Topic 53C – Novel, tale and poetry in the united states. H. Melville, e.a. poe and w. Whitman

Topic 53C – Novel, tale and poetry in the united states. H. Melville, e.a. poe and w. Whitman










In the middle of the 19th century, white Americans of the North and South were unable to reconcile fundamental differences in their approach to government, economics, society and African American slavery. Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the South seceded to form the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War followed, with the ultimate defeat of the South.

After the Civil War, America experienced an accelerated rate of industrialization, mainly in the northern states. However, Reconstruction and its failure left the Southern whites in a position of firm control over its black population, denying them their Civil Rights and keeping them in a state of economic, social and political servitude. The Reconstruction era was followed by the Gilded Age which included influential figures such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Monopolies plagued the United States and corruption within the oil, steel, and railroad businesses was vast. Many new inventions led to increased productivity but also produced a fall in wages which in turn caused riots in many parts of America.

U.S. Federal government policy, since the James Monroe Administration, had been to move the indigenous population beyond the reach of the white frontier into a series of Indian reservations. Tribes were generally forced onto small reservations as Caucasian farmers and ranchers took over their lands. In 1876, the last major Sioux war erupted when the Black Hills Gold Rush penetrated their territory.

An unprecedented wave of immigration to the United States served both to provide the labor for American industry and to create diverse communities in previously undeveloped areas. Abusive industrial practices led to the often violent rise of the labour movement in the United States.

The United States began its rise to international power in this period with substantial population and industrial growth domestically and numerous military ventures abroad, including the Spanish-American War, which began when the United States blamed the sinking of the USS Maine (ACR-1) on Spain without any real evidence.

The USA solidified as a nation during a period of major cultural changes characterised by the shift from Classicism to Romanticism.

Classicism rested first upon the belief that reason is the dominating characteristic both of nature and of human nature, and that both are governed by fixed, unchanging laws.

Romanticism in contrast, placed central importance upon the emotions and upon the individual. For Romantic writers reason, though important, was not the only inner perception of truth, which is independent of reason. The emphasis of Romanticism upon the emotions, upon intuition and upon the individual encouraged the exploration and the expression of the writers most private inner being. It soon became apparent that this interior world of intense feelings is not ruled by reason, and an interest in the irrational depths of human nature became characteristic of Romanticism. The greatest achievements in psychological literature were reserved for later writers: the Transcendentalists.

Transcendentalism was already a genuinely American movement which took many of its ideas from Romanticism. Armed with their perception of the universal soul transcendentalist writers such as Thoreau and Emerson brought new intensity to the Romantic views of nature and self. Since nature shares with humanity in the universal soul that permeates all being, no part of the natural world could be trivial or insignificant. The study of nature was important as a means of self-knowledge. Transcendentalist writers delved deep into the mysteries of human personality, especially its irrational elements.

But the mid 19th century was the period known as the American Renaissance. This was the period of the first generation of great American writers, such as Poe, Hawthorne and Melville in narrative and Walt Whitman in poetry. Each of them developed distinctive styles that made them sometimes unpopular at the time, but very much regarded by later literary critics.

American Literature kept gaining force and along the 19th century it was consolidated with new figures of international relevance. In the following topic we shall study the life and literary career of Edgar Allan Poe, famous for his verse and short stories. Next we shall analyze the literary contribution of Henram Melville who established the rules of the American novelistic tradition, also represented by Hawthorne. Finally we shall deal with the poet Walt Whitman. During their lifetimes they were neglected and even rejected by the public and the critics, but they are now considered the best representatives of 19th century short story, novel and poetry respectively.


Before analysing the lives and works of these key literary figures of the late 19th century in America, we are going to provide a brief summary of the historical panorama of the United States at this time.

The underlying problem facing America was the fact that in the early 19th century it was a country, not a nation. The major functions of government, those relating to education, transportation, health, public order, etc., were performed on the state or local level. There was little more than a loose allegiance to the government in Washington, a few national institutions such as churches and political parties, and a shared memory of the Founding Fathers of the republic that tied the country together. Within this loosely structured society every section, every state, every locality, every group could pretty much go its own way.

However, from the very beginning, wide differences in geography, natural resources, and development were obvious from region to region. New England and the Middle Atlantic states were the main centres of finance, commerce, and manufacturing. Principal products included textiles and clothing, lumber, and machinery. Maritime trade flourished. The Southern states were chiefly agricultural, producing tobacco, sugar, and cotton with slave labour. The Middle Western states were agricultural, too, but their grain and meat products came from the hands of free men and women.

A further issue that divided American society was slavery. Though Jefferson had abolished foreign slave trade in 1808 he did not interfere with internal trade. The growing conflict between North and South was heightened by the condemnation of slavery by the newly elected Republican president Abraham Lincoln in 1860, rejected by the Southern states. The abolition of slavery and the hostility towards the nationalising tendencies in American life led to strong feelings of sectional loyalty and the polarisation of American society.

In 1863, Lincoln abolished slavery and in April 1865 the Southern forces surrendered. Over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in a war that devastated the economy of the South: plantations were destroyed and fortunes were lost, and deep bitterness and hatred was to last for many years to come. On the other hand, the Union was preserved, the slaves were freed, and Northern prosperity suffered no severe injury. A unified nation with political and religious freedom as well as economic opportunities attracted millions of emigrants from all over Europe and led to a period of prosperity.

Slavery was an issue that divided American society all through the 19th century. Though, in 1808 Jefferson had abolished the foreign slave trade he did not interfere with the internal slave trade itself. The growing conflict between North and South was heightened by the condemnation of slavery by the newly elected Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, who was rejected by the Southern states. The abolition of slavery and the hostility towards the growing nationalising tendencies in American life led to strong feelings of sectional loyalty and the polarisation of American society.

In 1863, Lincoln abolished slavery and by April 1865 the Southern forces had surrendered. Over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in a war that devastated the economy of the South; plantations were destroyed, fortunes were lost, and the deep bitterness and hatred was to last for many years to come. Lincoln started a plan to reincorporate the southern states to the union under conciliating conditions, but after he was assassinated Johnson’s attempts to carry it out met the opposition his own republican party. Congress sent troops to the South, and during Grant’s presidency the humiliating measures taken against the losers worsened the relations between the North and the South. However, the old aristocracy began to reorganise and they founded secret organisations such as the Ku-Klux-Klan. When the northern troops finally left the South, they recovered the power and discrimination against the blacks was established through segregation, which would last another hundred years.

