Herman Melville

Herman Melville


Widely known as the “man who lived among the cannibals,” Herman Melville was one of the most famous Dark Romantic writers of the 19th century.  As was typical of the Dark Romantics, Melville often criticized Reform writers from the earlier part of the century.  Melville still believed that change was needed in American culture, and he viewed America at the time in a much more pessimistic manner than the Reform writers and Transcendentalists.  Though he wasn’t as staunch of an activist as many of the Reform writers we have studied, Melville portrayed characters defying authority in some of his most famous works, including Moby Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener.  This manner of writing did not sit well with a lot of people at the time, so Melville received a lot of criticism toward his works when they were first published.  Nevertheless, Melville eventually rose to fame with his calls for social reform and creative writing style despite his often cynical attitude.

While the Transcendentalists often wrote of our American identity with a very optimistic tone, Melville wrote with the purpose of giving readers more of a reality check.  In Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville targets our nation’s capitalistic system and authority.  He does this by presenting readers with the interesting character of Bartleby, a disobedient scrivener on Wall Street.  Whenever Bartleby’s boss asks him to do something, he simply responds with, “I would prefer not to,” showing no sense of concern to potentially being fired from his job (1490).  This defiance displays a common theme in Dark Romantic writing of the shunning of civilization.  It is considered the ‘norm’ in our society for an employee to respect the authority of his or her boss.  By breaking this norm, Bartleby is breaking away from society in a sense, something Herman Melville was very passionate about as a Dark Romantic writer.

Figure 1: “Herman Melville” 1860

At the same time, Bartleby’s defiance shocks the narrator of Bartleby the Scrivener.  He cannot comprehend how someone could have no regard to the possible consequences to his or her disobedient actions in the workplace, and he does not really know how to address the issue.  As readers, we see the narrator weigh out the options in his head as to how he should proceed.  Eventually, he decides to take pity on Bartleby viewing him as a lesser person.  In this case, the narrator views himself as a philanthropist.  Melville was skeptical of what motivated charity and philanthropy in a person, and he shows firsthand how it can lead to disaster as it did so at the ending of Bartleby the Scrivener.

Setting in Melville’s works plays an important part in the development of the plot, and the importance of setting is particularly noticeable in Bartleby the Scrivener.  The narrator describes how Bartleby’s desk was placed in a space which had “a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all…” (1489).  In addition to creating a dark and ominous atmosphere typical in Dark Romantic writing, Melville shows how working in an office setting that is closed off from the world can potentially be problematic.  This sense of isolation also reinforces the idea of the Iron Cage.  In this case, the Iron Cage is used to limit distraction in the workplace and optimize production, two goals of any company in a capitalistic society.  The fact that this story occurs on Wall Street, America’s center of capitalism, further displays Melville’s issue with our capitalistic society.

With his death at the end of the story, Bartleby becomes a martyr in a sense.  His fight against the ideals of capitalistic America including hard work and respect for authority is eventually lost.  By killing off Bartleby, Melville displays that the American system failed Bartleby and it is not as flawless as we imagine it to be.  With his writing, Herman Melville gave America the sort of reality check it needed at the time.

Works Consulted

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1820-1865, edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 1483-1509.


Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe


Edgar Poe was born in Boston in 1809 to two young actors. Soon after his birth, both parents died suddenly, and he and his two siblings were left alone. After been passed around in numerous foster homes, a man named Jonathan Allan and his wife took Edgar in after his separation from his other siblings to different foster homes. Although they didn’t legally adopt him, they did change Edgar’s name to what we know today: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe and his newfound family moved to London, England where he went to many prestigious schools and was first introduced to his love for literature. As the years passed, Poe struggled with losing financial support from his family, being expelled from school, and developing alcohol and gambling addictions. Despite all of that and teetering on the lines of depression, Poe was still able to publish some of his literary works under a pseudonym. At first, he published critic reviews and small stories in periodicals, but eventually branched out into one of the most popular genres of literature: Dark Romanticism.

Poe incorporated the Romantic characteristic of nature by portraying it as something terrifying, mysterious, or dark and used metaphors to highlight a crumbling aristocracy—all by using gothic/horror elements as descriptors or to set the tone. Since Dark Romanticism is less optimistic than Romanticism and shows that individuals are prone to self-destruction and madness, Poe fit into this subgenre perfectly. By drawing from his tragic past and his own self-destructive nature, he formed a cynical outlook on life and chose to portray that in his works. He emphasized on the duality of human nature, and how that as humans we want to be good, but oftentimes give in to our darker impulses. Many of Poe’s gothic elements in his work came from his time spent in London in his early years, when he was fascinated with the gothic architecture as well as English gothic literature. By using Dark Romantic elements, Poe was able to draw the attention of readers through their curiosity and tap into their human nature of wanting to take a few steps on the dark side.

