Historical and Social Scene
After the War of Independence (1773-1783) between England and America, the thirteen states had to face the problem of their boundaries, of the rules for commerce and taxes and of justice. They needed a central government in order to fix a national currency, a system of law and to define the power of each state. In May 1787 there was the Convention in Philadelphia to draw a Constitution. It was established that the legislative, executive and judicial powers were to be independent whereas currency, foreign trade and taxation were to depend on the Central Federal Government. Besides the Parliament was divided into two Houses, the Senate, whose members came from all states in equal number, and the House of Representatives, whose members were proportional to the population of the states.
War against Britain
In 1789, after the ratification of the constitution, George Washington, delegate of the state of Virginia, was elected First President of the U.S.A. till 1797 (after a re-election in 1793). But a new conflict was necessary during T. Jefferson’s presidency and in 1812 the U.S. declared war on Britain . The main reason of the conflict was that Napoleon had put a commercial blockade on French commerce with England , so the American commerce received a heavy blow and had to abandon the trade with these two countries as its vessels were often sacked or confiscated (the Embargo Act). Besides, the Americans wanted to spread their possessions to Canada, a British colony. The war ended in 1815 (Treaty of Ghent) without a real victor.
In 1823 the fifth President of America, James Monroe established two new principles that were to last for over a century: the principle of non-colonisation, according to which Europe should not settle new colonies in America, and the principle of non-interaction according to which both Europe and America should not interfere in their affairs respecting their mutual independence.
Meanwhile, new territories were added to the thirteen states. In 1803 Napoleon had sold Louisiana, e region West of Mississippi to America to get money for his wars and to avoid British interference. J.Monroe bought Florida from Spain during his presidency, Texas was annexed in 1845 after a war with Mexico and in 1846 England assigned Oregon to the U.S.. The year 1848 became famous for the great wave of immigration from Europe to America due to the discovery of gold in California, the well-known Gold Rush.
These new annexations and the new boundaries created were called The Frontier, a term which defined the limit existing between the settlements and the unknown lands and the people living in them.
These were poor and rough pioneers that lived on hunting, fishing, and poor agriculture, farmers that grew vegetable, grain and fruit and reared cattle, and shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, men with capital who created towns, roads, banks and schools. Even religious men led to the creation of particular settlements; one of the most popular was that of the Mormons, created by Joseph Smith and based on the Church of Latter- day Saints. They settled in the Valley of Great Salt Lake, Utah , a state that was admitted as a member of the U.S. only in 1896 when the Mormons abandoned polygamy.
Another group of people who influenced the American development both economically and socially were the slaves. Slavery was a phenomenon that in the late years of the 18th century was thought to disappear but that in the early 19th century, on the contrary, increased because of the need of labour for the cotton, sugar and tobacco fields growing in the Southern states. The division between the industrialised North and agricultural South became more and more evident. as the economy
The Civil War
This situation led to the Civil War in 1861 when the Republican Abraham Lincoln, a strong opponent of slavery, was elected President of America, and seven Southern States formed the Confederate States of America under their President Jefferson Davies.
This war ended in 1865 with the victory of the North and the abolition of slavery.
1600 and 1700: prose…
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries literature was mainly based on prose writings that described historical events, geographical discoveries and on religious sermons.
After the War of Independence the literary debate moved towards the topic of the constitution of the new nation. As to poetry, the poems dealt mainly with elegies, epitaphs on dead relatives or on religious matters, and, in the late years of the century, with verses about the war (the anonymous popular ballad Yankee Doodle Dandy was written in 1775).
The most famous poets were a group called The Connecticut Wits and Philip Freneau (1752-1832). The former proposed a series of reforms to give more independence to the American way of writing whereas the latter wrote verses supporting the American independence and the democratic ideals following Pope’s way of writing satire.
1800: spreading of culture
Only in the nineteenth century, with the democratic developments, culture spread more rapidly and the first newspapers were printed: The new York Sun (1833), The New York Herald (1835) and the literary monthly The Knickerbockers (1833).
Schools were opened and a campaign for the education of girls started.
The movement westward and the Civil War determined the social and cultural identity of the U. S. and produced a new national literature. Even though the English writers continued to exercise an influence on some authors (infact English Romantic models adhered to the South point of view and ideas), earlier prose writers showed a growing awareness of an American reality, in their origins, in the adventures in the frontiers and in the abolition of slavery.
The most important writers of the period, besides Edgar Allan Poe were Washington Irving (1783-1859)and Fennimore Cooper (1789-1851).
