Date of Award

Winter 1988

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


During the nineteenth century, the Orient--what we now call the Middle East--was an object of fascination for American writers and artists. Many of them made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and traveled down the Nile. Among the American Romantic writers, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville were interested in and wrote about this region. This dissertation examines the importance the Orient had for these four writers in the context of the general nineteenth century hunger for Romantic experience.

Chapter one looks at the background of American Orientalism. The discussion includes a brief examination of the travel writing of John Lloyd Stephens, George William Curtis, and Bayard Taylor, as well as a discussion of American Orientalist art. Chapter two focuses on Oriental elements in the writing of Washington Irving. Particular attention is paid to The Alhambra and the central role Irving's sojourn in the ruined Moorish palace played in his creative life. Chapter three examines Edgar Allan Poe's arabesque aesthetic as an organizing principle in his writing. "The Domain of Arnheim" and "Landor's Cottage" are discussed in detail. Chapter four centers on how the Persian poetry of Saadi and Hafiz informed Emerson's own poems and gave him an original way of writing about the American landscape. Chapter five looks at the role the Orient played in Herman Melville's lifelong search for spiritual fulfillment. Melville's Journal Up the Straits and Clarel reveal the deep disappointment and disillusionment he felt when he visited the Holy Land. None of these writers had a stereotypical view of the Orient. For all of them, the Orient had a specific personal value.

The emphasis of this dissertation is not on Oriental sources for specific works written during the nineteenth century, but on the underlying importance the Orient had for some of the major writers of the American Renaissance. Throughout the dissertation, whenever possible, relevent Orientalist artwork is discussed. Paintings by Thomas Cole, Frederick Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Elihu Vedder, Jean-Leon Gerome, and Luc Olivier Merson are related to various literary works to show the depth and complexity of American Romantic Orientalism.