The third installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916…
“The Hangman’s Glee” by George Lippard
The very title of this excerpted scene from Lippard’s 1845 American Gothic shocker The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (the country’s bestselling novel prior to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) points to the macabre mockery of decorum. The villainous Devil-Bug happily narrates about his previous experiences as an executioner: “When I was quite a little shaver I used to hang a puppy or a pussy-cat, and I used to think it quite refreshin’. But hangin’ a man? Ho-hoo! That’s the ticket!” Devil-Bug proceeds to provide an example, recounting the capital punishment of Charley, a young English sailor (wrongly) charged with murdering the captain of a sea vessel. That public hanging occasions some gallows humor, as a punning Devil-Bug describes the attending parson as “a blackbird, or rather a crow come to pray over yer dead body, boy” (the sin-sniffing hangman also exposes the false piety of the parson, who is more worried about what he is having for dinner than about preaching to the condemned man). Devil-Bug also takes a satiric jab at the medical profession, at the old doctors “prowlin’ around like wolves,” eager to steal off with the corpse for a grisly dissection.
Lippard’s scene, though, heaps the most scorn on the angry mob that has gathered to witness the hanging. The crowd’s bloodlust only throws Charley’s innocence into starker contrast; “hooting, yelling, swearing, and screaming like devils,” these people prove no better specimens of humanity than Devil-Bug himself. He gives a final glimpse of the unruly mob working to procure unholy relic, “tearing the gibbet to pieces, and bearin’ splinters away in their fingers, that they might take ’em home to their families and brag of seein’ a man hung! Ho-hoo!” His jovial tone, though, cannot undercut the horror of what transpired on that ignominious day. Poor Charley’s hanging is described in grim detail, his body jerking spastically, his tongue protruding “black as a hat.” “The Hangman’s Glee” makes for an appropriate excerpt from the sprawling novel, representing Lippard’s penchant for expressing moral outrage by splashing scenes of extreme iniquity across the page.
“The Skeleton in Armor” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Reminiscent of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Longfellow’s poem is framed as an accosting by an uncanny figure; here the titular revenant haunts the poet-narrator, hounding him to record his story in verse or “Else dread a dead man’s curse.” The tell-tale skeleton claims to be a formerly marauding Viking forced into a fugitive elopement with his beloved after a Norse prince scornfully dismissed his request of the daughter’s hand in marriage. A thrilling sea chase ensued, but successful escape to the shores of the New World did not leave the couple married happily ever after. When the wife died some years later, the distraught Viking buried her beneath the “lofty tower” he had built “for my lady’s bower” and then donned his “warlike gear” and threw himself onto his own sword.
This now-grave-marking tower proves to be a key detail. In a headnote to the poem (not reproduced here in Crow’s anthology), Longfellow identifies it as the actual “Round Tower” in Newport, Rhode Island. The poet subscribes to the mistaken belief that that construction is of Viking origin, and accordingly shapes “The Skeleton in Armor” to fit such a narrative. Unfortunately, such backward glance toward the European aligns Longfellow’s poem with a more dubious form of American Gothic that anachronistically transplants medieval structures onto New England soil rather than finding native equivalents for traditional Gothic elements. So while imbued with spooky atmosphere, “The Skeleton in Armor” ultimately makes for a pallid example of American Gothic poetry.