In American history, the “Gilded Age” refers to major growth in population in the U.S. and wasteful displays of wealth and excessive opulence of America’s upper-class during the post-Civil War and post-Reconstruction era, from the 1870s to 1900. The wealth polarization derived from industrial and population expansion. Industrialization during this era saw unusually rapid growth of railroads, small factories, banks, stores, mines and other enterprises and dramatic expansion into highly fertile western farmlands. Ethnic diversity increased through immigration. Steamship and railroad companies promoted immigration by emphasizing the availability of jobs and farmland. The era overlaps with Reconstruction (which ended in 1877) and includes the Panic of 1873.


The Romantic movement, which originated in Germany but quickly spread to England, France, and beyond, reached America around the year 1820, some 20 years after William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had revolutionized English poetry by publishing Lyrical Ballads. In America as in Europe, fresh new vision electrified artistic and intellectual circles. Yet there was an important difference: Romanticism in America coincided with the period of national expansion and the discovery of a distinctive American voice. The solidification of a national identity and the surging idealism and passion of Romanticism nurtured the masterpieces of “the American Renaissance.”

Romantic ideas centred around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature, and metaphors of organic growth. Art, rather than science, Romantics argued, could best express universal truth. The Romantics underscored the importance of expressive art for the individual and society.

The development of the self became a major theme; self-awareness a primary method. If, according to Romantic theory, self and nature were one, self-awareness was not a selfish dead end but a mode of knowledge opening up the universe. If one’s self were one with all humanity, then the individual had a moral duty to reform social inequalities and relieve human suffering. The idea of “self” (which suggested selfishness to earlier generations) was redefined. New compound words with positive meanings emerged: “self-realization,” “self-expression,” “self-reliance.”

As the unique, subjective self became important, so did the realm of psychology. Exceptional artistic effects and techniques were developed to evoke heightened psychological states. The “sublime” — an effect of beauty in grandeur (for example, a view from a mountaintop) — produced feelings of awe, reverence, vastness, and a power beyond human comprehension.

Romanticism was affirmative and appropriate for most American poets and creative essayists. America’s vast mountains, deserts, and tropics embodied the sublime. The Romantic spirit seemed particularly suited to American democracy: It stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the inspired imagination for its aesthetic and ethical values. Certainly the New England Transcendentalists – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and their associates – were inspired to a new optimistic affirmation by the Romantic movement. In New England, Romanticism fell upon fertile soil. In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson, an ex-minister, published a startling non-fiction work called Nature, in which he claimed it was possible to dispense with organized religion and reach a lofty spiritual state by studying and responding to the natural world. His work influenced not only the writers who gathered around him, forming a movement known as Transcendentalism, but also the public, who heard him lecture. The Transcendentalist movement was a reaction against 18th century rationalism and a manifestation of the general humanitarian trend of 19th century thought. The movement was based on a fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God. The soul of each individual was thought to be identical with the world – a microcosm of the world itself. The doctrine of self-reliance and individualism developed through the belief in the identification of the individual soul with God.

Transcendentalism was intimately connected with Concord, a small New England village 32 kilometres west of Boston. Concord was the first inland settlement of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony. Surrounded by forest, it was and remains a peaceful town close enough to Boston’s lectures, bookstores, and colleges to be intensely cultivated, but far enough away to be serene.

Concord was the first rural artist’s colony, and the first place to offer a spiritual and cultural alternative to American materialism. It was a place of high-minded conversation and simple living (Emerson and Henry David Thoreau both had vegetable gardens). Emerson, who moved to Concord in 1834, and Thoreau are most closely associated with the town, but the locale also attracted the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the feminist writer Margaret Fuller, the educator (and father of novelist Louisa May Alcott) Bronson Alcott, and the poet William Ellery Channing. The Transcendental Club was loosely organized in 1836 and included, at various times, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Channing, Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson (a leading minister), Theodore Parker (abolitionist and minister), and others.

The Transcendentalists published a quarterly magazine, The Dial, which lasted four years and was first edited by Margaret Fuller and later by Emerson. Reform efforts engaged them as well as literature. A number of Transcendentalists were abolitionists, and some were involved in experimental utopian communities such as nearby Brook Farm (described in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance) and Fruitlands.

Unlike many European groups, the Transcendentalists never issued a manifesto. They insisted on individual differences – on the unique viewpoint of the individual. American Transcendental Romantics pushed radical individualism to the extreme. American writers often saw themselves as lonely explorers outside society and convention. The American hero – like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, or Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym – typically faced risk, or even certain destruction, in the pursuit of metaphysical self-discovery. For the Romantic American writer, nothing was a given. Literary and social conventions, far from being helpful, were dangerous. There was tremendous pressure to discover an authentic literary form, content, and voice – all at the same time. It is clear from the many masterpieces produced in the three decades before the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) that American writers rose to the challenge.

With regards to literature, the War of 1812 and an increasing desire to produce uniquely American work, a number of key new literary figures appeared, perhaps most prominently Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. Cooper’s Leather-stocking tales about Natty Bumppo were popular both in the new country and abroad.

Humorous writers were also popular and included Seba Smith and Benjamin P. Shillaber in New England and Davy Crockett, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson J. Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Joseph G. Baldwin, and George Washington Harris writing about the American frontier.

The political conflict surrounding Abolitionism inspired the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his paper The Liberator, along with poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her world-famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In the case of the novelists, the Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the “Romance,” a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings.

Instead of carefully defining realistic characters through a wealth of detail, as most English or continental novelists did, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe shaped heroic figures larger than life, burning with mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe’s tales are lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit.

One reason for this fictional exploration into the hidden recesses of the soul is the absence of settled, traditional community life in America. English novelists – Jane Austen, Charles Dickens (the great favourite), Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, William Thackeray – lived in a complex, well-articulated, traditional society and shared with their readers attitudes that informed their realistic fiction. American novelists were faced with a history of strife and revolution, a geography of vast wilderness, and a fluid and relatively classless democratic society. American novels frequently reveal a revolutionary absence of tradition. Many English novels show a poor main character rising on the economic and social ladder, perhaps because of a good marriage or the discovery of a hidden aristocratic past. But this buried plot does not challenge the aristocratic social structure of England. On the contrary, it confirms it. The rise of the main character satisfies the wish fulfilment of the mainly middle-class readers.

In contrast, the American novelist had to depend on his or her own devices. America was, in part, an undefined, constantly moving frontier populated by immigrants speaking foreign languages and following strange and crude ways of life. Thus the main character in American literature might find himself alone among cannibal tribes, as in Melville’s Typee, or exploring a wilderness like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-stocking, or witnessing lonely visions from the grave, like Poe’s solitary individuals, or meeting the devil walking in the forest, like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Virtually all the great American protagonists have been “loners.” The democratic American individual had, as it were, to invent himself.

