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The relationship between psychology and literature may seem intuitively obvious given the ways that fictional narratives can create the impression that one has direct access to a character's thoughts and deepest feelings. This is the case with some of the earliest American novels, for example, The Coquette (1797) by Hannah Foster (1759–1840) and Wieland (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810), both of which present their stories largely in the form of emotional and dramatically revealing letters to intimates. Similarly, early American autobiographers derived authority from the appearance of candor when disclosing life experiences and lessons learned. While fictional and nonfictional works that convey states of mind may appear straightforward, the mental and emotional processes of both narrators and characters were derived from complex amalgams of beliefs about human psychology that differ markedly from current theories.

Psychological thinkers of the early nineteenth century, like their forebears, based their ideas on universal assumptions about human motivations and behaviors, and these assumptions would greatly affect the literature of the United States. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) set forth ideas and depictions of strong-willed characters responding forcefully to their physical and intellectual environments, while Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) and Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) advanced visions of social change largely organized around accepted attitudes about social bonds. Writers also would depict unusual mental processes, as in the case of tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). In addition, the question of how audiences respond to literature constituted a matter of concern common to writers and those psychologists who discussed aesthetics. Perhaps the most important connection between psychological theory and antebellum literature and culture may be found in the affiliation between the republican ideology of the American Revolution and certain psychological doctrines that had been produced by eighteenth-century European thinkers. Although early- and mid-nineteenth-century writers did not unthinkingly reflect the ideas of European and American psychological theorists, their ideas shaped literary treatments of mental processes and social relations.


The field of psychology during the years 1820–1870 resembles only slightly the academic discipline that is now familiar. For example, the scientific outlook underlying Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) did not begin to have an impact on American psychologists until after the Civil War. Moreover, the use of empirical methodologies, most notably the physiological experimentation developed in German universities, was not systematically cultivated in the United States until the 1880s. In addition, the concept of unconscious motivations or drives associated with Sigmund Freud played no major role in conventional psychological models until the spread of psychoanalytic theory early in the twentieth century. Instead of relying on theories shaped by scientific methods or clinical practices, psychology as it was taught to students and disseminated throughout American culture before the Civil War largely reflected its historical foundation as a branch of philosophy.

The basic structure of the mind as outlined during this era can be traced back to Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) and his On the Soul (De Anima), the earliest systematic treatment of individual psychology as a unified discipline. What one customarily calls human thought, according to Aristotle, is based on a hierarchy of sensory and mental functions such as memory, imagination, and desire. This categorizing of mental functions into discrete units would ultimately serve as the basis for the development of philosophical approaches to psychology before the dominance of scientific methodologies. Thus, by the eighteenth century German theorists, such as Christian von Wolff, who were occupied with descriptions of mental functions had settled on what would be termed "faculty psychology," an approach further elaborated by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scottish common sense philosophers. While the division of the mind by philosophers into separate mental functions or faculties may seem in retrospect mechanistic, it does represent an effort to adopt a systematic approach to the field characteristic of later scientific thinking. What most clearly distinguishes pre-twentieth-century thinking about psychology from later methods is the attempt to fuse empirical observation with a moralistic sensibility.

Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales of ratiocination and disordered thinking featured close attention to psychological states, also discussed aesthetics in psychological terms. In this excerpt from "The Poetic Principle," Poe adapts contemporary, moralistic faculty psychological theory, with its three-part division of the mind, to his idea of beauty.

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position, which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms:—waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity—her disproportion—her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious—in a word, to Beauty.

Poe, "The Poetic Principle," p. 76.

American psychologists customarily followed the lead of Scottish common sense philosophers, and this influence may be found in the normative, moralistic tone of much nineteenth-century American psychological writing as well as the assumption of a tripartite division of the mind, in which the will properly predominates over the intellect and emotions. The common sense school of philosophy, associated with Thomas Reid, James Beattie, and other contemporary Scottish thinkers, influenced Americans in three interrelated manners: it furnished a conceptual foundation for American politics; it generated a series of deeply influential textbooks on the art of rhetoric; and it provided the most important systematic basis for thinking about psychology in the United States before the publication of William James's The Principles of Psychology in 1890.

