American Terror
The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville
Paul Hurh



Reopening Darkness

In his 1850 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales, Herman Melville intimated that American literary genius derives its force from a terrific “power of blackness” (PT 243). The metaphysical terror of the obscure blackness—the “short, quick probings at the very axis of reality” (PT 244)—that Melville finds in Hawthorne is paired, in the essay, with a plea for the recognition of genius in American literature. In reasserting the call for a national literature through an appreciation of a distinct tone, Melville diverges from the conventional view of American literature as defined by the furniture of its settings: its wild forests, its native peoples, its colonial heritage. Instead, what Melville’s essay encourages is a new view of American literature afforded by pressing its philosophical stakes, a view in which the aim is not to give provincial imitations of foreign masters but rather to force, “covertly, and by snatches,” glimpses of a great transcendent “Truth” that hides itself in our “world of lies” (PT 244). That this hidden truth is figured as a terrible blackness may strike us now as pessimistic, but in raising its stakes, Melville advocates for literature’s power to address, to compel, the hard task of piercing through the “world of lies” to an absolute truth. Shifting the field of American literature by putting Hawthorne, instead of the more popular Irving or Cooper, at its center, Melville’s essay advances an implicit hypothesis: that Hawthorne’s power of blackness, his terror, designates the signal contribution of American literature. For Melville, the new possibilities for literary art afforded by the new nation and new culture allowed the American author to better sound the depths of human experience and excavate the dark, difficult truths from under the polished and fair, but for all that, still disguising and obstructing, literary conventions of inherited traditions. Why Melville thinks these truths are dark and terrifying is, as this book explores, tightly bound up with the imagined demands of detached objectivity informing his claim for American originality: that to see truth, one must first escape the fatal touch of influence or subjective preconception.

The distinctive tone of terror in American romantic literature has been, since Melville’s review, one of the most compelling, persistent, and definitive concerns for American literary criticism. These concerns have evolved from decade to decade, joined by their intuition of some obscure and new “darkness,” a new feeling of terror, an anxious or pessimistic undertone, in the literature of American romanticism. Since Melville, critics of antebellum American literature have often either pointed toward this darkness as the defining trope of American literature, or away from it as its polar negative, a cringing fear inherited from older traditions that sets off and prepares the way for the emergence of a healthier, properly American and democratic literary tradition. It has been tempting, since F. O. Matthiessen hypothetically apportioned American literature into categories of optimistic “thesis” and tragic “antithesis” (179), to assume two tonal traditions in American literature—one bright and optimistic, organized around Emerson and expressed in the possibilities and desires of Whitman and Thoreau; the other dark and pessimistic, organized around Poe and expressed in the cynicisms of Hawthorne and Melville and in the more troubled lyrics of Dickinson.1 The “bright” side has been explained as informed by the democratic spirit, essentially progressive, and central to the development of pragmatism as the distinctive turn of the American mind. The “dark” side, in contrast, is assessed as essentially regressive, the revenge of the psychologically repressed guilt of America’s puritanical religious heritage, or the nightmarish manifestation of a national conscience haunted by slavery. The neat, if overgeneralized, division still appeals; readers can still “feel” that Poe’s dark pit and menacing pendulum is just, well, darker than Emerson’s liberal eyeball enjoying its original relation to the universe. But what is behind this feeling of darkness? Is there a way to analyze and define this darkness without either falling into tautology (the “darkness” is there because we feel it to be dark), or translation (the “darkness” is political or ethical belief melted down into the fluid language of emotion)? Dissatisfied with descriptions that merely assert darkness’s obscure profundity or seek to explain it away by rephrasing it as nonterrifying propositional belief, I aim in this book to reopen discussion about this often-observed, rarely defined tone. Such a reopening depends upon a preliminary hypothesis: that the model of symptomatic interpretation most often adopted by explanations of literary terror may be compromised by the special problem terror poses to it.