The serious American novelist had to invent new forms as well hence the sprawling, idiosyncratic shape of Melville’s novel Moby-Dick and Poe’s dreamlike, wandering Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Few American novels achieve formal perfection, even today. Instead of borrowing tested literary methods, Americans tend to invent new creative techniques. In America, it is not enough to be a traditional and definable social unit, for the old and traditional gets left behind; the new, innovative force is the centre of attention.

Anti-transcendental works from Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe all comprise the Dark Romanticism subgenre of literature popular during this time.

In 1837, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne collected some of his stories as Twice-Told Tales, a volume rich in symbolism and occult incidents. Hawthorne went on to write full-length “romances,” quasi-allegorical novels that explore such themes as guilt, pride, and emotional repression in his native New England. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, is the stark drama of a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery.

Inspired by Hawthorne’s example, Melville went on to write novels rich in philosophical speculation. In Moby Dick, an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggle against the elements.

Regarding poetry, the Boston Brahmins (as the patrician, Harvard-educated class came to be called) supplied the most respected and genuinely cultivated literary arbiters of the United States. Their lives fitted a pleasant pattern of wealth and leisure directed by the strong New England work ethic and respect for learning.

In an earlier Puritan age, the Boston Brahmins would have been ministers; in the 19th century, they became professors, often at Harvard. Late in life they sometimes became ambassadors or received honorary degrees from European institutions. Most of them travelled or were educated in Europe: They were familiar with the ideas and books of Britain, Germany, and France, and often Italy and Spain. Upper class in background but democratic in sympathy, the Brahmin poets carried their genteel, European-oriented views to every section of the United States, through public lectures at the 3,000 lyceums (centres for public lectures) and in the pages of two influential Boston magazines, the North American Review and the Atlantic Monthly.

The writings of the Brahmin poets fused American and European traditions and sought to create a continuity of shared Atlantic experience. These scholar-poets attempted to educate and elevate the general populace by introducing a European dimension to American literature. Ironically, their overall effect was conservative. By insisting on European things and forms, they retarded the growth of a distinctive American consciousness. Well-meaning men, their conservative backgrounds blinded them to the daring innovativeness of Thoreau, Whitman (whom they refused to meet socially), and Edgar Allan Poe (whom even Emerson regarded as the “jingle man”). They were pillars of what was called the “genteel tradition” that three generations of American realists had to battle. Partly because of their benign but bland influence, it was almost 100 years before the distinctive American genius of Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, and Poe was generally recognized in the United States.

On the other hand, Emily Dickinson is, in a sense, a link between her era and the literary sensitivities of the turn of the century. A radical individualist, she was born and spent her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, a small Calvinist village. She never married, and she led an unconventional life that was outwardly uneventful but was full of inner intensity. She loved nature and found deep inspiration in the birds, animals, plants, and changing seasons of the New England countryside.

Dickinson spent the latter part of her life as a recluse, due to an extremely sensitive psyche and possibly to make time for writing (for stretches of time she wrote about one poem a day). Her day also included homemaking for her attorney father, a prominent figure in Amherst who became a member of Congress.

Dickinson was not widely read, but knew the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, and works of classical mythology in great depth. These were her true teachers, for Dickinson was certainly the most solitary literary figure of her time. That this shy, withdrawn, village woman, almost unpublished and unknown, created some of the greatest American poetry of the 19th century has fascinated the public since the 1950s, when her poetry was rediscovered.


Herman Melville was born in New York City into an established merchant family. One of his grandfather’s had taken part in the Boston Tea Party dressed in Indian garb. Herman was the third child of eight. His father, Allan Melville, an importer of French dry goods, went bankrupt and died when Melville was 12. Maria Gansevoort Melville was left alone to raise the children; at that time the family lived in Albany. Occasionally she received help from her wealthy relatives. Through his mother’s influence, biblical stories became a part of Melville’s imagination from his early childhood.

A bout of scarlet fever in 1826 left Melville with permanently weakened eyesight. He attended Albany (N.Y.) Classical School in 1835. After leaving the school he was largely autodidact, devouring Shakespeare as well as historical, anthropological, and technical works. From the age of 12, he worked as a clerk, teacher, and farmhand.

In search of adventures, Melville shipped out in 1839 as a cabin boy on the whaler Acushnet. He joined later the US Navy, and started his years long voyages on ships, sailing both the Atlantic and the South Seas. During these years he was a clerk and bookkeeper in general store in Honolulu and lived briefly among the Typee cannibals in the Marquesas Islands. Another ship rescued him and took him to Tahiti. In his mid-20’s Melville returned to his mother’s house to write about his adventures.

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, an account of Melville’s stay with the cannibals, was first published in Britain, like most of his works. The narrator, a crew member of a whale ship, calls himself “Tom”. He spends four months among a group of islanders on Nukuheva in the Pacific Ocean and learns to make a distinction between a savage and cannibal. Tattooing he rejects. Typee sold roughly 6,000 copies in its first two years.

Its sequel, Omoo (1847), was based on Melville’s experiences in Polynesian Islands, and gained a huge success as the first one. Throughout his career Melville enjoyed a rather higher estimation in Britain than in America. His older brother Gansevoort held a government position in London, and helped to launch Melville’s career.

With his third book, Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), Melville decided to take distance to the expectations of his readers. In this he also succeeded, and lost his audience.

In 1847 Melville married Elisabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. After three years in New York, he bought a farm, “Arrowhead”, near Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s home at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and became friends with him for some time. Melville had almost completed Moby-Dick when Hawthorne encouraged him to change it from a story full of details about whaling, into an allegorical novel.

Inspired by the achievement of Hawthorne, Melville wrote his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. He worked at his desk all day not eating anything till 4 or 5 o’clock. When the novel was published, it did not bring him the fame he had acquired in the 1840s. Readers of Typee and Omoo were not expecting this kind of story, and its brilliance was only noted by some critics. Through the story Melville meditated questions about faith and the workings of God’s intelligence. He returned to these meditations in his last great work, Billy Budd, a story left unfinished at his death. Its manuscript was found in Melville’s desk when he died.

“Call me Ishmael,” says the narrator in the beginning of Moby-Dick. We don’t know is it his real name and exactly when the story is taking place. He signs abroad the whaler Pequod with his friend Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Sea Islands. Then the mood of the story changes. The reader is confronted by a plurality of linguistic discourses, philosophical speculations, and Shakespearean rhetoric and dramatic staging. Mysterious Captain Ahab, a combination of Macbeth, Job, and Milton’s Satan, appears after several days at sea. Melville named the character after the Israelite king who worshiped the pagan sun god Baal. Ahab reveals to the crew that the purpose of the voyage is to hunt and kill the snow-white sperm whale, known as Moby-Dick, which had cost Ahab his leg on a previous voyage. The captain has his own faith and sees the cosmos in contention between two rival deities. “Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance.” Ahab has nailed a goldpiece to the mast and offers it as a reward to the first man who sights the creature. Starbuck, the first mate, tries to dissuade Ahab from the quest. The novel culminates when Moby-Dick charges the boat which sinks. Ahab is drowned, tied by the harpoon line his archenemy. In his end Ahab takes his crew with him. The only survivor is the narrator, who is rescued by a passing ship.

