Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Seven: American Gothic, A Dark Romanticism

It may be an oversimplification to state that romantic American writing came in certain distinct flavors.

The positive and hopeful transcendentalism, or light romanticism, of Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau called for a simplified use of the natural world to help individuals arrive at their own unique understanding of Truth. Intuitive impulses from within served to reveal a deeper reality to the individual. Additionally, writers like Cooper, and sometimes Irving, utilized expansive and unique American landscapes, folklore, and character types, like the frontiersman and the "noble savage," to engage and entertain their readers. Later on, Walt Whitman would feed upon some of these same impulses in crafting his often-celebratory vision of America in his verses.

But another thread of European romanticism, the gothic, also greatly influenced writers in America, adding psychological complexity to the works of Brockden Brown, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and Dickinson. This darker form of romantic literature presents some shared characteristics, very different than the positive romanticism presented by other writers. G.R. Thompson, in his introduction to Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition, offers these qualities of this subgenre.

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.

Donna Campbell delineates the differences between novels, romances, and the gothic with these specific characteristics of gothic works:

- An atmosphere of gloom, terror, or mystery.
- Elements of the uncanny (unheimlich) that challenge reality, including mysterious events that cause the protagonist to question the evidence of his or her senses and the presence of seemingly supernatural beings.
- An exotic setting isolated in time or space from contemporary life, often a ruined mansion or castle. The building may be associated with past violence and contain hidden doors, subterranean secret passages, concealed staircases, and other such features.
- Events, often violent or macabre, that cannot be hidden or rationalized despite the efforts of the narrator.
- A disturbed or unnatural relation between the orders of things that are usually separate, such as life and death, good and evil, dream life and reality, or rationality and madness.
- A hidden or double reality beneath the surface of what at first appears to be a single narrative.
- An interrupted narrative form that relies on multiple methods—inserted documents, letters, dreams, fragments of the story told by several narrators—to tell the tale.

Snodgrass makes clear that much more is going on in gothic literature than simple obsessions with ghosts, ghouls and other creatures of the night. She notes, "Decades before Sigmund Freud provided a paradigm for the human psyche, echoes of disturbing behaviors forced readers of Gothic literature to interpret subtexts of prejudice, classism, and abnormality in thought and action . . ." She goes on to discuss Poe as the "star Gothicist of the 1830s and 1840s" and then notes, "At mid-century, in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne turned his thoughts on New England's late 17th century with persecutions into soul-deep musings on the devastation wrought by secret sin and public shame. His friend Herman Melville ventured into the perils of vengeance with Moby-Dick, a sea epic that peels away layers of anguish and striving to get at the core of an obsession so virulent that it wipes out all but one of a whaler's crew and sends the ship to the briny depths."

Questions and Considerations

Would you classify the writings of Washington Irving (that we have studied) as those of a light romantic, a dark romantic, or both? Explain why.

Describe how "the gothic" is alive and well in popular media (novels, movies, television) today. Offer examples, then compare and contrast these 21st-century versions of dark romanticism with their 19th-century counterparts.

Works Cited

Campbell, Donna M. "Novel, Romance, and Gothic: Brief Definitions." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. 2010.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Editor. "Introduction." Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature.. Facts on File Library of American Literature Series. New York: Facts on File, 2005. Print. Also available at

Thompson, G. R., ed. "Introduction: Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition." Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Washington State University Press, 1974.

Other Resources

"Sleeping Beauty": Sentimentalizing Death in the Nineteenth Century." Gothic Undercurrents. American Passages. 2003.

"The Spirit Is Willing: The Occult and Women in the Nineteenth Century." Gothic Undercurrents. American Passages. 2003.

"Unnatural Reason/Weird Science." Gothic Undercurrents. American Passages. 2003.








Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University