A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie and Henry Clay Lewis’s “A Struggle for Life”

The fourth 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:

from The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper

This excerpted chapter from Cooper’s 1827 novel concerns the efforts of retribution–the attempt by patriarch Ishmael Bush to capitally punish Abiram White, the brother of his wife but also the murderer of Ishmael’s son. Cooper resorts to a Gothic rhetoric throughout the chapter; for example, the captured murderer White is riddled “with the terror that one would exhibit who unexpectedly found himself in the grasp of a monster from whose power there was no retreat.” The nightscape Cooper describes also makes for an indisputably eerie setting: “The wind had risen with the moon, and it was occasionally sweeping over the plain in a manner that made it not difficult for the sentinel [Ishmael] to imagine strange and unearthly sounds were mingling in the blast.” Ishmael’s nocturnal vigil indeed verges on the fanciful: “The naked prairies began to assume the forms of illimitable and dreary wastes, and the rushing of the wind sounded like the whisperings of the dead.”

While Cooper succeeds in establishing an ominous atmosphere, he scripts a scene that ultimately plays cold. Despite their “lawless and semi-barbarous” nature, the Bushes do not devolve into an angry mob exacting bloody justice. The laconic and lethargic Ishmael even allows his brother-in-law to be his own executioner, leaving him to hang himself from a dead willow tree (the hanging is not dramatized, although White’s death throes are overheard, and the “grim and convulsed countenance” of his later-revealed corpse makes for a haunting image). In his headnote to the selection, editor Charles L. Crow notes that the “novels of James Fenimore Cooper are filled with Gothic moments,” but the chapter Crow chooses to excerpt here makes for a middling example, of questionable worthiness of inclusion in an anthology of American Gothic literature.

 

“A Struggle for Life” by Henry Clay Lewis

Lewis’s short story (from his 1850 collection Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor) features a spooky bayou setting with “night draperied darkly around” and local fauna lending an ominous aura: “Had I not known it was an owl surrounded with moss that sat upon that stricken tree,” Dr. Madison Tensas narrates, “I would have sworn it was the form of an old man, clad in a sombre flowing mantle, his arm raised in an attitude of warning.” The story also sports some incredible imagery, such as when Tensas is seemingly strangled to death by the drunken, enraged Negro dwarf that had been serving as his guide. Tensas’s conveyed thoughts read like a grotesque, posthumous variation on the Poe-like dread of premature burial:

My lungs had ceased to play; my heart was still; my muscles were inactive; even my skin had the dead clammy touch. Had men been there, they would have placed me in a coffin, and buried me deep in the ground, and the worm would have eaten me, and the death-rats made nests in my heart, and what was lately a strong man would have become a loathsome mass. But still in that coffin amidst those writhing worms, would have been the immortal mind. and still would it have thought and pondered on till the last day was come.

Yet perhaps what proves most striking about “A Struggle for Life” is the racist perspective of Lewis’s narrator. The Negro dwarf antagonist of the piece is thoroughly dehumanized and demonized, described as “the nearest resemblance to the ourang-outang mixed with the devil.” He is a “foul ape,” a “hellish Negro” given to “demoniac expression.” He apparently has a pair of tusks bracketing a double hare-lip; his yell is “like a wild beast’s,” his teeth are gnashing “fangs,” and his hands terrible, throttling “talons.” If (as Crow suggests in his headnote) Lewis’s story touches upon the Southern fear of slave rebellion, then Tensas also recounts the stern punishment of such transgression. “Awful was the retribution” the Negro dwarf suffered for his attack on the white doctor. In what amounts to a self-inflicted lynching, the drunken wretch stumbles onto the campfire and is reduced to a “charred and loathsome mass” (these last two words precisely echoing Tensas’s earlier concerns). In his landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler cites Edgar Allan Poe as “our first eminent Southern author [to] discover that the proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged,” but “A Struggle for Life” demonstrates that Fiedler’s lines apply just as readily to Henry Clay Lewis.

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