When Melville first recognized the “power of blackness” in Hawthorne, he not only framed the problem of this tone for literary criticism of the early twentieth century, but he also ventured what would come to be accepted as its best explanation: the influence of early America’s “Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin” (PT 243). Melville’s review, and his neat distinction between the positive, optimistic, and affirmative mode of literature and Hawthorne’s profound darkness, grounded the early formation and criticism of “classical” American literature. Many influential readers of American literature in the first half of the twentieth century—such as D. H. Lawrence, Charles Feidelson Jr., Harry Levin, William Carlos Williams, and Leslie Fiedler—found darkness as American literature’s enduring trait, an “inner diabolism” (Lawrence 89), a Puritanical “primal darkness” (Levin 29), a “literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation” (Fiedler 29). In contrast to Matthiessen, who dismisses Poe from his canon-forming study on grounds that Poe “was bitterly hostile to democracy” (xiin), William Carlos Williams describes how Poe is foundational to American literature by clearing and cutting it a new field: “a field of cold logic” (228). These midcentury readers may have been drawn to the moral murkiness of American literature’s darkness out of the disillusionment with universal progress and moral evolution wrought by global war. When they looked at American literature, they looked hardest at the writers of darkness and saw in it the strange ghosts of America’s past: the cold demands of a determinist religious orthodoxy and the equally cold prospects afforded by the logic and objectivity of a new scientific era.

Informed by Fiedler’s claim that “[i]t is the gothic form that has been most fruitful in the hands of our best writers: the gothic symbolically understood” (28), critical approaches following the midcentury critics grew to identify darkness and terror in American literature as a subset of the gothic, a genre in which literary fear can be read allegorically.2 Fear in literature, approached as gothic convention, is thus read as a symptomatic expression of various historically specific repressions. Perhaps most influential in this vein is Toni Morrison’s seminal argument that the darkness of American literature is a symptom of the psychological and social demands exerted by slavery: “What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American” (38). Teresa Goddu similarly focuses on how the gothic expresses the repressed content of foundational national narratives: “By resurrecting what these narratives repress, the gothic disrupts the dream world of national myth with the nightmares of history” (10). For Morrison, Goddu, and others, the terrors of the American gothic are symptomatic irruptions of specific historical repressions, particularly slavery, that haunt the collective American unconscious.3

In a wider Western context, this expression/repression model of historical interpretation sees gothic fears as outgrowths of a broader encounter between religion and reason in the Enlightenment. For some, literary fear critiques the limits of Enlightenment thought by expressing as horror the irrational outside of its bounds, as Cathy Davidson remarks: “[T]he Gothic challenges the primacy of the individual mind and the claims of reason. . . . The sleep of Reason, as Goya noted, begets monsters” (320).4 Responding to this thesis, other critics have hypothesized that the expressive horrors may not critique reason as much as they complement it. In this sense, the gothic becomes the repository and outlet for moral or supernatural psychological needs that the Enlightenment paradigm could no longer satisfy, thus serving as “an indispensable corollary to Enlightenment liberalism which ultimately served to protect the liberal view of human nature” (Halttunen 99). Recasting Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Diane Hoeveler finds that “the uncanny gothic dream world of superstition, magic, and demons continues to exist only when the subject sleeps and his reasonable faculties are dormant. And it is precisely in this historical gap—between the decline of magic and the rise of science—that the gothic imaginary emerges” (8). Whereas Davidson’s reading implies that monsters intrude from the irrational outside of reason, Hoeveler’s adds the qualification that the monsters were always, in a sense, already there—in the problem of evil and in transcendent religious belief that had to be reworked and given expression through the gothic imaginary. Summing up this complementary thesis, Hoeveler claims that “the gothic needs to be understood, not as a reaction against the rise of secularism, but as a part of the ambivalent secularizing process itself” (6).

The most recent discussions of the function of literary fear continue to pivot on what, exactly, it signals as repressed content. Updating and clarifying the complementary thesis, Victoria Nelson reads the gothic as a dark repository, where religious energies were “forced underground” (Secret Life of Puppets viii) until our own postmillennial present, in which those energies flower again in what she calls the “bright” gothic, a “normative supernaturalism” (Gothicka 18) that would “transform this dark template into a sunnier, more all-embracing spiritual framework” (Gothicka 17). Yet this view, in turn, has been challenged by Mark McGurl, who argues that the gothic does not suppress religiosity but rather realism. Pointing to the advent of scientific modernity as a threshold moment in Western culture’s disenchantment with religious supernaturalism, McGurl reads the gothic as “one way of managing our intuition that the material world, writ large, may be utterly indifferent to human ends, so indifferent that it might as well be malevolent” (“Dark Times”). Nelson sees the gothic as the repressed (and eventually expressive) site of religious drives. McGurl sees it as the site of repressed intuitions about our insignificance in deep time. From Calvinism to slavery, from irrationality to liberalism, from supernaturalism to realism, the connecting thread in the long history of competing interpretations of literary fear is the shared assumption of its repressive function.