I. Washington started as a journalist from New York writing satirical publications such as Salmagundi Papers and A History of New York. After a journey in Europe and an encounter with Sir Walter Scott, he wrote more romantic works the most famous of which are The Sketch Book, Rip Van- Wrinkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow , this last based on old German folk- tales.
Even J. F. Cooper followed Sir Walter Scott as a model and wrote tales based on Romantic themes and adventures. His Leatherstocking Novels (The Deer slayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder and The Prairie) are based on the adventures of the pioneer and hunter Natty Bampoo and describe life in the frontier who represented the essence of America both at home and abroad: he tries to win on evil forces in the hostile but attractive wilderness.
New England writers
After 1830 American fiction and non-fiction developed mostly in the area of New England.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) in his novels revealed his Puritan upbringing and the Calvinistic New England inheritance dealing with the themes of good, evil, sin and guilt both in individuals and in communities. He combined organized plot with symbolical meanings and emblematic characters led and overwhelmed by moral values. His masterpiece is The Scarlat Letter (1850) set in the Puritan Boston of the 17th century, but his ability in handling form is also well shown in the tales whose symmetrical structure create unity of action without digressions.
Also Herman Melville’s (1819-1891)books are mainly symbolic and allegorical dealing with the vision of man who lives in the “malevolence of Universe”. He gathered the material for his novels during his travels on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and in fact his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851) describes the whale hunt with realism. But the struggle between Captain Ahab and the white sperm whale is, at a deeper reading, representative of the conflict between man and the inscrutable force that frustrate the individual will.
During the same years New England, Concord in particular, was the focus also of another more optimistic literary movement, Trscendentalism, based on the Neoplatonic ideas and influenced by the English Romantic poets. They exhalted the spiritual world of feeling and intuition against the false reality of the material world: the spirit is the true reality and the means by which to understand life.
Society and the established Church are obstacles on the way to reach self-consciousness. Under this point of view (different from the Puritan vision) Man is good and needs self-reliance to reach absolute spiritual reality.
The spokeman of this literary activity was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) who wrote his essays in the attempt to “help the young souls add energy, inspire hope and blow the coals into a useful flame”. One of the most influential among Emerson’s followers was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) that pointed out the importance of personal freedom and individual identity.
The Cambridge Poets
As to poetry, New England gave birth to a group strictly connected with the University of Harvard and Cambridge, Massachussetts, whose works were rooted in the European culture, the “new England Brahamins” or “Cambridge Poets”.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) and J. Russel Lowell (1819-1891) ‘s poems dominated the literary current speaking about contemporary politics and anti-slavery problems.
But the writers that mainly dealt with this sort of topics belonged to the Western and Southern parts of the U. S.. A group of regional colourists set out to write novels – fiction was at the time the most lively genre – which offered authentic glimpses of local manners, traditions and dialects, depicting on newspapers and journals the idiosyncrasies of provincial America using sometimes a touch of humour and sometimes a note of nostalgia.
Mark Twain (1835-1910), the pen -name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, excelled in the description of life on the Mississippi river and left unforgettable visions of it in his best works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Life on the Mississippi (1883).
When Poe first published his short stories in 1839, he called the collection Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, grotesque standing for comic and arabesque for horror.
The stories of the present selection fall into this classification and show how Poe works with effect and tone to produce the impression of unity, how he builds up the inevitable climax paying attention to the minutest details, how he combines the supernatural with the rational, the strange with the forbidden, using a great variety of form and creating suggestive atmospheres through magnificent phrasing.
In many of the tales the dominant theme is death: death intended not only as physical destruction, but also as psychological ravage induced by the fear of what might be hidden behind the real or plausible, by the split of personality or by the yielding to the darkest impulses of the soul.
So, The Sphinx portrays the anguish of a man who is unable to rationalize his fear of death, and who unconsciously distorts reality to symbolize his horror; The Masque of the Red Death again plays on the theme of appearance and reality, proclaiming the inevitable reality of death in the form of the frightening immaterial figure clad in red; The Pit and the Pendulum descibes the tortures that the protagonist must endure, in a crescendo of misery and terror of death, from which he is rescued at the last moment.
In these three stories we notice the skilful manipulation of suspense achieved through the meticulous scrutiny of psychological as well as of physical data, though the building up of a gloomy atmosphere full of dark forebodings, through the suggestion that the visible situation is merely a threshold for fearful revelation.
In other stories of the Arabesque group, the above elements are made more striking by the addition of the breaking up of personality, the presence of an alter ego that becomes either an instrument of punishment or the embodiment of the fears the protagonist has tried to remove.
