Romanticism Ideas and History's Effect on Humanities

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In the years prior to the Civil War, an era of Romanticism ideas struck the citizens of America. From this Romantic Movement arouse the Gothic movement, which included ideas of guilt that changed the way people created artistic pieces and interpreted them. Specifically, the element of Gothic guilt led to changes in ideas of slavery; people shifted from seeing slavery as a necessary evil, to simply just evil in need of terminating. Due to this shift, Gothic guilt influenced the American people’s perception of slavery in the antebellum era, which dramatically effected not only different creative works of the time, but also life as a whole for people. In this era, the abolition movement influenced the humanities of the time because it shifted the perceptions of society, and opened doors for new ideas such as Gothic guilt.

Before the Romantic Movement, people were expected to think rationally and scientifically, this time was called the Age of Reason. However, later on in the 19th century, romanticism was introduced and adapted by artists and writers who interpreted the world with a contrasting perspective than how people were expected to think because of the Age of Reason. Artists wanted their ideas to reach beyond rational thought by celebrating the emotional aspect of people. This new perception of the world led to Gothic literature, which recognized the darker, more morbid aspect of creativity and thought. Furthermore, within this era, Gothic guilt formed. People expressed their personal guilt, or guilt about the actions of their ancestors, through various works of literature and art.

One piece of literature that expresses Gothic guilt is the “Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. Poe tells a story of a man whose mental illness leads him to believe that his neighbor’s eye is the eye of a vulture- to him a sign of evil within the man. The speaker then decides to kill the man to rid his life of the evil eye and does so with “sharpened senses.” (Poe). However, at the end of the story, the speaker admits his wrongdoings to the police officers that had come to investigate. The speaker admits his crime suddenly as he is overcome with guilt, which he experiences through the increasing sound of the dead man’s heartbeat, which no one but the speaker is able to hear. “I felt that I must scream or die! and now –again! –hark! louder! louder! louder! Louder! ‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!'(Poe) The speakers’ repetition shows his urgent tone and the increasing heaviness of his feelings of guilt.

Another example of Gothic guilt can be found in the poem “It Feels A Shame to be Alive” by Emily Dickinson. The poem is a Civil War poem that emphasizes honoring the soldiers lost in battle, as well as conveying the feeling of guilt felt by the survivors, such as Dickinson herself. It expresses the feeling of survivors’ guilt that many of the citizens who didn’t contribute to the war felt at the time. In the first stanza Dickinson submits her guilt by saying, “It feels a shame to be alive- When Men so brave- are dead”, this is a submission of the guilt and shame the author feels about the death of the soldiers who fought in the war (Dickinson). In both of these Gothic literary works, the element of guilt greatly influences the style and situation of the pieces, and they both demonstrate how the humanities in the antebellum era were affected by the perception of the writers. Both writers use dark and emotional elements, such as guilt, to create their Gothic pieces. Gothic guilt is not only present in literary pieces, but also historical movements. Slavery was heavily impacted by the guilt felt among Americans in this era, due partly to the Gothic movement, which then led to wider support for the abolition of slavery. The influence of Gothic guilt in slavery manifested itself in religious aspects of the antebellum era, as society unified under the idea that slavery was morally wrong.

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Furthermore, this influence is heavily attributed to the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival in the 19th century that led to many reform movements, including the abolitionist movement. The Second Great Awakening encouraged people to achieve perfection by following new religious movements and the idea of freedom will given by God, something slavery was a direct violation of. This violation led to common guilt felt by society because of slavery. Someone who exemplifies this religiously-influenced shift in morals and feeling of guilt is John Newton, a captain of slave ships who later became disgusted by the horrors of slavery after being influenced by Angelican Bible studies.

Newton then aided the abolitionist movement to help William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign, by writing “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade,” in his perspective as a slave ship captain. In this book, Newton wrote that the slave trade business was, ‘a business at which my heart now shudders,'(Newton 3) which allowed readers to understand his evident guilt about his role in the enslavement of people. By writing this book, Newton admitted to his actions he considered sinful and expressed his guilt about the slave business he was once a part of. In addition, some slave owners began feeling guilty over their possession of slaves during this time, which led to manumission. Manumission involves slave owners choosing to free their slaves. An example of this is America’s first president, George Washington. Washington not only freed his slaves after his death in 1799, but also included in his will that his elderly slaves could reside on his estate. In his will, Washington wrote, “It is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom…. there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities…that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first & second description shall be comfortably clothed & fed by my heirs while they live.” (Washington 3)

Due to Washington including this in his will, it is inferred that Washington silently supported the abolitionist movement, and disliked how slaves were poorly treated. Washington’s slaves would have been beneficial to his family after his death, however, Washington chose to free them anyways. The release of his slaves showed his apparent guilt for being a slave owner, and acknowledgment of how morally wrong slavery was, which is proof that even some elite slave-owners felt guilty of their actions. Guilt such as Newtons and Washingtons was spread by the romanticism movement, which influenced religious and moral perceptions, and thoughts over slavery during the period. The Gothic elements in the Romanticism movement helped to spur personal accountability and emotional distress in society over what had been done to the slaves, and create a voice for those with feelings of guilt over it. This connects back to the historical shift of the abolition movement and its effects on the humanities in this time, in which many began to reflect over these feelings of Gothic guilt.

Our artifact represents Gothic guilt, slavery influenced by guilt, and our chosen literary pieces because of its symbolic drawings on a book jacket. On the front cover, the image of a slave pleading for mercy represents the antislavery movement. The image also includes a hand offering a key, which symbolizes manumission. On the inside cover of the book jacket, John Newton appears holding his beating heart (a symbol from “The Tell Tale Heart”) up to God, begging for mercy for his crimes by admitting his guilt of his sinful actions. In addition, Newton stands upon a hill with scattered graves, which allude to deaths of the fallen soldiers mentioned in “It Feels A Shame To Be Alive”. This Gothic poem represents many romanticism pieces that influenced people such as Newton. This Artifact overall connects, and symbolizes how the element of guilt in the Gothic movement was impacted by different historical situations of the time, which in turn influenced things such as books and poems, represented in our book jacket.

To conclude, guilt influenced the humanities during this time by impacting reform movements such as abolitionism, which affected the ways in which people lived their day to day lives, and produced artistic pieces such as the ones by Poe and Dickinson. Guilt, in itself not only spurs remorse, but causes the individual to feel inclined to do something to change the wrong. In all of our examples, the individual’s actions showed their true guilt, Washington freeing his slaves, Newton aiding the abolition movement, and so on. In the end, because of the inclination to right wrongs, guilt and abolition connected in ways that dramatically affected the ways of life for people by interacting with people’s core beliefs, and morals. These changes within people lead to wider support for reform movements such as the abolition movement, which affect American history. Furthermore, in the antebellum era, the romanticism movement was affected by slavery most importantly in the portrayal of guilt in the Gothic movement through different impactful works. Thus, the humanities in the period changed in response to these movements and the historical occurrences at the time.

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