The common sense argument that humans normally possess mental faculties or senses in common was understood by Americans during the time of the American Revolution as a philosophical foundation for the republican form of government. Thus, Thomas Paine, at the suggestion of Benjamin Rush, the founding figure of American psychiatry, would name his call for a government based on republican principles Common Sense (1776). The idea that no particular class of people, such as hereditary nobility, had a greater capacity to discern the truth than the general population is likewise reflected in other founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist Papers.

People are equipped to follow arguments and thereby discern truth for themselves, according to common sense theory. This principle, along with associated political practices and the long history of discourse about rhetoric dating back to early Greek philosophy, helped spur the growth of persuasive discourse or rhetoric as an academic discipline within the United States. Again, Scottish common sense thinkers figured largely in the development of systematic approaches to rhetoric that would prove influential. George Campbell's The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) was routinely studied by American college students until 1870, and Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres (1783) was used widely through the end of the nineteenth century. The notion that rhetorical skill was an important component of higher education now seems dated, but it reflects an antebellum sensibility that valued persuasive discourse as an essential feature of government. A potential weaknesses of this approach to government was dramatized by James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which repeatedly presents scenes in which Native Americans, depicted as democratic but easily manipulated by appeals to emotions, fall under the spell of a skillful, manipulative, and unprincipled speaker. Obviously the effective rhetorician needed to understand not only logical argumentation but also human psychology. For Cooper the ideal citizen was one to whom base appeals to self-interest or sensual pleasure would not usurp the decision-making authority properly the province of the suitably developed will.

The structures inherent to the human mind were important to common sense thinkers such as Dugald Stewart, whose Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (published in three volumes from 1792 to 1827) as well as Outlines of Moral Philosophy (1793) were included in the Yale curriculum. The major American writers of college and high school textbooks on psychology followed the lead of Scottish writers in elaborating systematic approaches to the topic. For example, three basic texts of Thomas C. Upham (1799–1872)—Elements of Mental Philosophy (1832), A Philosophical and Practical Treatise on the Will (1841), and Abridgment of Mental Philosophy (1863)—remained in print even after the Civil War. Like Upham's, other texts, such as Elements of Moral Science (1835) and Elements of Intellectual Philosophy (1854) by Francis Wayland (1796–1865) and Empirical Psychology (1854) by Laurens Perseus Hickok (1798–1888) presented to American students a common sense framework for comprehending psychology. Their approach to psychology divided the mind into three components: the intellect (which included interactions with surroundings, such as sensations or perception, as well as internal processes, such as dreaming, memory, and association), sensibilities (emotions, desires, and the moral senses), and the will (incorporating all aspects of volition, decisions intended to lead to action).

While unconscious motivation was beyond the ordinary scope of rationalist psychology, attempts were made to account for unwilled thought through analysis of "the association of ideas," a phrase coined by John Locke in 1700 to describe the formation of complex ideas from simple sensations as well as to account for sequences of mental activities. This latter point would be especially significant to those interested in literary theory, such as the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), who relied on association theory in "Lectures on Poetry" (1825–1826) to promote a nationalist aesthetics in which symbols of the nation or the home, for example, were presumed to elicit common emotional responses from readers. None of this was at odds with common sense thinking, as Upham, himself a published poet, would attempt to account for artistic creativity as a combination of ideas, willed thought, and sensory input. From Upham's common sense perspective, however, rational thought had priority over emotional states, and the will properly guided both intellectual and emotional functions. Disorders of this hierarchy or of association, what would be termed abnormal psychology, stimulated more limited interest, although Upham's Outlines of Imperfect and Disordered Mental Action (1840) and Isaac Ray's A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity (1838) went through multiple editions.


The Protestant religious allegiances of Scottish common sense philosophers and their followers in the United States dovetailed with the psychological emphasis on normal mental functions to produce a unified system of metaphysical and social values that promoted conventional social forms. Thus, for example, one may find across a wide spectrum of literature unquestioningly positive treatments of domestic values. This emphasis on the family by common sense thinkers interestingly coincided with that of advocates of separate spheres for the genders, which at its inception represented a challenge to patriarchal domination of the family. The agreement on this particular point by conservative psychologists with those promoting social change on behalf of women led to literary depictions of families that, at least on the surface, appeared to be similar from writers occupying a range of opinions, from the staunchly abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe to such less bluntly political writers as Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), and the Fireside Poets.