But in McGurl’s posthuman-inflected turn of the question, there is an opportunity to question the repression/expression model itself. For, if terror manages and represses a depressing new reality (about our insignificance in the universe), it is curiously not defensive; this fear does not indicate a preference to return to a prior, unafraid state, but rather it itself shapes the attitude by which we may access as affect the extreme posture of objectivity demanded by the Enlightenment. By expressing a repressed reality, fear itself would ratify the ground for explanations of what it is “really” about. Terror, then, may be a special case that complicates the repressive/expressive model by which literary fears are often understood.

Justine Murison, in her recent study of anxiety, has come to the same conclusion. According to Murison, anxiety drives contemporary historicist criticism by “produc[ing] the discursive traces of repression constantly in need of exposure” (173) and thus becomes criticism’s blindspot: “The role ‘anxiety’ plays as both discursive source and its result, however, complicates literary historicism by resisting causal relationships: ‘Anxiety’ stands metonymically for the motivation behind which analysis cannot go” (8). In other words, perhaps the persistent explanatory model of repression/expression—through which literary terror is viewed as an expression of repressed racialized guilt, repressed religiosity, repressed liberalism, or even repressed realism—may be ill equipped to describe an aesthetic effect that underlies the repression schema from the start. What if terror is not the sign of repressed trauma but rather an approximation of an experience unmediated through the normative assumptions that enable our interpretive diagnoses of repression? In such a case, terror would not simply manage “our intuition that the world, writ large, may be utterly indifferent to human ends” but rather more fundamentally constitute that very intuition. To read terror in such a way would take more seriously the generative verb, producer, in Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: the monsters are neither reason’s threats nor its complements but its dreams.

The complicated relation of terror to a symptomatic strain of historicist interpretation, however, does not mean abandoning historical research entirely. Recovering the intellectual, biographical, and social contexts of terror in the current study, I find the stories of these American terrors lead consistently to a common event and discourse: the invention and formalization of universal method in the Enlightenment’s definition of thought. Yet because of its resistance to interpretive explanation, terror is not finally reducible to this discourse but rather would extend it in an aesthetic realm and interrogate it in a philosophical one. To reopen a discussion of America’s tradition of literary terror requires bridging historical and aesthetic modes of literary criticism in ways that neither explain the aesthetic by way of the historical nor subordinate historical particulars to a universal aesthetic. Such balancing is not merely in line with recent calls for a renewed aesthetic criticism5 but, moreover, a method adapted to meet the challenge of terror’s own unique dynamism, its operation along that crucial boundary between the world of thought and the world of nature.

In formulating an approach that seeks to balance historical context and aesthetic form, my study draws from two recent and related turns in literary theory. The first is the recent swath of interest in the study of affect across the humanistic disciplines referred to as affect theory.6 The renewed sense of affect as more than propositional belief, as ontologically both securing and troubling distinctions between subject and object, self and world, prepares the ground for a study such as this one: one that would consider the significance of literary tone while paying attention to political alignment, historical context, and biographical anecdote. Buttressed by studies in cognitive science and psychology that have used fMRI scans of brains to complicate and question the always troubled division between self-possessed conscious reason and uncontrollable passion, affect theory begins with the idea that emotions can no longer be bracketed as simply fuzzy beliefs or irrational bodily irruptions but rather should be understood as core instruments of cognition, understanding, and consciousness.7 The second recent strain of discourse pertinent to my study is the attention to the history of science as an extraordinarily powerful shaping influence on cultural production. Known as “science studies,” this approach defamiliarizes science’s ahistorical and transcendent pretensions by restoring the narrative of its development and exploring its political and aesthetic consequences. In a very general sense, affect theory has worked to make emotion more objective, more scientific, while science studies have exposed how the story of objectivity is more subjective, more affective.8 From these two developments, I have constructed the hypothesis of this book: that what is distinctive about American terror is its aim to produce the peculiar affect of scientific objectivity, the feeling of thinking.

