English 350—“The Dark Romantics: Poe, Hawthorne and Melville”

The second quarter of the nineteenth century was an era of unprecedented optimism in the United States. Steady westward expansion and growth in the market economy (fuelled by cotton profits) fuelled a sense of unlimited possibilities.  On the spiritual plane, too, it seemed that there was no limit to man’s capacity for improvement. Ralph Waldo Emerson expresses the abiding belief at the heart of American Romantic faith in the human capacity to elevate one’s soul and, simultaneously, redeem the world. Popular fascination with psychic phenomena such as mesmerism and spiritualism reflected a belief in the expansive powers of mind and spirit. Despite the general mood of optimism, many Americans felt profound anxiety in the face of the rapid changes in American society and doubted the capacity of human beings to achieve moral perfection or attain absolute Truth.  Poe, for example, believed that the human heart and mind were more likely to harbor unreason and madness rather than divine truth and beauty.  Hawthorne insisted that the sins of the fathers lived on to haunt the present, and Melville, too, was keenly aware of the various shadows that darkened American dreams of (intellectual, political or economic) mastery.  By reading and discussing selected writings by Poe, Hawthorne and Melville in literary, historical, philosophical and biographical contexts, we will consider each author’s unique vision, while also identifying the concerns they share.

  • Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849)
    • “A Descent into the Maelstrom”
    • “Ligeia”
    • The Philosophy of Composition” (1846)
    • “The Raven
    • William Wilson
    • “The Tell-Tale Heart”
    • “The Imp of the Perverse”
    • The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839)
    • “The Premature Burial”
    • “Mesmeric Revelation”
    • “Case of M. Valdemar”
    • “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
    • “The Purloined Letter”
    • “For Annie”
    • “Annabel Lee”
    • “The Oval Portrait”
Print Friendly, PDF & Email