American Romanticism in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 12th grade
The American Romantic period was essentially a Renaissance of American literature. “It was a Renaissance in the sense of a flowering, excitement over human possibilities, and a high regard for individual ego” (English). American romantics were influenced by the literary eras that came before them, and their writings were a distinct reaction against the ideology of these previous eras. In this sense, American Romanticism grew from “. . . the rhetoric of salvation, guilt, and providential visions of Puritanism, the wilderness reaches of this continent, and the fiery rhetoric of freedom and equality . . .” as they eagerly developed their own unique style of writing (English). American romantic authors had a strong sense of national identity and pride in being American. For this reason, American authors during this time had a distinct desire to develop their own unique character separate from British literature. In order to accomplish this goal, the poet Edgar Allan Poe was defiant and individualistic in his writing; and this explains the remarkable creativity found throughout his work. One short story in particular, “Ligeia,” which Poe published in 1838, demonstrates all the major aspects of the American Romantic revolution: rejection of classicism, fervent idealism, and unusual remoteness regarding time and space.
The story of “Ligeia” follows an unknown narrator and his wife Ligeia, who is a beautiful, mysterious, and intelligent character. Ligeia dies, and she mutters passages from an odd poem entitled “The Conqueror Worm” in her last breaths. Later, the narrator remarries—this time with a woman named Rowena who is not nearly as beautiful, mysterious or intelligent as Ligeia. Rowena is the stereotypical woman, a classical example of what women were supposed to be during the era. Interestingly, Rowena also dies, and the narrator, who we learn is an opium addict, supervises the body overnight. The story ends with Rowena coming back from the dead, transformed into Ligeia. Throughout the entirety of the story, Poe provides the reader with countless examples of his bias towards romantic ideals and his mastery of American Romantic literature.
The most obvious aspect of American Romanticism in this short story is the rejection of classicism. During the romantic period, America was thriving economically and the focus of most people’s lives was on economic and material success. The Romantic Revolution that took place in 19th-century America was a revolt against the economic realities of the day and the theories of Locke and Franklin. American romantics sought to break away from traditional literary forms; they did not agree with the commonly accepted principals of “classicism” and “formality” as being indicators of literary merit. On the contrary, these romantics believed that “inspiration, enthusiasm, and emotion” mattered much more than outdated standards of merit that required conforming to a set of rules. The world is emotional and organic, not mechanical or rational. “Good literature should have heart, not rules . . .” (English). This explains why Poe makes the narrator’s first wife, Ligeia, have such remarkable beauty; for the narrator, Ligeia’s beauty serves as a source of love and endearment. As the narrator of the story puts it “. . . the character of my beloved . . . made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown” (Lombardi). Ligeia’s “singular yet placid cast of beauty” is in sharp contrast to Rowena’s “fair-haired” and “blue-eyed” classical beauty. Poe repeatedly points out the superiority of Ligeia’s beauty because it does not conform to the typical definition of beauty. Ligeia’s features “were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen” (Lombardi). Poe undoubtedly sees flaws in the narrator’s second wife because she fits the mold too easily. And perhaps the most extreme example of Poe’s rejection of the ordinary and embracing of the strange can be seen in certain passages describing Ligeia’s mysterious characteristics. He describes the narrator’s beautiful wife as one would describe a ghost: “She came and departed as a shadow.” He describes her eyes as unreal and superhuman because of their large size: “far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race.” Ironically, at times Ligeia even frightens the narrator with her “grotesque” appearance. However, throughout the entirety of the story, these odd appearance traits are objects of reverie for the narrator, and he makes clear to point this out repeatedly. Poe rejects classical values and welcomes the supernatural through the vivid descriptions of Ligeia’s uncanny beauty. (Deter)
Poe also manages to display another key trait of American Romantics—fervent idealism—in this morbid and frightening tale. Idealism was embraced by American romantic writers because they firmly believed in the lofty goals of democracy, even though at many times these goals were never realized. In this sense, American romantics were optimists. They were champions of individualism and believed firmly in the possibilities of humankind and man’s good nature. This optimism can be seen in the narrator’s account of his wife’s reincarnation in the body of another woman. Although the narrator’s story appears sincere and is certainly not lacking in detail, he is a self-proclaimed opium addict, which makes him an unreliable narrator. However, the romantic optimism of Poe is apparent because upon seeing Rowena rise from the dead, he assumes that it is Ligeia that has actually come back from the dead in Rowena’s body, however unlikely. This exaggerated optimism could have been caused by Ligeia’s knowledge of “metaphysical investigation,” knowledge described as “. . . wisdom too divinely precious to not be forbidden.” (Lombardi). In this sense, the narrator’s opium addiction can be seen as a form of optimism—even idealism. Indeed the narrator even admits this optimism to himself: “. . . in the excitement of my opium dreams, I would call aloud upon her name, during the silences of the night . . . as if . . . I could restore her to the pathway she had abandoned . . . upon the earth.” (Lombardi). Of course, these dreams are nothing more than hallucinations and false hopes caused by the opium drug. Still, they contain embedded within them a sense of “optimism against all odds.” Nowhere is this clearer than Ligeia’s assertion that “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” (Lombardi). This implies that Ligeia’s return from death could actually be literal, and that a strong will can actually keep someone alive. This type of extreme optimism—stubborn idealism—like keeping someone alive by sheer will of force, is typical of American romantic authors.