This can be seen in The Fall of the House of Usher, a symbolic study in psychic disintegration pervaded by the terrible foretaste of dissolution, and even better in William Wilson, based on the concept of the dual nature of man, who, by breaking his spiritual integrity, seals his damnation.
The failure to preserve the unity of the soul, to keep control over one’s faculties often leads to pure madness: the protagonist then unleashes his worst tendencies, commits the most irrational crimes and confesses them unrestrainedly, not out of remorse, but out of mere Faustian pride.
This happens in The Black Cat and in The Tell-Tale Heart, where two normal, commonplace men, at one point of their existence, suddenly undergo a radical imbalance of personality and are seized by the spirit of perverseness, which pushes them to break all natural laws and to rage at victims they love.
Also injustice and indifference provoke similar reactions as in Hop-Frog, the dwarf who seems to transfer his physical deformity into his soul in his terrible thirst for revenge, or, in a different way, in The Oval Portrait, where Art (the painter) becomes itself a vampire sucking away Life (the model).
Poe always offers a solution to the mystery of actions and events, yet not with the help of the supernatural, of the magic or miraculous, but by making the strange either physically or psychally real, by introducing natural elements which are not known. His explanations are not rationally persuasive, but only possible, even if partially unlikely; he avoids the absolute improbable and, by doing so, he anticipates modern science fiction, where the strange is nevertheless credible.
A descent into the Maelstrom and MS Found in a Bottle revolve on the theme of man facing the sea, with its wild mysterious forces, and experiencing phenomenal psychological and physical horrors in the life-death duel.
The account is so realistically and minutely rendered that it sounds authentic, but its main interest does not lie in its realistic adventures, as much as in its symbolization of the mind’s progress upon knowledge, the discovery of ares of reality not yet explored by man. Like the protagonists we perceive the littleness of man in front of the unknown, and become aware that the barrier between death and near-death, the commonplace and transient, the mysterious and eternal in impalpable.
Satire and Ractiocination
Some Words with a Mummy belongs to the Grotesque: it is a satire of so-called progress – contemporary fads like galvanism and hypnotism are laughed at- through a long heated debate between the revived mummy of Allamistakeo and a group of eminent doctors.
The Oblong Box is more akin to the detective storiy and is mostly a tale of ractiocination, that is of reasoning upon the purpose of the box and the strange behaviour of the Wyatt’s party.
The narrator involves the reader in the process of ratiocination, suggests the clues to solve the mystery and does not reveal the conclusion until the very end of the story. The storm, the rescue, Mr Wyatt’s shocking death are incidents that delay the solution of the mystery and increase the reader’s curiosity and speculation.
These stories of Mystery and Terror were written in the Romantic age, and they do in fact represent the trumph of the intuitive and the emotional over the rational and the intellectual; just because they appeal to feelings and imagination, because they suggest realities deeper than superficial appearance, because they consider the reality of the mind as the only valid one, they are still extremely alive and appealing today.
Besides, their very structure contributes to their popularity: they are short, well built and compact, leading to a single devastating crisis, written in a highly evocative prose, where the verbal techniques of poetry are often employed.
In the Tales of Mystery and Terror, Poe, according to his theory, usually sets the action in a circumscribed, confined place, which represents the possibility of a return to the origins, to that constant oscillation between life and death typical of our existence. Closed environments
In The Sphinx it is a cottage ornée on the banks of the river Hudson, and one room in particular where the protagonist sits to read and from which he views a distant hill partly ravaged by a landslide. Yet of the house and of the room we have but few details.
The same is true for Some Words with a Mummy, in which everything happens in anonymous rooms at Dr. Ponnonner’s, or for The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat, where the crimes take place respectively in a chamber with a wooden floor and in a cellar.
A more detailed setting and less circumscribed though enclosed can be found in The Fall of the House of Usher- the ancient house, the lurid tarn, the decaying walls- , in The Oval Portrait- the frowning castle in the Apennines with its lonely turret and studio-, and in The Masque of the Red Death- the extensive and magnificent castellated abbey with the seven decorated chambers.
A heavy Gothic atmosphere pervades these three tales: the oppressive landscape, the tarn reflecting “the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant eye-like windows”, the large, lofty and dark studio full of ” comfortless, antique and tattered “furniture, with “dark draperies ” hanging from the walls (The Fall of the House of Usher); similarly “the walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies” and “its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique” (The Oval Portrait); and again ” The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries”, “black velvet tapestries…falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue” (The Masque of the Red Death).
As we can see the descriptions are very much alike, even in their phrasing, and the first two, in particular, convey an impression of grandeur and decadence, and help create the sensation of gloom and mystery.
