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Context Questions





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1. How did the Civil War and the tensions that precipitated it influence these three writers?

Some time after he had decided to become the Leaves of Grass poet, Whitman reminded himself, “I want something to offset the overlarge element of muscle in my poems—it must be counterpoised by something to show I can make perfect poems of the graceful, the sweet, the gentle, the tender—I must show perfect blood, the great heroic gentleman” .Whitman's aspirations to gentility were admittedly cleverly disguised by his iconoclastic textual persona as “one of the roughs” in 1855, and still further screened by his bland, post–Civil War incarnation as the “good gray poet.” But his early desire to be and to be considered a gentleman—expressed in his fiction, in his journalism, and in his dandyish 1840s man-about-town persona, the latter captured in a memorably awkward photograph—never entirely disappeared. During the “long foreground” that so fascinated Emerson, Whitman worked to fuse his contradictory self-imaginings into a broadly inclusive social role.

"Chiefly About War Matters", originally credited "by a Peaceable Man", is an 1862 essay by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It opposed the American Civil War and was quite controversial. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Hawthorne wanted to view the effects of battle firsthand or, as he wrote, "to look a little more closely at matters with my own eyes.He was distracted by the national crisis and had difficulty writing.

2. In what sense are these texts “pessimistic” compared to others of the nineteenth century?

Almost 15 percent of the population was legally considered property (there were about 900,000 slaves in 1800 and about 3,200,000 by 1850). Only white, male property owners could vote. Women were largely confined to the home and certainly not expected to rise to positions of social authority. Native Americans were losing most of the power— and virtually all of the land—that they once held.

It is this spirit of anxiety, fear, and even despair that writers in the gothic mode tap into. The three writers treated in the video, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson, as well as the others represented in this unit, explore the “dark side” of nineteenth-century America.

“Gothic Undercurrents” explores the “dark sides” of nineteenth-century American culture and identity. In a time of hope characterized by a widespread belief in America’s Manifest Destiny, the rise of industry, increasing political freedom, and social reform movements, writers in the gothic mode speculate on the costs and dangers of the country’s unbridled optimism. Sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, they draw upon and explore the social anxieties of their time: the evils and threats of slavery, the cultural dominance of white men, the immigration of diverse and often mistrusted people, the possibility that Americans are fundamentally incapable of manifesting, in

Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature”—indeed, the possibility that such angels are our own wishful delusions.

3. Many of the gothic’s concerns apply as well to the twenty-first century as to the nineteenth. What do these writers have to say about human nature and the human mind?

“Gothic Undercurrents” explores the “dark sides” of nineteenth-century American culture and identity. In a time of hope characterized by a widespread belief in America’s Manifest Destiny, the rise of industry, increasing political freedom, and social reform movements, writers in the gothic mode speculate on the costs and dangers of the country’s unbridled optimism. Sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, they draw upon and explore the social anxieties of their time: the evils and threats of slavery, the cultural dominance of white men, the immigration of diverse and often mistrusted people, the possibility that Americans are fundamentally incapable of manifesting, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature”—indeed, the possibility that such angels are

our own wishful delusions. for example, Gilman portrays a woman so oppressed by the patriarchal assumptions of her husband that she is driven insane; and Hawthorne rejects the promise that science will ameliorate the human condition when he tells the story of one researcher’s obsessive and destructive botanical experiment on his daughter. But at least as often, these writers unveil their dark prophecies only by indirect glimpses—in the words of Dickinson,they “tell it slant.” Sometimes by couching their insights in allegories, sometimes by focusing on the uncertainties and contradictions of the psyche, and often by combining allegory with psychological investigation, gothic writers often challenge America’s optimism only by implication, forcing the reader to come to his or her own ethical conclusions. Thus, Melville’s Pequod becomes not only a whaling vessel but also the American ship of state as a fractious and multicultural crew is led to a terrifying fate by a dangerous and potentially insane demagogue.

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