Melville’s masterwork was largely misunderstood and it sold only some 3,000 copies during Melville’s lifetime. Moby-Dick can be read as a thrilling sea story, an examination of the conflict between man and nature – the battle between Ahab and the whale is open to many interpretations. It is a pioneer novel but the prairie is now sea, or an allegory on the Gold Rush, but now the gold is a whale. Jorge Luis Borges has seen in the universe of Moby-Dick “a cosmos (a chaos) not only perceptibly malignant as the Gnostics had intuited, but also irrational, like the cosmos in the hexameters of Lucretius.” (from The Total Library, 1999) Clare Spark has connected in Hunting Captain Ahab (2001) different interpretations with changing political atmosphere – depending on the point of view, Ahab has been regarded as a Promethean hero or a forefather of the twentieth-century totalitarian dictators. The director John Huston questions in his film version (1956) which one, Ahab or the whale, is the real Monster.

The novel is modern in its tendency to be self-referential, or reflexive. In other words, the novel often is about itself. Melville frequently comments on mental processes such as writing, reading, and understanding. One chapter, for instance, is an exhaustive survey in which the narrator attempts a classification but finally gives up, saying that nothing great can ever be finished (“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught. O Time, Strength, Cash and Patience”). Melville’s notion of the literary text as an imperfect version or an abandoned draft is quite contemporary.

Ahab insists on imaging a heroic, timeless world of absolutes in which he can stand above his men. Unwisely, he demands a finished text, an answer. But the novel shows that just as there are no finished texts, there are no final answers except, perhaps, death.

Certain literary references resonate throughout the novel. Ahab, named for an Old Testament king, desires a total, Faustian, god-like knowledge. Like Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, who pays tragically for wrongful knowledge, Ahab is struck blind before he is wounded in the leg and finally killed. Moby-Dick ends with the word “orphan.” Ishmael, the narrator, is an orphan-like wanderer. The name Ishmael emanates from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament — he was the son of Abraham and Hagar (servant to Abraham’s wife, Sarah). Ishmael and Hagar were cast into the wilderness by Abraham.

Other examples exist. Rachel (one of the patriarch Jacob’s wives) is the name of the boat that rescues Ishmael at book’s end. Finally, the metaphysical whale reminds Jewish and Christian readers of the biblical story of Jonah, who was tossed overboard by fellow sailors who considered him an object of ill fortune. Swallowed by a “big fish,” according to the biblical text, he lived for a time in its belly before being returned to dry land through God’s intervention. Seeking to flee from punishment, he only brought more suffering upon himself.

Historical references also enrich the novel. The ship Pequod is named for an extinct New England Indian tribe; thus the name suggests that the boat is doomed to destruction. Whaling was in fact a major industry, especially in New England: It supplied oil as an energy source, especially for lamps. Thus the whale does literally “shed light” on the universe. Whaling was also inherently expansionist and linked with the idea of manifest destiny, since it required Americans to sail round the world in search of whales (in fact, the present state of Hawaii came under American domination because it was used as the major refuelling base for American whaling ships). The Pequod’s crew members represent all races and various religions, suggesting the idea of America as a universal state of mind as well as a melting pot. Finally, Ahab embodies the tragic version of democratic American individualism. He asserts his dignity as an individual and dares to oppose the inexorable external forces of the universe.

The novel’s epilogue tempers the tragic destruction of the ship. Throughout, Melville stresses the importance of friendship and the multicultural human community. After the ship sinks, Ishmael is saved by the engraved coffin made by his close friend, the heroic tattooed harpooner and Polynesian prince Queequeg. The coffin’s primitive, mythological designs incorporate the history of the cosmos. Ishmael is rescued from death by an object of death. From death life emerges, in the end.

Moby-Dick has been called a “natural epic” – a magnificent dramatization of the human spirit set in primitive nature – because of its hunter myth, its initiation theme, its Edenic island symbolism, its positive treatment of pre-technological peoples, and its quest for rebirth. In setting humanity alone in nature, it is eminently American.

Redburn (1849) and White Jacket (1850) were written to get money. White Jacket told his final return to the States after the South Sea adventures enrolled in a warship. It criticised the abuses in the navy, and it was again acclaimed by the public and the critics.

Pierre (1852), a Gothic romance and psychological study based on the author’s childhood, was a financial and critical disaster. Melville’s stories in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine reflected the despair and the contempt for human hypocrisy and materialism. Among the stories were The Scrivener (1853), The Encantadas (1854) and Benito Cereno (1855), in which a slave ship is secretly under the command of the captain’s personal slave. Bartleby, later published as part of the collection entitled The Piazza Tales(1856), was a story about a passive copyist, who confronts life with an Everlasting Nay – “I would prefer not to,” is his quiet defence against the changing world. The narrator, a Wall Street lawyer, tries in vain to understand the unresponsive employee, who refuses to leave the office after being fired. Bartleby withdraws into himself and is finally confined and dies. It represents the motif of withdrawal in the modern society of routine and sordid materialism.

In 1855 Melville had a breakdown – he started to believe that he was not going to get fame with his writing. The Confidence Man (1857), Melville’s last major effort, was a harsh satire of American life set on a Mississippi River steamboat. After 1857 he wrote only some poetry. His health was failing, he did not earn enough money to support his family, and he was a dependent of his wealthy father-in-law. To recover from a breakdown, he undertook a long journey to Europe and the Holy Land. The long poem Clarel (1876), based on this trip, was about religious crisis and reflected Melville’s Manichean view of God. This poetic output is brief although of great contribution to the conflict of religious faith and Darwinian skepticism which haunted the works of some contemporaries such as Thomas Hardy or Arnold in England. It describes a symbolic round-trip to the Holly land. Some of the best poems are about the Civil War, a deeply tragic affair for him and Whitman.

Clarel was ignored. Subsequent works were privately printed and distributed among a very small circle of acquaintances. After unsuccessful lecture tours in 1857-60, Melville lived in Washington, D.C. (1861-62). He moved to New York, where he was appointed customs inspector on the New York docks. This work secured him a regular income. Melville’s oldest son committed suicide in 1867.

