The introduction lays out the problem of American literature's terror by reviewing its critical history, defining it against related terms like horror and the sublime, and fitting it within the current discourses of affect theory and American literary history. It addresses the conceptual methodological questions involved in thinking about feeling, and conversely, in the idea that we might feel thinking. By way of this discussion, the introduction situates the book's argument within recent critical interest in American literary pragmatism and gothic posthumanism. It also provides a map to the book's structure and previews the argument as it develops from Edwards to Poe to Melville.
The first chapter argues, against current received understandings, that Jonathan Edwards's terror was materially innovative and different, and that the matter of its difference derives from Edwards's unique philosophical interests and leads to his influential theorization of affect as a mode of knowledge. Through a comparison of terror sermons across the late 17th and early 18th centuries, this chapter discovers that the significance of terror in New England turns from a cautionary and practical rhetoric to, in later generations, an immanent and ideal rhetoric. The chapter shows how Edwards's defense of terror preaching during the Great Awakening culminates in a wholesale revolution in affective philosophy that derives from his studies in formal logic and Enlightenment idealism, and is pinned to a radical redefinition of the epistemological significance of terror.
This chapter argues that Poe's terror develops in concert with, and as a complement to, his relentless and unforgiving literary criticism. Considering the set of his tales, and one infamous poem, that share the plot of a scholarly man haunted by the death and return of his beloved, this chapter shows how those tales seek to incorporate and reframe the impulse of the philosophy of art originating in the Jena school of aesthetic criticism. Reading Poe's dead women tales as pieces that would dramatize the interpretation of aesthetic effect, I show how Poe converts the mere horror of the gruesome into a broader terror that attends the very attempt to know, to locate and explain, the feeling of fear.
The third chapter argues that the analytical method on display in Poe's detective fiction is drawn from and influential in structuring the dynamics of terror in his confessional and sublime tales. My chapter returns to the poststructuralist readings of Poe's detective fiction, and recovers in response Poe's own definition of analysis as a bipartite system of resolution and composition. By ascertaining the shape of analysis responsible, ultimately, for the recursive and uncanny shape of the poststructuralist debate, my chapter shows the continuity between Poe's seemingly calculated tales of reason's mastery over nature and his seemingly irrational tales of madness and peril. The second part of the chapter finds and analyzes the same reciprocal dynamic of resolution and composition within his sublime and confessional tales.
This chapter argues that the terror of Moby-Dick dramatizes the logical paradoxes of a meta-dialectical method. It introduces a study of the influence of Melville's close friend, George Adler, a proponent of Hegelian metaphysics and a chronic paranoiac, upon Moby-Dick. And it shows how the multiple terrors of Moby-Dick do not arise from one or the other philosophical commitment, but rather from a Hegel-inspired application of dialectical method to the problem of dialectical method itself. The chapter analyzes how moments of precarious balance, in Moby-Dick, are paired with an existential and epistemological terror. The chapter concludes with a reading of how Melville models this dialectical terror upon the physical properties of light.
This chapter considers the tone of dread unifying the disparate tales in Melville's The Piazza Tales, and argues that the collection's construction of terror underwrites specifically human encounters between felt subject and perceived other. Drawing upon the spatial and temporal contours of Kierkegaard's and Heidegger's theorization of dread, this chapter analyzes how Melville's tales figure space and time within an unsettling affective matrix that accords with how opens the possibility of perception in the continental philosophical tradition. The chapter concludes that, through the fatal automaton in "The Bell-Tower," Melville doesn't represent the human as object, but rather the perfect human subject whose very possibility is felt by the dread of our distance from it. Whereas this book begins with the terrors of objectivity, Edwards's version of the will bound inextricably to the terrors of hell, it ends with a portrait of the terror of the perfect ideal subject.
The afterword briefly summarizes the major conclusions of the book and gestures at how they shift wider discussions about philosophy and literature in general and American philosophy and American literature more particularly. It hypothesizes that the focus on literary terror opens up a new thread of intellectual history that parallels and contrasts with several recent studies linking American literature and pragmatism. In this possible new history, the dark strain in American literature leads, not to pragmatism, but rather to its darker cousin, poststructuralism.