Review: American Terror: The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville

American Terror: The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville. Paul Hurh. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 298.

“If you woke up to find yourself a character in a Melville fiction, chances are you would be afraid” (162). Paul Hurh begins the fourth chapter of American Terror with this claim, but it could arguably be applied to any writer featured in his chapters: it would be equally as shocking if anyone waking up in an Edwards sermon or Poe tale did not feel fear. Questioning the assumed link between literary fear and repression, Hurh posits an alternative affective reading that he claims more fully describes the aesthetics of fear than the existing model of repression or expression. In this book, Hurh explores the affect of terror in American Romantic literature, an affect that he claims is resistant to empirical understanding.

He grounds his argument historically by focusing on terror as a response to Enlightenment thought, but he argues that terror’s “resistance to interpretive explanation” expands into the aesthetic and philosophical arenas (6). Hurh aims to strike a balance between historicist and aestheticist criticism, thereby situating his methodology among current concerns in literary theory and criticism. Hurh links affect theory and scientific history together by explaining, “affect theory has worked to make emotion more objective, more scientific, while science studies have exposed how the story of objectivity is more subjective, more affective” (7). He interweaves historical research about each author’s treatments of terror with affective readings of their works.

Hurh claims that terror produces the philosophical affect of “the feeling of thinking.” He defines “the feeling of thinking” as “a special affect” that “circumscribe[s] the very activity, the intellection and interpretive procedure, by which it would usually be explained” (7). In other words, the affect of terror in this literary period amounts somewhat paradoxically to an affect of scientific objectivity. This tonal terror both demands and threatens reason, prompting the mind to attempt to explain and rationalize at the same time that terror “refuses to be hemmed in by the aesthetic conditions of the sublime or the utility and flexibility of pragmatism” (8). Hurh looks at assorted scenes in literature as demonstrative of “a deep affective commitment to the project of completing thinking through aesthetic feeling” (9).

Hurh explains his treatment of terror as an affective state by linking it to Sianne Ngai’s definition of “tone” in order to demonstrate how it confuses subject with object. He claims that terror is neither objective and assigned to a certain figure such as a monster nor subjective and dependent upon to the reader’s experience. Rather, it permeates the text in a manner that complicates the subject/object binary in the same way that Ngai claims tone functions. In this way, terror both “emerg[es] from and [is] recursively amplified by the self’s own struggle to rationalize it” (17). For Hurh, terror is more of a tone or mood than horror because it lacks an object. However, Hurh does not fully acknowledge how gothic literature has traditionally been divided into the two aesthetic categories of “terror” and “horror.” He briefly mentions Ann Radcliffe’s “other definitions” (253) in an endnote. In simply equating the Gothic with horror and repurposing terror for his own uses, Hurh ignores the extensive literary history of the term as it has been used in relation to the very literature he discusses. While he avoids an overly digressive history on the word, a little more discussion of this well-trod material would be appropriate.

Hurh organizes his book chronologically, moving from Jonathan Edwards and Edgar Allan Poe to Herman Melville, three authors who both write terror and write about terror. These chapters are bookended by an introduction explaining his methodology and an afterword where he reflects on the problems of closure. By focusing the chapters on authors rather than topics, he is able to provide close readings of texts that support his more general claims.

In his first chapter, “Awakening Terror: Hellfire Preaching, Jonathan Edwards, and the Logic of Revivalist Affect,” Hurh examines Edwards’s use of terror in his sermons. Hurh argues that, during the Great Awakening, fear was “a state to inhabit” (33) rather than a cautionary religious tactic. Edwards’s sermons demonstrate the usefulness of affect “as a mode of direct religious knowledge” (37). For Edwards, terror is a necessary part of the experience of religion, but it is also an affect that “rejects the very thing that feels it” (37) because of the human’s position as a sinner. Edwards uses this specific type of terror, terror as an affect, as a correlative for feeling the presence of God: “The final view of God, for Edwards, is nothing but sensing the beauty of the terror that we all inhabit” (62).

