantics captured the nationalist feelings and attempted to distract from social and political troubles. Some aspects of English Romanticism are a new attitude to the role of man in nature, an interest in the medieval period[7] and an emphasis on the need for spontaneity in thought and action. What is more, in English Romanticism nature is used as an exclusive metaphor.


[1] F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York, 1941). While not denying the Romantic aspects of this period, Matthiessen redefined the period as the “first maturity” of American literature, in which masterpieces of the USA achieved a status comparable to those of the “European Renaissance” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, the term “American Renaissance” is a misnomer, if one thinks of the period as a time of rebirth of some earlier literary greatness, as the European Renaissance, for there was nothing to be “reborn”.

[2] However, Matthiessen, in fact, paid little attention to Edgar Allan Poe. Although he long had a reputation in Europe as one of America’s most original writers, only in the latter half of the twentieth-century had Poe been regarded as a crucial contributor to the American Renaissance.

[3] Quoted from Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/markport/lit/amlit1/fall2002/10hawth.htm. 23.02.2006. p.1.

[4] Quoted from David Grantz, The Stricken Eagle: Women In Poe. http://www.poedecoder.com/essays/eagle/ 23.02.2006. p. 1.

[5] Cf. Ann Woodlief. American Romanticism. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/intro.htm. 26.02.2006 and Romanticism. http://www.3.niu.edu/~c90cls1/curriculum/rrn.html. 23.02.2006.

[6] The aspect most stressed in France is for example reflected in Victor Hugo’s phrase “liberalism in literature”, meaning especially the freeing of the artist and writer from restrains and rules, suggesting that phase of individualism marked by the encouragement of revolutionary political ideas. The poet Heinrich Heine noted the chief aspect of German Romanticism in calling it the revival of medievalism in art, letters, and life. Walter Pater thought the addition of estrangement to beauty (the neo-classicists having insisted on order in beauty) constituted the romantic temper.

[7] The mystery and aspiration of the time formed the base of the Gothic tradition.


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University of Hamburg – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Aspects American Edgar Allan Nathaniel Hawthorne



Title:  Aspects of American romanticism in short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne