From Physic to Psychic. The Treatment of Sensationalism in Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Bachelor Thesis, 2013
36 Pages, Grade: 2.0



1. Introduction

2. Sensationalism in Britain and Antebellum America
2.1. A Brief History of Sensationalism
2.2. Definition and Key Features
2.2.1. Journalism
2.2.2. Fiction
2.3. Criticism and Defence

3. Elitist Sensationalism a laBlackwood’s
3.1.Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
3.2. TheBlackwood’sSensation Tale

4. Edgar Allan Poe’s Sensationalism
4.1. Poe and Parody
4.2.Blackwood’sParodies in Psyche Zenobia’s tales
4.3. Exploitation of the Genre in “The Premature Burial”

5. Hawthorne’s Allegoric Sensationalism
5.1. Hawthorne and Sensationalism
5.2. Treatment and Transformation of Sensational Themes
5.2.1. Psychological Sensationalism in “Wakefield”
5.2.2. Sensational Material in “Egotism; or, The Bosom Serpent”

6. Conclusion

Bibliography 34 -

1. Introduction

For the longest time the genre of Sensationalism has been decried as cheap entertainment for the uneducated masses. Especially in the 19th century sensational writing has been frowned upon by the literary elite due to its commercialism and lowly or negative information value. Most authors of the time, who fancied they were serving the taste of an educated readership, distanced themselves from the sensational genre and denied its influence on their work. Therefore the actual impact of Sensationalism on 19th century literature has often been disregarded although in the case of some authors it is openly displayed. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate this impact by examining the reaction and response of the authors Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne towards literary and journalistic Sensationalism of their time and reveal how both authors exploited material and themes of the genre in different ways for their own purposes.

In the first part of this paper I will briefly focus on the history of Sensationalism. Furthermore, I will look at a few articles of sensational nature, specifically those having appeared in British and American magazines and broadsheets in the first half of the 19th century, and point out specific key elements of the genre to come to a definition or formula of sensational writing. Moreover, I will discuss the question why Sensationalism was not regarded as a serious field of academic study in the past and explore its cultural significance.

The second and third part will mainly deal with the Scottish periodical Blackwood ’ s Edinburgh Magazine and Edgar Allan Poe’s supposed satires of the magazine's brand of the sensational tale. First, I will explain the history, the significance and the importance of Blackwood ’ s Magazine in 19th century British literature and consequently analyse some of Blackwood ’ s most famous stories, such as “Buried Alive”, “The Man in the Bell”, “Le Revenant” and “The Involuntary Experimentalist”. Hereby, I will examine the structure and formula as well as the literary style employed in those stories to convey the desired effect on their audience. I will argue that Blackwood ’ s Sensationalism was an elitist one as opposed to that generally employed in magazines of the time. Next, I will do a close reading of Poe’s short stories “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and its companion tale “A Predicament” to examine how Poe intended to parody Blackwood ’ s sensation tale. Using the example of “The Premature Burial”, I then will discuss how Poe eventually exploits sensationalist methods by overdoing and ridiculing the extreme physic experience of those tales so that the reader’s terror is turned into amusement. Furthermore, I will discuss how Poe not only satirises Sensationalism but also makes use of its conventions for his own commercial advantage due to the popularity of the genre in the 19th century and its ability to attract a large readership.

Finally, the last part of this paper will shift the attention to Nathaniel Hawthorne and explore in how far his writing was influenced by Sensationalism. I will focus on his tales “Wakefield” and “Egotism; or, The Bosom Serpent” to demonstrate how Hawthorne employed sensational material in his stories and how he processed those themes and turned them into something different. I will argue that Hawthorne’s stories move away from the physic experience of Sensationalism towards a more psychic experience by allegorising and moralising their themes. First, I will argue that “Wakefield” displays Hawthorne’s own brand of Sensationalism which is, unlike Poe’s, not focused on the exploitation of physical violence but poses an even more haunting psychological threat. Subsequently, by looking at source studies of “Egotism; or, The Bosom Serpent” I will exemplify how Hawthorne made use of sensational material in order to attract the reader’s attention and convey the moral meaning of the tale.

2. Sensationalism in Britain and Antebellum America

2.1. A Brief History of Sensationalism

The term ‘Sensationalism’ is an invention of the 19th century although the concept of sensational writing is as old as printing itself. As early as the mid-sixteenth century European newspapers, especially German papers, as Joy Wiltenburg points out, are full of stories about gruesome murders, often committed within the family, misadventures, incest and execution of criminals (1379). Those stories are usually told in minute detail, appealing to the emotions of the reader. The early sensational stories had a religious and moral focus. The crime done, usually some horrifying murder, was explained by pointing out the sinfulness of the person who had committed the crime (ibid. 1384). The deed as such would then be described in all its detail, focusing on the helplessness of the victim that was often posthumously given a voice, pleading with its murderer not commit the deed, begging for its dear life, so that the reader would sympathise with the victim and hope for it to gain a chance to escape, although the outcome of the story was already known (ibid. 1386-87). In order to underline its religious implication, the ending of the 16th century story was constituted of the sinful predator’s execution as well as his/her salvation through faith (ibid. 1387).

In the 17th century sensational crime stories, especially English stories, focused on the criminal rather than the victim. The so-called “last-good-night” ballads were written in first-person mode and followed the pattern of speeches given by criminals just before their execution (ibid. 1899). The first-person narrative facilitated identification with the criminal and allowed him/her to become an individual rather than a stock figure criminal as he/she had been in the earlier German sensationalist stories. This indicates a rising interest of the reading population in “individual subjectivity” as well as a departure from the religious notion that “human depravity needs no unique explanation” (ibid.). The shift in sensational writing towards psychology, motives and circumstances of the culprit manifested itself further throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with the growth of urbanisation and commercialism (ibid. 1402). Although they were popular subjects, the focus of Sensationalism was not only on crime and murder. There had always been other extraordinary subjects that were covered, for example, natural catastrophes, comets, misbirths and monstrosities, incest and newly discovered illnesses that, according to Wiltenburg, altogether reflected the post-Reformation idea of the impending end of the world (1395).

Within the 19th century the popularity of Sensationalism grew. Newspapers gradually became a mass medium as literacy and “mass education” was increasing among the growing urban populations (James 17). In both England and America the number of news publications exploded within the first few decades of the 19th century (James 17/18, Copeland 69/70). Also, the production and distribution of newspapers was facilitated by the invention of the steam press and the development of new forms of transportation (e.g.: Copeland 86/87). The rise of so-called penny papers in the 1830s fuelled the spreading of “human interest” stories blown up to the sensational whatever subject was covered. Penny paper editors focused on quantity rather than quality (ibid. 85). To attract the attention of the largest possible audience news had to be aggressive and sensational (Stephens 91). In early 19th century Britain for example, papers were swamped with obscure and gruesome stories, often blurring fact and fiction to attract the attention of a literate but still superstitious audience (James 18/19). The subjects of these sensational stories ranged from blatantly violent murder to literarily constructed instalments about vampires1 and other monsters as well as abnormalities, oddities and miscellanies (e.g. James 227 “The Mermaid”; 229 “The Three Beautiful Albini Children”) Headlines such as “A Horrible Murder, A Father Cuts His Child’s Head Off!”(ibid. 251) or “God’s Revenge Against Murder” (ibid. 253) along with the corresponding graphics and detailed woodcuts was what sold papers to the growing mass audience.

According to Marc Canada, the popularity of Sensationalism swapped over to America no later than the 1830s during which the young publishing industry of the nation began to boost (24/25). Similar to British papers, bold and sensationally elevated stories gained popularity and attracted larger audiences and therefore led to more sales. For example, the murder of the young prostitute Helen Jewett in New York City in the year 1836 was vastly exploited in the penny press of the day. Especially the New York Herald, founded in 1835 by James Gordon Bennett, Sr., covered the subject to a large degree (Ramsland 7). Next to murder and crime and other gruesome subjects, the American antebellum audience also indulged in reading new supposedly serious professional medical journals that catered apparently “most current, reliable, and useful medical information” to the average amateur reader (Etter 7). One out of a variety of these medical journals that suddenly appeared between 1830 and 1850 (ibid.) was The American Medical Intelligencer that ran articles on subjects such as “Case of the Snake in the Stomach” or “A Ball remaining in the Head Eighteen Years” as well as a story of a female baby being born with four nipples in 1837. Most stories of those medical magazines were in no way reliable but usually born out of rumour or gossip found in European magazines2.

Out of this journalistic Sensationalism soon grew the genre of Sensational Literature which eventually reached its peak in the 1860s but was already developing in the 1830s (e.g.: Purchase 188) and soon grew to be the most popular fiction genre of the early 19th century (Streeby 179). The sensational tale of the 1830s and 40s appeared usually in literary magazines as well as newspapers. More often than not these tales were published in serial monthly or weekly instalments leaving cliff hangers and unsolved mysteries in an attempt to create an addiction in the reader similar to the way in which modern daytime TV soap operas operate (Ascari 115). Stylistically as well as thematically, the sensational tale mirrored the sensational news article which was usually written according to some formula or “recipe” which the next chapter shall analyse in depth.

2.2. Definitions and Key Features

2.2.1. Journalism

In her study of early European crime reports, Joy Wiltenburg defines Sensationalism as a negative term dating back to the 19th century to characterise “(...) works of literature or journalism that aimed to arouse strong emotional reactions in the public” (1378). This emotionally charged response of the audience is achieved by retellings of crimes or alike events that represent “extreme violations of social norms” (ibid.) of a society that is based on certain shared core values such as religion and law as well as the sanctity of marriage and family and so on (ibid. 1380). Yet, this specific audience reaction is not triggered by themes and contents alone but also through the use of certain stylistic means such as very “emotive language” and “suspense through circumstantial detail, and graphic description of bodily violence” as well as the inclusion of an invented dialogue between victim and predator, which was primarily a feature of the 16th and 17th century text (ibid. 1388)3, designed to let the reader identify and therefore sympathise with the victim (ibid. 1389). In later sensational accounts, especially those of the 17th century, the victim/predator dialogue was substituted by a monologue given by the culprit retelling his or her crime in order to gain salvation. Wiltenburg calls this posthumous “ventriloquism” as usually those accounts were written after the execution of the according criminal who had never given the speech related (1401). This offering of regret and eventual salvation of the culprit provided the audience with a certain sense of safety, watching the crime from a distance as well as witnessing the return to order and convention (ibid.).

Moreover, scholars have pointed out that the sensational text, journalistic as well as the fictional tale later on, follows a specific structural pattern or recipe (e.g.: Wiltenburg 1392; Ascari 112, 130). Most importantly, this pattern starts with a catchy and provocative headline, then a statement functioning as a “claim of truth”(Wiltenburg 1383; Stephens 107), followed by the meticulous and colourful retelling of the gruesome or bizarre event, often written in first person mode to convey immediacy and intimacy and finally a conclusion in a sort of morale. This formula can be found in the earliest sensational texts of the 16th century and prevails until the 19th century. An interesting example of this pattern can be found in a British broadsheet, dated January 7th, 1820 (qtd. in James 30) which relates a story about the regrets of a person on his death bed. The theme is not necessarily of a sensational nature but the structure and style of the broadsheet text convey its Sensationalism. The attention attracting headline in bold print reads “The Horrors of A Dying Infidel” immediately followed by the claim of truth (“The following fact is related on the best authority.”) as well a very brief synopsis of what the eager reader is about to indulge in. In this case it is a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of reading “profane books”. The following text is a first person narration, echoing direct speech as indicated by quotation marks at the beginning of each of its 18 lines. The first seven lines are told by some bystander of the “Dying Infidel’s” death bed, most likely a priest or someone of similar religious occupation, giving a setting to the scene. Lines eight to 17 are presented in the direct speech of the dying person presenting his lament of regret for having “rejected God” by reading Paine’s Age of Reason. The text concludes with a direct plea to the reader (“Oh! Reader, be wise in time.”) to let this story be an example to him as there is hardly a chance of salvation after reading “a bad book”4. The sensational character of the text is further emphasised by the capitalisation of certain emotionally charged key words within the text body (e.g. death bed, infidelity, God, and also the sentence “Paine’s Age of Reason has ruined my soul!”) as well as the italic print of others (e.g. horror of mind, agony, despair, etc.) and the frequent use of exclamation marks.

Another form of Sensationalism can be found in medical case reports of American medical journals published in the first half of the 19th century. These journals were not written necessarily for a professional medical audience but rather for an amateur audience with next to no medical education and were supposed to provide that audience with valid and new medical discoveries (Etter 7). The subjects of these medical news ranged from minute descriptions of abnormalities, accidents and their consequences as well as unusual illnesses (ibid.). The technique employed here to convey extreme emotional responses in the reader differs substantially from the above described generic pattern. The sensational character of these medical reports was not achieved through the incorporation of pathos or intensely emotive language and rhetoric but by the supposed factuality and objectiveness of these texts which function as a substitute of the generic claim of truth of, for example, the crime reports or the story mentioned above. A closer look at two articles published in an 1837 issue of the American Medical Intelligencer will exemplify this. Featured under the section of Miscellaneous Notices are articles on “A Ball Remaining in the Head for Eighteen Years” (Intelligencer 14) and “Case of Female with Four Mammae and Nipples” (ibid. 15). Both of these articles make use of a supposedly objective and scientific language, using Latin medical terms such as os frontis in case of the ball in the head story while the longer and more detailed report of the female with four breasts uses the terms pectoral mammae, areolae and axilla. Moreover, although both texts include detailed examinations of the infliction and the abnormality, they do not make use of an emotionally charged language but employ a rather factual and detached style of writing. For example, neither report mentions the name of the afflicted person. The reports are on an anonymous “cavalry officer” (ibid.14) and an unspecified “individual” (ibid. 15). The sensational markers in the texts are to be found in its content as well as the minute description of medical details and their characterisation as “peculiarities” (ibid.) which are supposed to attract the reader’s attention and stir up an emotional response that is based not on voluntary transgression of social norms, as in sensational crime or infidelity reports, but on natural deviance from physical norms.

2.2.2. Fiction

A distinction must be made between Sensational Journalism and Fiction, although in reality the line between the two is often blurry. This is not just because allegedly true stories of sensational nature appear side by side with fictional tales written in the same manner and according to a similar pattern in the same magazines but also because in various cases truth and fiction are blended. More often than not supposed journalistic articles are spiced with fiction and fictional tales are based on actual occurrences.

In order to approach a definition of American Sensation Fiction, Shelly Streeby points out that the genre has to be seen in relation within its historical context of 19th century literature (176). Furthermore, she claims Sensationalism has much in common with its contemporary genre of Sentimentalism with its focus on the emotional and the physical as well as individualism and the internal functions of the human psyche (ibid. 179/80). According to Streeby, Sensationalism borrows from melodramatic theatre, another “low” form of 19th century popular entertainment enjoyed by large audiences (180). Sensationalism aims to create catharsis by creating scenes of “temporal coincidences” as well as “moments of truth” supposed to stir its audience to extreme emotions “such as thrill, shock, and horror” the same way melodrama does (ibid.). Sensation Fiction is also characterised by its thematic borrowings from other genres. Hence, there is not one common setting or plot that is typical to the genre but rather a variety of themes and settings are used, that can be found in subgenres such as “crime and war literature, (...), picaresque novels, the gothic, horror, and (...) early science fiction” as well as “urban gothic (...) and the imperial adventure story” (ibid. 183). Regarding Sensation Fiction in early 19th century Britain, themes were largely of a supernatural nature dealing with alive corpses embodied by monsters such as vampires and zombies as well as figures of so called Resurrection Men (Hackenberg 63). Such themes go to show the fears of the growing urban population in cities like London which, according to Hackenberg, was facing a “burial problem” in the early decades of the 19th century (ibid. 66). More often than not, corpses were not properly buried but discarded on the street so that the Londoner of the 19th century was not unaccustomed to the sight of decaying bodies, in worst case scenarios even those of loved ones and relatives (ibid.). At the same time the problem of body snatchers was well known in all urban cities of the early 19th century. For example, stories of individuals such as Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, some of the best known body snatchers and later serial killers of the early 19th century, digging out corpses from graves in order to sell them for medical purposes (Walker 2;, fuelled the fear of the urban populations5. Another popular form of the British Sensational Tale was the “Newgate Novel” characteristically dealing with the life of a criminal sent to prison and relating his crime just before his execution (Ascari 112/13). An example of this kind of tale is “Le Revenant” published in Blackwood ’ s Magazine 1827. I will be having a closer look at this tale as well as the character and formula of the Blackwood ’ s Sensational Tale in the following chapter.


1 The most famous one being the tale of Varney the Vampire, which appeared in a London penny paper in weekly installments from 1845-47 (see: James 215-27; Hackenberg 64-74).

2 The “Ball in the Head” story for example was copied from a German magazine as indicated by a footnote in the Intelligencer p. 14.

3 See for example Burkard Waldis’ 1551 retelling of a mother murdering her children (qtd. in Wiltenburg 1386/87).

4 Obviously, this represents a fear of secularisation in society in the early 19th century as hundred years before there was still a chance for salvation through a plea to God even after having murdered someone. Otherwise, it must be suspected that reading a “bad book” was regarded to be worse than taking someone’s life.

5 The topic of Burke and Hare has recently been subject of various television documentaries and the website, launched in 2012 by Lisa Rosner, as well as the recently produced black comedy UK film Burke and Hare show how such gruesome themes as body snatching and serial killing are still being sensationalised and to some extent glorified by the means of fictionalisation.

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From Physic to Psychic. The Treatment of Sensationalism in Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Ruhr-University of Bochum
Sensationalism in Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne
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from, physic, psychic, treatment, sensationalism, short, stories, edgar, allan, nathaniel, hawthorne
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Janina Wedig (Author), 2013, From Physic to Psychic. The Treatment of Sensationalism in Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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