Anti-Transcendentalist Themes in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher

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Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the Transcendentalism movement became a seminal force in literature. Originating in the New England region of America, transcendentalism emphasized the spiritual over the corporeal, and the power of individual intuition over organized doctrine as a means of attaining true spirituality. But one of the most notable writers of this period, Edgar Allan Poe, made no secret of his disdain for the tenets of transcendentalism. He mocked transcendentalist ideals by clearly expressing anti-transcendentalist themes in one of his most well known works, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Although this work openly exhibits Poe's contempt for transcendentalism as a literary movement, it was nonetheless influenced by – and perhaps even based on – transcendentalist beliefs.

Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” is considered to be a Dark Romantic text. Dark Romanticism began in the mid-nineteenth century as a negative reaction to the popular Transcendental Movement, a rising force in literary circles. Authors like Poe found transcendentalism to be a laughable concept which was absurdly optimistic and unrealistic. The anti-transcendentalists made it a point to make a mockery of transcendental beliefs in their work; hence, the Dark Romantic genre began.(Quinn)

When Edgar Allan Poe wrote his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”, he was creatively mocking traditional transcendental beliefs. Poe displays his scorn for transcendentalism in many different ways throughout this piece. Rather than the transcending happenings that build to a happy ending that is characteristic of transcendentalism, this work features a dreary setting with a plot that becomes increasingly ominous as the story develops...

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... A writing genre whose existence is based on a reaction against another genre partly owes its existence, a priori, to the original genre. And the primary transcendental motif of the primacy of spirituality over flesh is an understated plot device in Poe's story. Though clearly featuring Poe's scorn towards several defining facets of the transcendental movement, “The Fall of the House of Usher” simultaneously bears the mark of one of the most overarching themes of transcendental thinking.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar A. "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 6th edition. B. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2009.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Coopers Square Publishers, 1969.

Voloshin, Beverly. “Transcendence Downward: An Essay on 'Usher' and 'Ligeia.'” Modern Language Studies. 1988.