One of Poe’s stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the perfect example of Poe’s use of gothic elements to describe nature: “I looked up upon the scene before me—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sledges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees… the bitter lapse into common life—the hideous dropping of the veil” (654). Poe’s use of gothic imagery gave the story an ominous tone, and his descriptors of nature in the beginning set the stage for the horrific tale that followed. His use of the literal crumbling house as a metaphor for the crumbling aristocracy allowed Poe to create a sense of urgency that people could start to follow and break out of the societal standards before giving into their own madness.

Another of Poe’s popular tales is “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this story, the narrator/main character takes a common act of revenge to the point of madness and eventually to murder. Poe used the Dark Romantic characteristic of individuals prone to sin and madness in Montresor to draw emphasis to that “hidden dark side” he believed was in every human being: “It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation” (715). Instead of incorporating the transcendentalist ideals of Romanticism, Poe chose to write stories like this that instead focused on the dark side of human nature and the importance of embracing that, rather than trying to find oneself in the beauty of nature or other elements.


Works Consulted

Baym, Nina, and Levine, Robert S., editors. The Norton Anthology of American                    Literature Volume B: 1820-1865. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Baym and Levine, pp. 654-666

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Baym and Levine, pp. 714-717

American Renaissance

The advent of a national literary consciousness in the United States is generally attributed to the American Renaissance period, from around 1830 to the beginning of the Civil War. Prior to this period, much of American Literature was serialized in periodicals, rather than as cohesive publications. As publishing companies began to take hold in the States, there was a influx of print journalism and new literary works. Two of the most popular genres to come from this period was Transcendentalism, with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, or Dark Romanticism, favored by Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Transcendentalists often had a more optimistic tone to their work than Dark Romanticists, but both factions focused on themes of nature, spirituality and separation from civilization.

Despite sharing membership in the American Renaissance with Transcendentalists, Dark Romanticists took a more pessimistic view of human nature, writing narratives characterized by destruction and sin. Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, authors of the genre, often corresponded with one another. This led to a more cohesive body of literature with shared themes. Dark Romanticist authors tended to be critical of reformers, including those of the Transcendentalist movement. Though Herman Melville supported activism such as prison reform, he did not share the more optimistic views of Transcendentalists. In Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the title character constantly repeats the phrase “I would prefer not to,” (Melville 1489) eventually becoming jailed and dying alone because of his abstinence. While critics disagree about interpretation, Bartleby’s unpleasant end could be perceived as a dig towards Henry David Thoreau, who chose to abstain from taxes as an activist gesture. Similarly, both Poe and Hawthorne wrote works criticizing Transcendentalists.

Nature was a popular theme in the American Renaissance, favored by Transcendentalists as well as Dark Romanticists. Contrary to the spiritual, positive view of nature in Transcendentalism, these authors illustrated nature as ominous and powerful. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, he portrayed the woods as a dark force. The woods represent Hawthorne’s view of human nature: unpredictable and difficult to understand. In Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, the woods reveal the true actions of the Puritan community, exposing religious corruption. Similarly, Poe utilizes natural surroundings to contribute to the gothic atmosphere. With The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe establishes the mood of the work by painting a vivid picture of how the surrounding nature’s darkness has bled into the mansion itself. Melville’s “Moby Dick” portrayed how weak man is in comparison with the forces of nature.

Whalers by Joseph Mallord William Turner
“Whalers”, Joseph Mallord William Turner

Furthermore, these authors wrote their protagonists as flawed individuals prone to sin and destruction. Their works acted as a foil to the more optimistic bent of Transcendentalist literature. Traits such as hubris, cruelty and hypocrisy are common in Dark Romanticist characters such as Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown, Poe’s Montresor, or Melville’s Captain Ahab. Often their narratives end unhappily as a result of the protagonist’s actions. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, the narrator’s choice to commit a sin opens his eyes to the sinfulness of those around him. He becomes mistrustful of everyone and allows this knowledge to affect his life so completely that even “his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 395). Many characters die or are irreparably changed by the end of Dark Romanticist literature.

While Transcendentalists and Dark Romanticists both published narratives in the American Renaissance, Dark Romanticists presented a much more cynical take on comparable topics. Authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville were critical of reformers, depicted nature as a dangerous force, and wrote characters that were prone to destructive behavior. Their contributions to the American Renaissance created a rich and diverse national literary consciousness.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 386-395. Print.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1483-1509. Print.
Melville, Herman. “Moby Dick.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American
Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1440-1483. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, Volume B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 714-719. Print.
Turner, Joseph Mallord William. Whalers. 1845. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.