One poem that illustrates the conventional values of the era is "The Village Blacksmith" (1841) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). In this poem Longfellow contemplates a scene that even in his day would appear to eulogize a simpler, pre-industrial time. The blacksmith, his regular labor interrupted by Sunday in church, where his daughter sings, grows tearful at the reminder of her mother, "Singing in Paradise" (p. 376). The sequential evocation of family, religion, and work within the poem leads to the concluding praise of the blacksmith:

For the lesson thou hast taught! 
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought.

(P. 377)

The image of the blacksmith's labor as a metaphor for the willed shaping of one's own life develops out of his normative emotional attachments to family, church, and community. This didactic poem, often republished for children, moreover displays how domestic bonds helped ground even the ostensibly masculine realm of willed action.

One may find such allegiances also pervading the work of a writer who is famed for his critique of conventional moral strictures in The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne. While Hawthorne does plainly note with disapproval Puritan rigidity, this novel dramatizes the relationship between familial and social discord. From the perspective of psychologists contemporary to Hawthorne, the site where the individual learns social attachment is the family and the interpersonal force that binds people together in society is an attenuated version of familial love. Moral philosophers like Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759) and Thomas Brown (Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, 1822) debated the nature of this social force, often called "benevolence" or "sympathy," the latter term repeatedly used by Hawthorne as he charts the changing distances between characters and society in his novel, which features a ruptured family unit within a society in which sympathy struggles against Puritan rigidity.

Early nineteenth-century psychologists viewed art from a moralistic perspective, yet a positive regard for the literary imagination prevailed. In this passage from a psychology textbook, Thomas C. Upham praises the imaginative faculty for its varied effects.

Many an hour it has beguiled by the new situations it has depicted, and the new views of human nature it has disclosed; many a pang of the heart it has subdued, either by introducing us to greater woes which others have suffered, or by intoxicating the memory with its luxuriousness and lulling it into a forgetfulness of ourselves; many a good resolution it has cherished and subtended, as it were, a new and wider horizon around the intellectual being, has filled the soul with higher conceptions, and inspired it with higher hopes. . . . The soul enters with joy into those new and lofty creations which it is the prerogative of the imagination to form; and they seem to it a congenial residence.

Thomas C. Upham, Abridgment of Mental Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), pp. 228–229.

Hawthorne's classic novel may be understood to reflect the tenuous nature of social cohesion in the United States during the years before the Civil War, while similar values are asserted by Louisa May Alcott during the postwar years in Little Women (1868–1869). In Alcott's novel the relations between children and mother are central, and the concluding gesture toward the widening of such bonds when Jo March establishes a school suggests that a widening sphere of familial union may compensate for the trauma of the Civil War.


Writers of sentimental novels largely accepted the centrality of the family, and within the family the bond between mother and child was treated as most important. Stowe's immensely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) epitomizes the regard of sentimental novelists for the family: she dramatized the effects on the family of slavery, an institution that profoundly undermined slave families while harming slave-owning families within the novel as well. Although the ethical argument against slavery was grounded within her defense of the family, Stowe departed from mainstream psychological thinking when positing emotional responses as the primary index of ethical behavior and the good. According to common sense theory, the intellect properly has priority over the emotions, yet in Uncle Tom's Cabin the reader is repeatedly asked to look not toward rational argument but toward those empathic feelings that would lead one to oppose slavery and, more conventionally, to adopt a Christian outlook.

Other works that promoted abolitionism followed similar strategies, such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), which tells a complex story of the effects of slavery on relations between parents and children. Along similar lines, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) made a point of arguing that any diminished family feelings among slaves was the result of slavery, thus tacitly displaying the fact that for Americans of that era family attachments were a crucial index of normal psychology. Douglass, moreover, presented a narrator who embodied the mainstream psychological virtue of the dominance of the will over other functions, and thus his narrative persona appeared to be aligned with other exemplary American figures, such as Benjamin Franklin.