In this chapter, Hurh provides a helpful mixture of historical context and close reading of several Edwards works. He charts the rhetorical changes in hellfire preaching from the late seventeenth century, which focused on an intended audience and used terror as a deterrent, to the early eighteenth-century sermons that mobilized a more abstract “you,” thereby linking terror to a state of sin more universal and inclusive, a feeling that all must submit to rather than a thing to avoid by reforming. This historical background allows Hurh to demonstrate how, for Edwards, terror functions as an affect as it creates “a constant psychological experience” (43). Terror becomes a necessary part of the religious experience rather than a directive warning against specific behavior and punishment.

In the second chapter, “Critical Terrors: Poe’s Aesthetic Terror and the Claims of Art after Jena,” Hurh claims that Poe’s so-called “dead woman tales” (78) – “Berenice” (1835), “Morella” (1835), “Ligeia” (1838), and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) – all follow a specific structure influenced by Poe’s interest in the Jena school of German Romantic literary criticism. Complementing these tales with “The Raven” (1845) and “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) in order to connect Poe’s writing and criticism, Hurh claims that Poe sought to “reframe the value of literary terror in a philosophical discourse” (78). Hurh asserts that Poe creates the affect of “nevermore,” an affect of loss that “seeks to complete romantic criticism by insisting on its fundamental deficiency rather than evading or ameliorating it” (81). Hurh’s “the feeling of thinking” becomes clearer here, as he uses the example of “The Raven” to show how the poem’s speaker gets stuck in a feedback loop. His method of questioning the raven makes him feel loss and forces him to think about this loss, as in the poem, “thinking makes the hole that thinking would fill” (85). Hurh then analyzes the previously mentioned dead woman tales, exploring their formal structure as precursors to “The Raven.”

Chapter three moves from Poe’s early horror writing to his later detective fiction. Hurh compares Poe’s detective fiction – work that he claims relies upon not exactly reason but an affect of rational thinking – to the tales of terror written later in his career, claiming that both “explore the affective vectors behind uncanny and poststructuralist paradoxes of mind” (120). Hurh explores how Poe’s methodology and narrative structure in both types of works is meant to demonstrate the failure to produce certain or absolute knowledge.

The fourth chapter, “The Uneven Balance: Dialectical Terror in Moby-Dick,” examines what Hurh calls “uneven balances” (167), drawing from Melville’s own use of the phrase in his review of Hawthorne, in Melville’s work by examining his use of Hegelian dialectics in a way that gestures towards but ultimately resists resolution of terror’s ambiguities. Hurh claims that Melville links scenes of balance – both in doubling of characters and scenes and in the literal balancing of the Pequod between two whales at one point – to the affect of terror. Hurh posits that fear, in Melville’s works, is always associated with “epistemological ambiguity” (162), rehearsing his larger claim about how the feeling of thinking and terror are related.

In the fifth chapter, “Dread: Space, Time, and Automata in The Piazza Tales,” Hurh relies on Kierkegaard’s concept of dread, Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness,” and Ngai’s reconsideration of thrownness. He argues that Melville manipulates movements through space and time in The Piazza Tales in order to heighten his depictions of terror. Hurh treats this terror as a unifying affect in The Piazza Tales, a group of discrete, seemingly unrelated texts.

The book is clearly written and organized, as Hurh continuously offers explicit declarations of his purpose and clear transitions between works. It would be helpful for readers to have some familiarity with the authors and theorists he uses, but generally he provides overviews of both literary and critical works that allow those unfamiliar with some topics to understand his arguments. This book contributes to the fields of affect theory, nineteenth-century studies, Gothic studies, and poststructuralism, among others. Hurh examines the aesthetics of paradox in the feeling of thinking and demonstrates how these early American works serve as forerunners to poststructuralist thought.

Staci Poston Conner