Date of Award
Mary Balkun, Ph.D.
Russell Sbriglia, Ph.D.
Edgar Allan Poe, American exceptionalism, Gothic, Puritanism
The term “American exceptionalism” is synonymous with the American identity, yet it can prove to be a dangerous association. Donald E. Pease in “American Exceptionalism” states, “Despite [John] Winthrop’s ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ (1630) fostering a tendency to view America in religious terms…American exceptionalism was more decisively shaped by the ideals of the European Enlightenment” (Pease). Puritan leader John Winthrop first introduced “American exceptionalism” in his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop proclaimed, “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a city upon a hill” (Winthrop 2). Certainly, Winthrop’s words resonated with the Puritans as they built their “city on a hill,” but “Winthrop’s sermon, which contains the famous phrase calling the Massachusetts Bay Colony a ‘city on a hill,’ is not about America at all,” according to Justin B. Litke in “The Problem of American Exceptionalism” (Litke 18). Instead, the Puritans intended to “return to England…as rulers and lawgivers to remake English and all Christian society in New England’s image” (Litke 19).
The enduring myth of America being “a city on a hill” must be examined through the lens of darker, national historical events. As Jerome McGann asserts in “Colonial Exceptionalism on Native Grounds: American Literature before American Literature,” “the colonial view was that the [indigenous] Americans were barbarous savages or even devils” (McGann 6). Despite such contradictions, Americans still regarded themselves as “exceptional,” as did other nations. American gothic literature draws inspiration from these dark aspects of American history. According to John Engle in “Political Symbols and American Exceptionalism,” the “spirit of perverseness” Poe weaves in his stories deviates from the “national myth to which all citizens can ascribe” (Engle 324). For instance, Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) features “what had become familiar Gothic tropes (live burial, rotting corpses, madness, incarceration)” (Weinauer 89). In the short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator decides to visit his long-lost friend, Roderick Usher, who lives in a home described as “a mansion of doom” (Poe 4), and his sister, Madeline. The narrator’s decision conveys his belief he can overcome every circumstance because he is American. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), meanwhile, represents the haunting of past sins. The protagonist and narrator’s paranoia leads him to murder his neighbor, a man whose translucent blue eye haunts him and makes him believe he is surveilling his every movement. His fear of surveillance and the menacing “other” he believes his neighbor to be lead to his demise.
Additionally, the short story “The Black Cat” (1843) is another example of a narrator whose fear of surveillance leads him to commit murder. The narrator’s tendency to engage in “perverseness” causes him to suffer, as he cannot reconcile his misdeeds for eventually killing his cat, disturbing occurrences resembling the United States’ inability to reconcile its original sins. Poe captures the perverseness transforming the United States into a land that strays from the image of exceptionalism to which Americans were supposed to aspire.
Quinn, Kaitlyn, "Edgar Allan Poe: Addressing the Haunting Legacy of American Exceptionalism" (2021). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). 2879.