A different sort of social and literary critique was developed by transcendentalist writers, most prominently Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). Emerson famously regarded traditional authority with skepticism, but unlike Stowe, for whom a correlation of biblical and emotional imperatives held sway, Emerson would argue for a source of authority derived from less tangible sources. In one sense, the introspective approach of his early essays resembles that of common sense thinkers, for whom introspection was vital. Yet the critical difference is articulated by Thoreau when he appealed to readers of "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849) to embrace social reform: "They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head" (p. 244). For Thoreau, as well as for Common Sense thinkers, truth is a universal phenomenon, but Thoreau's prioritizing of inspiration over sacred texts represents a substantial departure from the norm. Moreover, in Walden (1854), his sustained account of transcendentalist introspection, Thoreau integrated into his discussion unorthodox states of mind and emotion that beforehand would mainly have been found in literary accounts of disordered psychology.


While some emotional disorders were described by psychology texts, the imaginative literature of the period generated some of the most striking descriptions of unusual, bizarre, or simply unhappy mental states, no doubt because of their dramatic possibilities. Most extravagant in this regard is The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall (1845) by George Lippard (1822–1854), which parades before the reader an array of crazed behaviors, all with the purported goal of enhancing contemporary morality. One of Lippard's closest literary precursor is Charles Brockden Brown, whose Wieland tells a story of command hallucinations leading to murder. Unlike Lippard's novel, however, Wieland does more than depict madness: its ambiguities also create a state of mental uncertainty within the reader, whose attempts to comprehend narrative events correspond to those of fictional characters trying to grasp the unknown. In this respect, Wieland resembles later depictions of mental disorder by Poe and Hawthorne.

Hawthorne's stories, whether dealing with history or his own era, frequently depicted a range of mental disorders, such as the convulsive mass laughter of "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" or the husband's coldness in "Wakefield." Many of his stories revolve around problems of obsession or delusion. In the case of "The Birth-mark," for example, the scientist's obsessiveness destroys, while in "Ethan Brand" obsessive guilt triggers the plot. In all these stories as well as in Hawthorne's novels, disruptions to normal social attachments can either lead to or result from emotional disorder. Thus in "Young Goodman Brown," the protagonist's hallucinatory experiences can seem like both cause and effect of his remoteness from his family. Moreover, mental disorder furnished Hawthorne with the occasion for experimentation with narrative voice and form, as the reader is often led to a condition of doubt. It is no surprise that the master of the psychological novel, Henry James, would devote a full-length study to Hawthorne.

Like Hawthorne, Poe presents enigmatic pieces of information suggesting a state of mind while involving the reader in the attempt to decipher their significance. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is Poe's classic account of a disordered state leading to destruction, yet even in his mysteries Poe also describes mental operations with care. The unfolding of the mystery of "The Purloined Letter" thus involves an extensive record of intellectual detective work that finally does not fully account for the inspiration that leads to the solution. This suggests that while many writers displayed acuity when describing unconventional mental states, they could not draw from a commensurate development among psychologists. Thus the most famous madman of nineteenth-century literature, Captain Ahab of Herman Melville's (1819–1991) Moby-Dick (1851) is repeatedly diagnosed by the narrator as a "monomaniac," a label that has limited value in explaining behavior.

See alsoCurricula; Fireside Poets; German Scholarship; Gothic Fiction; Philosophy; Protestantism; Rhetoric; Sensational Fiction; Slave Narratives; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "The Village Blacksmith." 1841. In American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century; Freneau to Whitman, edited by John Hollander, pp. 375–377. New York: Library of America, 1993.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Poetic Principle." In Essays and Reviews. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Resistance to CivilGovernment. 2nd ed. Edited by William Rossi. New York: Norton, 1992.

Secondary Works

Alkana, Joseph. The Social Self: Hawthorne, Howells, WilliamJames, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Boudreau, Kristin. Sympathy in American Literature:American Sentiments from Jefferson to the Jameses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Fiering, Norman S. "Irresistible Compassion: An Aspect of Eighteenth-Century Sympathy and Humanitarianism." Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (April–June 1976): 195–218.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Unitarian Conscience: HarvardMoral Philosophy, 1805–1861. 1970. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Martin, Terence. The Instructed Vision: Scottish CommonSense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work ofAmerican Fiction 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Joseph Alkana

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