Antebellum Anticipations of Annihilation

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“The slaveholders,” Frederick Douglass said in an address in April 1849, “are sleeping on slumbering volcanoes.” His language was evocative, so much so that that Herman Melville cribbed it in a novella about an uprising on a slave ship that, “like a slumbering volcano, suddenly let loose energies” hidden just beneath the deck. American readers in the 1850s were captivated by such apocalyptic imagery. Many were familiar with The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), a book-length romance depicting a decadent Roman society suddenly consumed in a holocaust of fire and ash, an apocalyptic end of their world. As the crisis over slavery developed -- from the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) to the Kansas–Nebraska Act (1854) to the Dred Scott decision (1857) -- many became convinced that their world would, like that of Pompeii, come to a fiery end. The Millerites prepared for the return of Jesus Christ, black and white abolitionists called for the United States to be purified “with fire,” and literary authors now associated with the so-called American Renaissance, from Emerson to Whitman, noted the fragility of the American experiment. This chapter will consider the writing of authors such as Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, John Rollin Ridge, and others, to explore the apocalyptic dimensions of an era that has long been privileged as an American literary renaissance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationApocalypse in American Literature and Culture
EditorsJohn Hay
Place of PublicationCambridge and New York
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)978-1108493840
Publication statusPublished - 17 Dec 2020

Publication series

NameCambridge Themes in American Literature and Culture
PublisherCambridge University Press


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