Melville’s later works include Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1865), privately printed John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Timoleon (1891). Melville’s death on September 28, 1891, in New York, was noted with only one obituary notice. His unfinished work, Billy Budd, Foretopman, remained unpublished until 1924. A definitive edition appeared in 1962. This story, which Freud would have loved, is set in 1797 during the war between England and France. Billy Budd, ‘the Handsome Sailor’, is favourite of the crew of HMS Bellipotent. He becomes the target of John Claggart, the satanic master-at-arms, whose character bears similarities to Ahab. Claggart accuses falsely Billy of being involved in a supposed mutiny. The innocent Billy, who is unable to answer the charge because of a chronic stammer, accidentally kills Claggart. Captain Vere sees through Claggart’s plot, fears reaction among the crew, if Billy is not punished. He calls a court and in effect instructs it to find Billy guilty of capital crime. The court condemns Billy, who goes willingly to his fate and is hanged from the yardarm after crying out ‘God bless Captain Vere’. Later Vere is killed during an engagement with the French, murmuring as his last words Billy’s name. Going back to Melville’s main concerns, the story raises questions about the interpretation of good and evil, of mercy and justice, and the relationship between the individual case and the larger social good.

Apparently Melville seems to be a novelist of travel books, especially in his first stories, however his literary output is in the service of his own contradictions as a human being. So, his novels have to be read as great metaphors of themes such as good against evil, freedom against fate, belief against non-belief, etc.

In that way we have to see that the sea , was not only a fantastic setting where to place stories, but a real environment where real men earn their living.

For instance, nature or paradises far from distant civilizations are the setting where man can meet the father creator in a kind of communion (in comparison to Joseph Conrad). Or the great catastrophes that pursue his characters are an example of man in permanent fight against a predestined fate.


Edgar Allan Poe, a southerner, shares with Melville a darkly metaphysical vision mixed with elements of realism, parody, and burlesque. He refined the short story genre and invented detective fiction. Many of his stories prefigure the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy so popular today. Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to parents who were itinerant actors. His father David Poe died probably in 1810. Elizabeth Hopkins Poe died in 1811, leaving three children. Edgar was taken into the home of a Richmond merchant John Allan, his uncle. The remaining children were cared for by others. Poe’s brother William died young and sister Rosalie become later insane.

Poe was brought up partly in England (1815-20), where he attended Manor School at Stoke Newington. Later it become the setting for his story William Wilson. Never legally adopted, Poe took Allan’s name for his middle name. Poe attended the University of Virginia (1826-27), but was expelled for not paying his gambling debts. This led to quarrel with Allan, who refused to pay the debts. Allan later disowned him. In 1826 Poe became engaged to Elmira Royster, but her parents broke off the engagement. During his stay at the university, Poe composed some tales, but little is known of his apprentice works. In 1827 Poe joined the U.S. Army as a common soldier under assumed name, Edgar A. Perry. He was sent to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which provided settings for The Gold Bug (1843) and The Balloon Hoax (1844). Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), which Poe published at his own expense, sold poorly. It has become one of the rarest volumes in American literary history. In 1830 Poe entered West Point. He was dishonourably discharged next year, for intentional neglect of his duties – apparently as a result of his own determination to be released.

In 1833 Poe lived in Baltimore with his father’s sister Mrs. Maria Clemm. After winning a prize of $50 for the short story MS Found in a Bottle, he started career as a staff member of various magazines, among others the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond (1835-37), Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia (1839-40), and Graham’s Magazine (1842-43). During these years he wrote some of his best-known stories. Poe explains in a letter to W.White, owner of the “Southern Literary Messenger”, how he had happened to write one of his weird stories, that was reading successful foreign magazines, he had found that certain kind of literature was evidently in demand, that is, the horror story. As a matter of fact in Poe´s time the “Penny Dreadfuls” and the “Penny Bloods” were almost as common as comic books are today.

In 1836 Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. She bust a blood vessel in 1842, and remained a virtual invalid until her death from tuberculosis five years later. After the death of his wife, Poe began to lose his struggle with drinking and drugs.

Poe’s work owes much to the influence of Romanticism and of his interest for the satanic, but it also owes much to the power of his imagination and to his art as a story teller. Both his poems and his tales dealt usually with terror or sadness. They tried to escape from common experience through dark thoughts, impulses and fears. His depiction of the dark side of human nature was disturbing to the contemporary American public who could not understand him or accept him as a genius. Even those who liked his works often dismissed his genius as a quality writer. But his tales of horror have attracted most of the criticism. He usually presents in them a psychopathological narrator. He uses the typical Gothic devices to show that what a character sees can tell us more about his inner world than about the external world, since his vision of reality is distorted. Poe believed that strangeness was an essential ingredient of beauty, and his writing is often exotic. His stories and poems are populated with doomed, introspective aristocrats (Poe, like many other southerners, cherished an aristocratic ideal). These gloomy characters never seem to work or socialize; instead they bury themselves in dark, moldering castles symbolically decorated with bizarre rugs and draperies that hide the real world of sun, windows, walls, and floors. The hidden rooms reveal ancient libraries, strange art works, and eclectic oriental objects. The aristocrats play musical instruments or read ancient books while they brood on tragedies, often the deaths of loved ones. Themes of death-in-life, especially being buried alive or returning like a vampire from the grave, appear in many of his works, including The Premature Burial, Ligeia, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe’s twilight realm between life and death and his gaudy, Gothic settings are not merely decorative. They reflect the overcivilized yet deathly interior of his characters disturbed psyches. They are symbolic expressions of the unconscious, and thus are central to his art.

Poe’s combination of decadence and romantic primitivism appealed enormously to Europeans, particularly to the French poets Stéphane Mallarmé, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valéry, and Arthur Rimbaud. But Poe is not un-American, despite his aristocratic disgust with democracy, preference for the exotic, and themes of dehumanization. On the contrary, he is almost a textbook example of Tocqueville’s prediction that American democracy would produce works that lay bare the deepest, hidden parts of the psyche. Deep anxiety and psychic insecurity seem to have occurred earlier in America than in Europe, for Europeans at least had a firm, complex social structure that gave them psychological security. In America, there was no compensating security; it was every man for himself. Poe accurately described the underside of the American dream of the self-made man and showed the price of materialism and excessive competition – loneliness, alienation, and images of death-in-life.