The last trait of the American Romantic period which Poe demonstrates in the short story “Ligeia” is an unusual remoteness regarding time and space. During the 19th century, American romantic writers were trying to disconnect themselves from past literary styles; writers often added a “theme of unusual remoteness regarding time and space” to make this disconnect literal and obvious to the reader (Deter). In “Ligeia,” Poe accomplishes this by making the narrator lose track of time. The narrator cannot even remember how he knows his wife or when or where they met: “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia.” (Deter). He doesn’t even know his beloved wife’s last name. Ligeia has completely taken control of the narrator’s mind and altered his perception of time and events. In this sense, she is supernatural and can control time, at least for the opium-addicted narrator, anyway. Furthermore, Ligeia’s identity has no clear-cut beginning (since we don’t know when or how she met the narrator) or end (since she never really dies in the mind of the narrator). Additionally, we don’t know how Ligeia is able to manipulate time and space to come back to life in the body of another woman. It appears that under the influence of drugs, the narrator epitomizes romantic idealism. He takes no note of time when observing Ligeia’s revival: “It might have been midnight, or perhaps earlier, or later, for I had taken no note of time, when a sob, low, gentle, but very distinct, startled me from my revery (sp) . . .” (Lombardi). Without a sense of time, space, or reality, the narrator’s first-hand account is questionable at best, but serves its mysterious and misleading purpose. It’s this sort of innovation and defiance of other 18th-century writer’s philosophies that makes Poe a romantic.
“The world of Poe’s tales is a nightmarish universe. You cross wasted lands, silent, forsaken landscapes where both life and waters stagnate” (Asselineau). However, surprisingly, Poe demonstrates many characteristics of American romantic writers. For one, his stories constantly challenge classic authority, a cornerstone of the American Romantic Movement. His eerie idealism and uncertain description of time and space also tag him as a prime example of a romantic American author. For these reasons, Edgar Allan Poe will forever be remembered as a leader of the American Romantic Movement and one of the greatest authors to ever live.
Asselineau, Roger. “Edgar Allan Poe.” American Writers. Ed. Leonard Unger. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. 409-32. Resource on famous American writers, arranged alphabetically.
Deter, Floramaria. “Romanticism & the Supernatural in Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia.” About.com. 2007. About, Inc.12 Nov. 2007 <http://classiclit.about.com/od/poeedgarallan/a/aa_eapoeligeia.htm>. Analysis of Romanticism in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”
English.Dept. home page. 18 Aug. 2001. Virginia Commonwealth U.6 Nov. 2007 <http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/intro.htm>. ENGLISH 372: American Romanticism, Fall 2002. Information on American Romanticism.
Lombardi, Esther. “Legeia - Edgar Allan Poe.” About.com. 2007. About, Inc.12 Nov. 2007 <http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/eapoe/bl-eapoe-ligeia.htm>. The full work “Legeia” by Edgar Allan Poe republished in online format by About.com.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Author Analysis Essay - "Edgar Allan Poe"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/author-analysis-edgar-allan-poe/>.
Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.
Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)
“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here.
Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
Read the essay here.
John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)
“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).
Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West, 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).
Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.
Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.
Read the essay here.
Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.
Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
Read the essay here.
David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).