I assert that terror is the feeling of thinking with the following qualifications. First, I am not talking about all terror, or all instances of fear, but rather the particular strain of terror that operates so powerfully in American literature. Perhaps it would thus be better to define it as modal terror, procedural terror, terror of process, or logical terror. This terror is more tonal and atmospheric than directed; we rarely feel terror for the characters of Poe’s stories, for instance, but rather shudder at the particular worldview that Poe constructs through them. Second, I don’t mean all thinking. Thinking here refers to the process and method of intellectual inquiry largely determined by the undeniable advances in medicine and technology enabled by the scientific method in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The terror of Poe’s recurrent motif of premature burial, for instance, does not arise out of any immediate threat of pain but rather inheres in a certainty, figured as an enclosure, from which there is no escape.

The feeling of thinking is a special affect, for it would circumscribe the very activity, the intellection and interpretive procedure, by which it would usually be explained. What I gain from this reversal of priority is not, however, a critique of reason. Just as Jonathan Edwards depicts the horrors of hell not to make hell less plausible but actually more so, the writers in my study return again and again to the terrors of thinking not to undermine reason’s power but rather to show its power. This is not, however, to say that thinking is “just” a feeling. The extremity of terror instead registers the demand of reason, even in the felt insufficiency of the mind to meet that demand. Thinking is a special function of the mind, one that admits and orients the self to the world in a special way; we believe that the world out there obeys conventions and laws that are “outside of us,” as it were, and that in order to know this world genuinely, a set of conventions and laws must be adhered to in the operation of our rational mind. The truthfulness of this situation might be able to be proven according to those same laws, but underwriting the truthfulness of those laws is something else altogether. It is this something else that the writers in my study outline in terror—a self-justifying emotion that demands and threatens, that does not rest in compromise, that presents us with an “outside” yet refuses to be hemmed in by the aesthetic conditions of the sublime or the utility and flexibility of pragmatism. For Edwards, it is the content of a true experience of God; for Poe, the legitimate deduction of the soul; for Melville, the heartless immensity of a palsied universe stripped to its bitterest particulate objectivity.

If the “power of blackness” is ultimately best understood as an aesthetic associated with thought itself, we may then return to the generalized and provisional distinction between “bright” and “dark” traditions in American literature in order to both challenge it and reconsider its consequences. For even though Emerson is most often taken as championing a kind of aesthetic mode of thinking through his essays, one that eventually flowers in the liberal and progressive philosophy of pragmatism, Branka Arsić’s recent reading of Emerson’s philosophy emphasizes what might be called its darker aspects, the way the Emersonian individual is less an atomistic, stable, and self-determined subject and more a conflux of forces, palpable through “the abyss of the impersonal within us” (On Leaving 15). In the same vein, Arsić notes Emerson’s method of always leaving positions, of refusing comfort in a persistent act of turning away: “[W]e can stay, repose, and live a lie, or we can depart, gaining truth only by experiencing the restlessness of living in the oppositions and aporias that make our being swing” (17). Like Melville’s enjoinder that American literature should ceaselessly uncover truth in our “world of lies,” this Emersonian restlessness proceeds through maneuvers and evasions that correlate with the “dark” tradition’s more skeptical, less assured vision of the world. So whereas Arsić’s recasting of the skeptical ground of Emerson’s eventual optimism troubles the essential distinction between “dark” and “bright” traditions from Emerson’s side, my study proceeds from the other direction: what if the terror that had previously been seen as an expression of deeply buried anxieties was not essentially repressive and conservative but rather a new tone calibrated to the very same intellectual crises as those of the “bright” tradition? As Arsić’s reading of Emerson uncovers the fragmentary, chaotic abysses in the classical American philosophy of the individual self, my study would consider those literal abysses, those literal scenes of fragmentation and destruction, populating the darker strand of American literature as constitutive of a deep affective commitment to the project of completing thinking through aesthetic feeling.