Poe’s “decadence” also reflects the devaluation of symbols that occurred in the 19th century – the tendency to mix art objects promiscuously from many eras and places, in the process stripping them of their identity and reducing them to merely decorative items in a collection. The resulting chaos of styles was particularly noticeable in the United States, which often lacked traditional styles of its own. The jumble reflects the loss of coherent systems of thought as immigration, urbanization, and industrialization uprooted families and traditional ways. In art, this confusion of symbols fuelled the grotesque, an idea that Poe explicitly made his theme in his classic collection of stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). This work contained one of his most famous work, The Fall of the House of Usher. In the story the narrator visits the crumbling mansion of his friend, Roderick Usher, and tries to dispel Roderick’s gloom. Although his twin sister, Madeline, has been placed in the family vault dead, Roderick is convinced she lives. Madeline arises in trance, and carries her brother to death. The house itself splits asunder and sinks into the tarn. The tale has inspired several film adaptations.

In Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Poe’s longest tale, the secret theme is the terror of whiteness. Poe invented tribes that live near the Antarctic Circle. The strange bestial humans are black, even down to their teeth. They have been exposed to the terrible visitations of men and white storms. These are mixed together, and they slaughter the crew of Pym’s vessel. The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges has assumed that Poe chose the colour intuitively, or for the same reasons as in Melville explained in the chapter The Whiteness of the Whale in his Moby-Dick. Later the ‘lost world’ idea was developed by Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Land That Time Forgot (1924) and other works.

During the early 1840s, Poe’s best-selling work was curiously The Conchologist’s First Book (1839). It was based on Thomas Wyatt’s work, which sold poorly because of its high prize. Wyatt was Poe’s friend and asked him to abridge the book and put his own name on its title page – the publisher had strongly opposed any idea of producing a cheaper edition. The Conchologist’s First Book was a success. Its first edition was sold out in two months and other editions followed.

The dark poem of lost love, The Raven, brought Poe national fame, when it appeared in 1845. “With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence: they must not – they cannot at will be excited, with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.” (from The Raven and Other Poems, preface, 1845) In a lecture in Boston the author said that the two most effective letters in the English language were o and r – this inspired the expression “nevermore” in ‘The Raven’, and because a parrot is unworthy of the dignity of poetry, a raven could well repeat the word at the end of each stanza. Lenore rhymed with “nevermore.” The poems has inspired a number of artists. Perhaps the most popular are Gustave Doré’s (1832-1883) melancholic illustrations.

Poe suffered from bouts of depression and madness, and he attempted suicide in 1848. In September the following year he disappeared for three days after a drink at a birthday party and on his way to visit his new fiancée in Richmond. He turned up in delirious condition in Baltimore gutter and died on October 7, 1849.

Poe’s work and his theory of “pure poetry” was early recognized especially in France, where he inspired Jules Verne, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Paul Valéry (1871-1945) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). “In Edgar Poe,” wrote Baudelaire, “there is no tiresome snivelling; but everywhere and at all times an indefatigable enthusiasm in seeking the ideal.” In America Emerson called him “the jingle man.”

Poe’s influence is seen in many other modern writers, as in Junichiro Tanizaki’s early stories and Kobo Abe‘s novels, or more clearly in the development of the19th century detective novel. J.L. Borges, R.L. Stevenson, and a vast general readership, have been impressed by the stories which feature Poe’s detective Dupin (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1841; The Purloined Letter, 1845) and the morbid metaphysical speculation of The Facts in the Case of M. Waldermar (1845). Thomas M. Disch has argued in his The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (1998) that it was actually Poe who was the originator of the modern science fiction. One of his tales, Mellonta Taunta (1840) describes a future society, an anti-Utopia, in which Poe satirizes his own times. Another tales in this vein are ‘The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Sceherazade and A Descent into the Maelstrom. However, Poe was not concerned with any specific scientific concept but mostly explored different realities, one of the central concerns of science fiction ever since. The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall is considered as one of the first tales of science fiction. It is hardly recognizable as such today, there are not flying saucers or laser guns, but he describes a fantastical-looking city occupied by a vast crowd of ugly little people who have no ears and use a singular method of communication, similar to telepathy.

In his supernatural fiction Poe usually dealt with paranoia rooted in personal psychology, physical or mental enfeeblement, obsessions, the damnation of death, feverish fantasies, the cosmos as source of horror and inspiration, without bothering himself with such supernatural beings as ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and so on. Although he is best remembered now as a writer of horror stories, this is only a small part of his literary output. He became a master of the macabre by accident, trying to satisfy the taste of the reader public. Indeed he started his literary career writing satires and humorous stories – sometimes present in his terror tales-, for example King Pest ( a satire of Disraeli´s Vivivan Grey), or Never bet your head, The Man that was used up, Some Words with a Mummy etc., all of which employ the Devil as an ironic figure of fun.

As far as his tales of ratiocination are concerned, they are considered the first detective stories. He created the detective Auguste Dupin as a very analytical man. He appears in three stories, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter. In the first one, one of his most famous tales he deduces from the strange evidence about the murders that the murderer was an escaped orang-utan.

The Mystery of Marie Roget solves an actual murder from many years ago on the basis of information obtained from the newspapers of the time. Another tales are The Gold Bug, Thou Art the Man and The Man of the Crowd.


Walt Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, the son of a Quaker carpenter. Whitman’s mother was descended from Dutch farmers. Whitman was early on filled with a love of nature. He read classics in his youth and was inspired by writers such as Goethe, Hegel, Carlyle and Emerson. He left school early to become a printer’s apprentice. He also in 1835 worked as a teacher and journeyman printer. After that he held a great variety of jobs while writing and editing for several periodicals, The Brooklyn Eagle from 1846 to 1848 and The Brooklyn Times from 1857 to 1858. In between he spent three months on a New Orleans paper, working for his father, and earning his living from undistinguished hack-work.

In New York Whitman witnessed the rapid growth of the city and wanted to write a new kind of poetry in tune with mankind’s new faith, hopeful expectations and energy of his days.

The most representative composition of Whitman is the long poem Song of Myself. In spite of its title, it is not a conventional autobiography, but the discovery of the meaning of life. The poet has an extraordinary appetite to assimilate life in all its forms. Through the long song he follows the rhythmic flow of existence with its vital force and diversity, trying to contain rather than to explain life. To do this he presents isolated moments of individual lives. His love for the masses and his devotion to democracy is expressed in America. This short poem presents the nationalistic principles and it is a reassertion of the poet’s faith in the destiny of the United States. Another theme in Song of Myself is suffering and death – he identified with Jesus and his fate.

Leaves of Grass was first presented as a group of 12 poems, and followed by five revised and three reissued editions during the author’s lifetime. Whitman maintained that a poet’s style should be simple and natural, without orthodox meter or rhyme. The poems were written to be spoken, but they have great variety in rhythm and tonal volume. The central theme arises from Whitman’s pantheistic view of life, from symbolic identification of regeneration in nature. – Whitman’s use of free verse had a deep influence on poetry. He was a great inspiring example for the beat-generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac etc.) .

Whitman acquired mythical strength as the spokesman of the proud young nation. Under the influence of the Romantic movement, Whitman thought that the chief function of the poet was to express his own personality in his verse. The other big influence of his poetry was the American nationalistic feeling.

Therefore, he sang the promise of a new world and a new man full of optimism. He put in the centre of his poetry the “I”, the human body, the sexuality, fraternity, democracy, diversity embodying the qualities of the American character. In Leaves of Grass he urged the citizens of the United States to be generous in spirit, to be a new race with political liberty and united souls and bodies. He has held the attention of generations of Americans as the poet of democracy. Modern readers can also share his preoccupation with the problem of preserving the individual’s integrity under the pressure of mass civilisation.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in July 1855 at Whitman’s own expense – he also personally had set the type for it – and the poem was about the writer himself. In the same year there also appeared Longfellow‘s The Song of Hiawatha, another great American epic. When Leaves of Grass first appeared, it was rejected critics both for its free verse and colloquial language and for its exaltation of sexuality, but it was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most famous poet of the time. Leaves of Grass would become more than simply a book, since in each of the nine editions it went through in Whitman’s lifetime, he revised the old poems and added new ones. So, this is the title under which virtually all of his poetry was published. The edition published in the 1880’s rose much opposition against its immorality, but this actually served as publicity creating interest in the book, which sold better than in any previous edition. In Leaves of Grass the poems are not arranged in order of composition.

The third edition of Leaves was published during Whitman’s wandering years in 1860. It was greeted with warm appreciation, although at first his work was not hugely popular.

When Whitman wrote the first edition, he knew little or nothing about Indian philosophy, but later critics have recognized Indian ideas expressed in the poems – words from the Sanskrit are used correctly in some of the poems written after 1858. Leaves of Grass also includes a group of poems entitled Calamus, which has been taken as reflection of the poet’s homosexuality, although according to Whitman they celebrated the ‘beautiful and sane affection of man for man’. According to some sources, Whitman had only one abortive attempt at a sexual relationship, presumably homosexual, in the winter of 1859-60.

During the Civil War Whitman worked as a clerk in Washington. When his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman went there to care for him and also for other Union and Confederate soldiers. The Civil War had its effect on the writer, which is shown in his prose Memoranda during the War (1875) and in the poems published under the title of Drum Taps in 1865. In Sequel to Drum Taps (1865-66) appeared the great elegy on President Abraham Lincoln, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d‘. Another famous poem published about the death of Lincoln is ‘O Captain! My Captain!’.

On the basis of his services Whitman was given a clerkship in the Department of the Interior. He transferred then to the attorney general’s office, when his chief labelled Leaves of Grass an indecent book. In England Whitman’s work was better received – among his admirers were Alfred Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A paralytic attack in 1873 forced Whitman to give up his work. At the age of sixty-four he settled in a little house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, where he spent almost the rest of his life. He was taken care of by a widow he had befriended. His reputation, which was shadowed by his outspokenness on sexual matters, began to rise after recognition in England by Swinburne, Mrs Gilchrist, and E. Carpenter.

In 1881 there appeared a newly augmented edition of Leaves of Grass. The following year Whitman published Specimen Days and Collect , and in 1888 a collection of his newspaper pieces, November Boughs, was published. His final volume was the ‘Deathbed’ edition of Leaves of Grass, which he prepared in 1891-92. It concludes with the prose piece ‘A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads’, in which he attempts to explain his life and work. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, in Camden.

Whitman’s wavelike verse and his fresh use of language helped to liberate American poetry. He wanted to be a national bard, his prophetic note echoed, among other books, the Bible, but his erotic candor separated him from conventionally romantic poets. He also boasted that he was ‘non-literary and non-decorous’ – which perhaps was not really true. When he urged the Muse to forget the matter of Troy and develop new themes, he knew what the matter of Troy was.

We face up to a figure whose personal experience in life are going to shape his literary output. As the main themes he writes about are: Home-town and family: Long Island and Brookling are quite often present in his early compositions. We find a lot of references to landscape and seascape, the scenery of his childhood. On the other hand he was brought up under the microcosm of a poor family where the relationship between the parents was often hostile. His job as a journalist provided the contact with the proletarian world and the new ideas and values of American democracy. Civil War was the topic par excellence. Although he was never a soldier, we could say that he was one of the real heroes of the American event.

The American Democracy was one of his main topics, he used to say “ the work of a poet is like the priest´s one to his community”. His vision of America was the land of democracy where equality among beings is one of the main commitments.

With regards to sexual life none spoke so clearly as Whitman did when he talked about sexual love, a

shocking attitude that he had to face to Puritan morality at that time. In his particular vision of America like a free land, he also saw on it a right place for sexual liberation.

He wanted to free poetry from any convention of form and content. As far a the form is concerned, he used free verse full of oratorical rhythms, such as in his lists of American place-names and objects. Because of the lack of rhyme and rhythm his works seemed “unpoetic” to his contemporaries.

The content and the style of his verse also caused his early biographers to confuse the symbolic self of the poems with their physical creator creating the legend of roughness and disorderly sexuality. He did advocate greater sexual freedom and tolerance, but sex in his poems is symbolic of natural innocence and of the regenerative power of nature. In his greatest poems such as Song of Myself sex is spiritualised.

Regarding style and diction, Leaves of Grass is a linguistic experiment. Arcaisms, Americanisms, foreign words are put together. Colloquialism is carefully selected in the form of free verse and rime.

On the other hand he conceives himself as an epic hero creating poetry in a new concept of epic. For example, if Greek poetry described great deeds of heroes, Whitman described usual events of common people. If Greek epic used a rigid metre and diction, Whitman used the common speech of people.


In the middle of the 19th century, white Americans of the North and South were unable to reconcile fundamental differences in their approach to government, economics, society and African American slavery. Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the South seceded to form the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War followed, with the ultimate defeat of the South.

After the Civil War, America experienced an accelerated rate of industrialization, mainly in the northern states. However, Reconstruction and its failure left the Southern whites in a position of firm control over its black population, denying them their Civil Rights and keeping them in a state of economic, social and political servitude. U.S. Federal government policy, since the James Monroe Administration, had been to move the indigenous population beyond the reach of the white frontier into a series of Indian reservations. Tribes were generally forced onto small reservations as Caucasian farmers and ranchers took over their lands. In 1876, the last major Sioux war erupted when the Black Hills Gold Rush penetrated their territory.

An unprecedented wave of immigration to the United States served both to provide the labor for American industry and to create diverse communities in previously undeveloped areas. Abusive industrial practices led to the often violent rise of the labour movement in the United States.

The USA solidified as a nation during a period of major cultural changes characterised by the shift from Classicism to Romanticism.

One the greatest and unhappiest of American poets, a master of the horror tale, and the patron saint of the detective story. Edgar Allan Poe first gained critical acclaim in France and England. His reputation in America was relatively slight until the French-influenced writers like Ambroce Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, and representatives of the Lovecraft school created interest in his work.

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston 1809 into a theatrical family, but he became an orphan and he was adopted by a wealthy family of Richmond, Virginia. He lived in England for some years. He entered the university, but he had to leave for gambling debts, then he enlisted the army and later he entered the military academy of West Point, but he was expelled from there. Distanced from his foster father, he lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, working as editor of different journals. The death of his wife in 1846 brought his physical and moral decay that lead to his early death.

In his youth Poe published three volumes of poetry. However, he achieved fame as a short story writer, with his famous tales of horror, and his tales of ratiocination, precedents of the detective story. At the end of his life he went back to poetry, writing some famous poems.

The tales of death such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Read Death are a mythic representation of human condition, concentrating on the mortality of men.

The tales of wickedness and crime such as “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado” present murderers dominated by sadistic impulses who do not feel any remorse.

In the tales of love and marriage such as Ligeia there is an obsession with the death of the loved woman.

As for his poetry, two of his late poems are especially famous, The Raven and Annabel Lee. Both deal with the death of a beautiful woman, a theme that fascinated Poe.

In The Raven the death of Leonore has the poet on a melancholic mood. He hears taping at the window, and when he opens it a raven enters the room. He asks the questions to the raven and it answers “nevermore”. The climax is when it answers this way the question whether there is an afterlife where he will see his beloved again.

Annabel Lee, written after the death of his wife, starts in the form of a fairy tale, but it becomes tragic with her death. It defends the existence of love stronger than death.

Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City. His family descended from the first settlers and they had an imports business. However, the collapse of the family business and the death of his father left the family in a difficult situation. Because of these problems he had to take several jobs and he ended up enrolling in a whaler bound for the South Seas starting a period of three years full of hardships and adventures. Back at home, he was very successful with his first novels based on his experiences at sea, but when he tried to move to serious writing he did not get much support. As a result he found security in a job as customs inspector and he did not write or publish much from 1860 until his death in 1891.

The main motifs that interested him were the deceptiveness of reality and the instability of personal identity. The public did not understand him because his works became allegorical, taking their symbols from the elements of the sea adventure stories that made him famous. After his momentary fame he was forgotten and his reputation did not come until modern criticism included him among the great American writers.

The first book he published was Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life which depicted his experience among the cannibalistic tribe of the Typees in a romanticised way, presenting their valley as a sanctuary protected from civilisation.

In Omoo he went on with his adventures, narrating his stay in a whaler, his imprisonment for taking part in a mutiny and travels through the Tahitian islands. The tone is light-hearted, but it shows bitterness for the destruction of the native culture by missionaries.

With Mardi he tried to go beyond the mere adventure story, using the sea story allegorically as a symbolic quest. The public did not understand this novel.

Disappointed that failure he wrote two more novels in the manner expected from him, Red Burn and White Jacket.

His masterpiece, Moby Dick, showed new influences, such as Hawthorne’s. Although now it is considered the greatest American novel, at the time it was a failure. Behind the simple story of Captain Ahab’s pursue of the whale that finally kills him, Melville dramatises deeper concerns and a tragic vision of life, using whaling as a metaphor. Critics agree that the main theme is the fight between good and evil, but they are divided about where to place Captain Ahab and the whale. Some have see him as a romantic hero who rebels against a cruel God, while others see the whale as a creature of God hunted by a man who violates the sanctity of nature.

His next novel was Pierre, an allegory of his own dark imaginations, another failure. The most famous of his last tales are Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno. Benito Cereno tells through the consciousness of Captain Delano the story of a slave ship which seems to be in control of its captain, Benito Cereno, but is actually controlled by the slaves. Delano represents the innocence and self-confidence of the character, incapable of drawing the logical conclusions from what he sees. In this story he is initiated into an awareness of evil and the unreality of appearances.

In the later part of his life, he was more interested in poetry and wrote Clarel.

In the last year of his life he completed a novel, Billy Bud. The sailor Billy Bud is provoked by the false charges of the satanic master-at-arms and he kills him accidentally. The captain knows of his innocence, but he sentences Billy to death to show strength at a time of threatened mutiny. Billy goes willingly to his fate, so evil does not triumph wholly and his memory lives on as an emblem of good.

Walt Whitman incorporated natural speech rhythms into poetry. He disregarded metre, but the overall effect has a melodic character. Harold Bloom has stated in The Western Canon (1994) that “no Western poet, in the past century and half, not even Browning, or Leopardi or Baudelaire, overshadows Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.”

He was born in New York into a family of simple farm people that descended from the first settlers. He had many different jobs, but he also read extensively, developed a strong interest for music and he went to the theatre. He began experimenting with a new kind of poetry and by 1855 he joined his poems in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which he had to publish it at his own expense. During the Civil War he was in Washington, and he served as a voluntary nurse. In the 60’s he had several jobs in the administration, and he lost one of them being accused of writing immoral books. In the 70’s his health deteriorated and he had a stroke. He retired to Camden in New Jersey where he spent the rest of his life.

His last works were Drum taps and Sequel to Drum Taps in poetry and in prose Democratic Vistas and Memoranda During the War.


Edgar Allan Poe by David Sinclair (1977);

The Life and Works by Edgar Allan Poe by Julian Symons (1978);

The Rationale of Deception in Poe by David Ketterer (1979);

A Psychology of Fear by David R. Saliba (1980);

Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by Eric Carlson (1987);

Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn (1997);

Herman Melville, ed. by A. Robert Lee (1984);

A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. by John Bryant (1986);

Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Poetics of Individualism by Wai-chee Dimock (1991);

Herman Melville by Rebecca Stefoff (1994

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, ed. by Harold Bloom (1996);

Masculine Landscapes by Byrne R.S. Fone (1992);

The Growth of Leaves of Grass by M. Jimmie Killingsworth (1993); Walt Whitman; The Centennial Essays, ed. by Ed Folsom (1994);

The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. by Ezra Greenspan (1995);

Walt Whitman by Catherine Reef (1995);

Walt Whitman & the World, ed. by Gay Wilson Allen, Ed Folsom (1995); Walt Whitman: A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall (1997

A Comprehensive Research and Study Guide, ed. by Harold Bloom (1999)