In William Wilson, although the story is told within the demented mind of a schizophrenic, the first part of the action enfolds in the academy: the building is old and “quaint”, and a solid brick wall “tapped with a bed of mortar and broken glass” surrounds the precincts. “At an angle of the ponderous wall frowned a more ponderous gate. It was riveted and studded with iron bolts, and surmounted with jagged iron spikes. What impression of deep awe did it inspire!” This place seems to be emblematic of the protagonist’s mental enclosure and here, in fact, he has the first ambiguous monitions of his destiny.
The most enclosed and most terrifying setting is the dungeon in The Pit and the Pendulum ,twenty-five yards in circuit, with its sliding metal walls that are “very smooth, slimy and cold”, and can be heated; with a deep pit in the middle of its stone floor, and with a pendulum swinging from its ceiling made of painted panels; infested by enormous, ravenous rats. It is really a hellish and maddening place devised to lead prisoners to a variety of horrible deaths: it shows Poe’s great inventiveness at imagining so many instruments of torture, and it makes the cruelty of the Inquisition much more tangible.
The widest setting, symbolizing the opening unto the unknown, is the sea: the ship encounters a terrible simoon raising “mountainous billows”, “so terrific, beyond the wildest imagination, was the whirlpool of mountainous and foaming ocean within which we were engulfed” (MS Found in a Bottle); “here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into frenzied convulsion- heaving, boiling, hissing- gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes, except in precipitous descents”, and “the seas, which at first had been kept down by the wind and lay flat and frowning, now got up into absolute mountains” (A Descent into the Maelstrom); “The gale had freshened into a hurricane….”, “we shipped several prodigious seas, one immediately after the other” (The Oblong Box).
The ships move against this wide, tempestuous background as defenceless as the passengers, a mere toy in the embrace of a powerful giant, although they are equipped with masts and sails and with all the devices apt to defy the sea.
They seem to share the destiny of the protagonists, to measure their strength against the unknown, but they are inevitably shattered to pieces, unlike man who learns the mystery of death.
In conclusion, the setting, though left vague and indefinite on purpose, also contributes to the unity of effect which Poe considered so important, and, just because it is essential, it allows the reader to become totally absorbed in the narration and in the atmosphere of the tales.
THE NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE
In the essay Review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1847), E.A. Poe, besides showing his appreciation of Hawthorne’s truly imaginative intellect, of his style and taste, also expresses his viewpoint on tale writing .
Unity of effect
When constructing a tale, a skilful and wise artists does not fashion his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, “but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents- he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived affect.”
Attention must be paid, in short, to the structure, to the symmetry of the tale, and “there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” The features of a tale are the best to convey or create this effect or impression of unity; the tale is in fact a short prose narrative which requires from half an hour to one or two hours to be read, and just because it can be appreciated in its totality undisturbed it is more intensely exciting and capturing.
All high excitements are transient and brief, through a psychal necessity; the brevity of a composition must therefore be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect.
Originality is important to produce pleasure and amusement, ” but the true originality- true in respect to its purposes- is that which, in bringing out the half-formed, the reluctant, or the unexpressed fancies of mankind, or in exciting the more delicate pulses of the heart’s passion, or in giving birth to some universal sentiment or instinct in embryo, thus combines with the pleasurable effect of apparent novelty, a real egotistic delight.”
The aim of a tale is often Truth, just as Beauty is the aim of a poem, and though its products are not so elevated as the ones of poetry, they are infinitely more numerous. In fact, “the writer of the prose tale may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression- (the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic or the humorous)…” and treat of terror, passion or horror, or a multitude of such other points.
“The natural style is but the result of writing with the understanding, or with the instinct, that the tone, in composition, should be that which, at any given point or upon any given topic, would be the tone of the great mass of humanity.”
In The Philosophy of Composition (1846), Poe explains the genesis of The Raven (1845), setting some of the principles of poetic composition to be extended to story writing.
The development of the intention
“Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to development of the intention.”
Poe starts with the consideration of an effect of which the heart, the intellect or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, and then thinks whether the effect can be best produced by incident or tone- whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone- and builds up to the desired effect.
However skilfully or with however vivid a set of incidents the story be built, it is necessary to insert two more elements to make it rich and satisfactory: “first some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness, some undercurrent, however indefinite, of meaning.
Poe states that he has always considered “that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:- it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention. and. of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.”
The process of composition is therefore long, painful, selective and complex, but undoubtedly valid as the tales Poe wrote never fail to rivet the reader’s attention, to produce the intended effect (horror, surprise, curiosity) and to be highly pleasurable and entertaining, just as the author wanted.