Antebellum Idealism

David E. Shi

in Facing Facts

Published in print July 1996 | ISBN: 9780195106534
Published online October 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199854097 | DOI:
Antebellum Idealism

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Genteel idealism, domestic idealism, and transcendental idealism dominated the intellectual landscape during the 1830s and 1840s, but three of America's most powerful and enduring writers fell outside such categories. Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne rebelled against the static conservatism of the genteel tradition, displayed a jealous disgust at the popular female sentimentalists, and castigated the Transcendentalists for their irrepressible optimism and airy metaphysics. Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe found their guiding motive in the deep recesses of the tormented soul rather than in the wonders of nature or what Hawthorne called the “white sunshine of actual life.” Although each wrote fictional works remarkable for their accurate details and realizing effects, their outlooks were essentially idealistic—or romantic—in their common desire to probe the heart of the self and explore the hidden spheres of feeling and spirit.

Keywords: America; genteel idealism; domestic idealism; transcendental idealism; Edgar Allan Poe; Herman Melville; Nathaniel Hawthorne; conservatism; metaphysics

Chapter.  4589 words.  Illustrated.

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