Yet the tonal discrepancy between Emerson’s leave-taking and, say, Poe’s dramas of desperate escape or criminal evasion does make a difference. While the philosophical reading of the “bright” tradition links it to the evolution of pragmatism, I will conclude that terror in the “power of blackness” eventuates in the different, though related, philosophical tradition of poststructuralism. To say that the difference between pragmatism and poststructuralism is primarily tonal is not, however, to diminish their distinction. As both philosophies make clear, affective states as well as aesthetic properties are conceptually significant, irreducible and inseparable from the content of propositional thought. Thus, to say that terror is the feeling of thinking is to emphasize how the texture of terror—its urgency, its fear, its certainty—neither merely attends thought nor merely arises from it but rather informs the thinking itself. So, while pragmatism becomes associated with optimism in the face of impossibility or failure, terror does not then entail a skeptical rejection of or resignation from the project of thinking the world. Instead, it can be seen as a distinctive reshaping of that project and a commitment to it that is powerful not despite impossibility but because of it. In tracing a prehistory of poststructuralism through the terror of American literature, this book thus seeks to help complete the still-emerging story of American literature’s contribution to philosophy.


1. Matthiessen, acknowledging the “optimistic strain from Emerson to Whitman” (179) and “the reaffirmation of tragedy by Hawthorne and Melville” (179), cautions that a “white and black contrast . . . would tend to obscure the interrelations between the two groups, and it would make it sound as though the last word in this age lay with tragedy” (179). Nevertheless, his generalized categories have proved convenient, albeit provisional.

2. See Eric Savoy’s discussion of the gothic in America as distinguished by a need to give voice to “the underside, the Otherness, of the narratives of national self-construction” (18).

3. For essays following from Morrison’s thesis, see Kennedy and Weissberg’s Romancing The Shadow. See also Justin Edwards’s Gothic Passages for an argument about how “[d]isruptions in the stable categories of race . . . result in a dread that is often represented by gothic discourse, contributing to the development of American gothic discourse” (xxx).

4. See also Lawrence Buell’s reading of “gothic fiction as a historical symptom expressive of the limits of human order and rationality at the very moment when these were being most aggressively promoted as values” (352).

5. For the call for an aesthetic criticism that could accommodate historicist modes of ideological interpretation, see Otter and Sanborn (2), as well as Weinstein and Looby (10). For a skeptical stance toward the possibility of such a merger, see Altieri’s claim that the only way aesthetics may engage “history and politics is to build predicates for social use into the definition of aesthetic from the start” (“Are Aesthetic Models” 393). The present study demonstrates how terror uniquely precludes explanations through “social use” yet at the same time derives its power from the historical models of thought that would compel such explanations.

6. For a summary of the development of affect theory, see Gregg and Seigworth. For influential recastings of affect philosophy and psychology for the humanities, see Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, especially her essay written with Adam Frank, “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” and Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual, especially the chapter “The Autonomy of Affect.”

7. Antonio Damasio has popularized the case that “feelings are poised at the very threshold that separates being from knowing and thus have a privileged connection to consciousness” (43). One of his key examples, a patient who suffered from brain damage to her amygdala and thus appeared to be incapable of feeling fear, exhibited an “inability to make sound social judgments,” which suggests to Damasio that emotion, and fear specifically, plays a key role in human behavior and judgment (62–67). Ruth Leys has recently leveled a critique at what she sees as affect theory’s primary axiom: “the belief that affect is independent of signification and meaning” (443). She attacks the appropriation and misreading of the neurosciences in the work of cultural affect theory.

My own interest in affect is concerned less with the high cultural theory which Leys criticizes, and more with the attention to the literary-aesthetic which affect as a philosophical concern can bring about. I would not disagree with Leys’s perception of an implicit paradox within the cultural theory of affect: “A related question is why anti-intentionalism exerts such a fascination over the cultural critics and theorists . . . especially since one price their views exact is to imply such a radical separation between affect and reason as to make disagreement about meaning, or ideological dispute, irrelevant to cultural analysis” (472). But where this may be a disabling paradox for cultural critics engaged in political and moral evaluation, it is a rich source of aesthetic potential for the writers of my study, who seek to envision the feeling tones of various anti-intentionalisms.

8. See Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution; George Levine’s Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England; and Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity.