William Godwin and Charles Brockden Brown present narrative and textuality as Gothic mechanisms of psychological terror and political oppression. Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) directly addresses the issues of social injustice and the abuses of political power that he examines in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), and these two works had an immense ideological and artistic influence on Brown's American Gothic tale Weiland (1798). Though both authors were in some ways anti-Gothic, they indeed chose this popular genre in order to reach, as Godwin notes in his preface, "persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach." As the genre dictates, these novels do provide some of the classic Gothic mechanisms such as ruinous dungeons, creepy castles and mansions, and mysterious, dark figures. However, the main source of Gothic terror in these novels is the oppressive misuse of language. Located within the anxiety and uneasiness evoked by these abuses of language and textual entrapments are Godwin's and Brown's political comments concerning the power relationships between governments and individuals.
In her travel narrative Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, Margaret Fuller differentiates consistently between the materialistic or utilitarian motivations of settlers, on one hand, and the spiritual or aesthetic aims of tourists on the other. Her trip occurred during the depths of the severe economic crisis of 1837 to 1844, a period of widespread questioning of the historical progressiveness of capitalism. Many among Fuller’s circle of radical bourgeois Bostonians felt that the world had been badly deformed by what they called “the spirit of commerce”, and they worried that New England was developing what Thomas Carlyle diagnosed as the “Condition-of-England.” This romantic assessment of socio-economic pathologies focused on the idea that a materialist, instrumentalist, and rationalist civilization had lost touch with the organic “laws of nature.” Summer on the Lakes, then, is structured by the tension between a vision of a just society rooted in nature and the stark reality of America’s westward expansion, between an abiding faith in the human potential to live up to the beauty of picturesque landscapes and a clear understanding of the cold social calculus of immediate profit.
British book reviews of the 1840s, particularly those analyzing the merit of American literature, provide us with an opportunity to examine how the transatlantic literary scene contributes to nation building. In examining periodical literature as a critical messenger in the circuit of transatlantic intellectual exchange, I argue that the rhetoric of Tory and Whig British reviewers of American literature were profoundly self-reflexive, demonstrating that nationalism requires the construction of dual imagined communities: within the nation and without. This literary practice, when seen as nationalist writing, suggests an invested interest not only in the shaping of an American imaginary for their audiences but also in the inevitable creation of conservative or liberal national identities for Britain.
The figure of Beatrice Cenci was, according to Melville, the embodiment of those “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity--incest and parricide." Nevertheless, she enjoyed a curious popularity as a subject in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Atlantic-rim literary culture. Indeed, the renewed fascination with her story indicates several important psychological as well as social themes that authors as diverse as Walpole, Shelley, Swinburne, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickens, and Wharton all attempted to delineate. Although critics have analyzed the Cenci figure in Pierre and The Marble Faun before, comparing the use of this motif in relation to the earlier British works allows us a different perspective on an obvious though neglected theme in the two novels. In addition, the focus on the Cenci narrative in Atlantic-rim culture allows us to examine how a representation crosses cultures, nationalities, and ideologies in order to articulate common concerns and anxieties.
In British gothic works the representation of Beatrice speaks to the horrific and corrupt power of the mother and father, both as brutal governmental force, an insane ruler, and a despotic and sadistic mater or pater familias, the head of the corrupted and polluted family. Further, the spectre of incest (sibling and parental) that stalks British gothic and romantic texts speaks to an ideologically conflicted posture. In works by Byron and Shelley, sibling incest is sometimes idealized (i.e., Manfred or Laon and Cythna), while in Shelley’s The Cenci incestuous rape by the father of his daughter (with broad suggestions of sodomy as well) is the most pernicious and evil act that can be committed. Clearly, the British romantics were of a divided mind about incest as a literary trope for the reunion of self and other.
By the time the Cenci legend transmutes and reappears in America, however, Melville and Hawthorne are placing even heavier weight on the representation and its associations. Both of their works ask the questions: What is the nature of human history? What power does the past hold over the present and the future? Can Americans overthrow their European heritage and establish a new Garden in America, or is that promise blasted and futile? Both Pierre and The Marble Faun, although different from each other in their treatments of human nature and society, are particularly American works in criticizing the notion that a new order can replace the corrupt and rejected world of the fathers. Whereas Shelley's play ultimately condemns Beatrice for revenge on her father, neither Melville nor Hawthorne’s works do, although both see her as an omen predicting the failure of America to achieve its original promise.
In the poem “The House-top” in his collection of Civil War poetry Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, Herman Melville attempts to rewrite the climatic “Sleep No More” episode of Book 10 of William Wordsworth’s Prelude to speak to the issues of post-Civil War America by revisiting the mix of violence and idealism Wordsworth encountered during the French Revolution. Hoping to escape Wordsworth’s loss of faith in ideals in the face of violence, Melville deconstructs Wordsworth’s use of language, stripping it of some of its timelessness for a greater time-full-ness to address the needs of the age rather than asking reality to conform to Romantic ideals, while also building on Wordsworth’s courageous example. Melville reconstructs the American narrative by rousing it from the “sleep” of Romantic idealism and calls his nation to awake to a new day of vast possibility in which exuberance and restraint coexist by demanding that ideals serve society rather than society blindly (and sometimes self-destructively) follow those ideals.
Anglo-American Romanticism, beginning with Wordsworth and then beginning again with Emerson, is, in large part, a long conversation about subjectivity, especially about how to reconcile a pure "transparent" perceptive power of the poetic imagination with the recognition of other subjectivities and the limitations of one's own identity. It is a conversation that most critics have assumed excluded women writers. As a lyric poet whose subject is subjectivity, Emily Dickinson has been the intermittent exception to this rule as, in years past, the only recognized female participant in literary American Romanticism. The speculative interiority of her work does, in fact, set her apart from her countrywomen, but not from the English women writers she extravagantly admired. In placing Dickinson's poem alongside the novels of the Victorian British women novelists, I find a common interest in the existential problem of subjectivity, with central characters who could be Dickinson's lyric subject, but placed more firmly in a social setting and within the constraints of gender. I maintain that in Dickinson's poems, as in the novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Emily Brontë, there is a conscious ethical engagement with the opposition between the possibilities of Romantic transcendence and the necessity of respecting the limits that define us. Although their ethical perspectives are different, each of these late Romantic women writers re-examines what it means to be a self alone.