A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Herman Melville’s “The Bell-Tower” and Alice Cary’s “The Wildermings”

The (long overdue) seventh 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 Bell-Tower” by Herman Melville

Melville’s 1856 story centers on “the great mechanician, the unblest foundling, Bannadonna,” who has been commission to construct the eponymous architectural marvel. Bannadonna is a quintessential eccentric genius whose operation via “secret design” tends to unsettle others (“his seclusion failed not to invest his work with more or less of that sort of mystery pertaining to the forbidden”). Before his work is completed, Bannadonna is found slain in the belfry, apparently bludgeoned to death by the automaton bell-ringer he designed (and which looms over his corpse in macabre tableau). Melville vacillates between mechanical and supernatural explanations for Bannadonna’s fate: was the oblivious builder simply blind-sided while busy putting finishing touches on the bell,  or did he receive vicious redress for his previous murder of a timid workman (whose blood mixed in with metal during the casting of the bell)? The fact that the bell crashes to the ground during Bannadonna’s funeral, and that the tower itself is subsequently leveled (on the first anniversary of its completion) by an earthquake, suggests that a higher power has disapproved of Bannadonna’s lofty ambition and merciless pursuit of glory. As Melville moralizes in the closing paragraph: “So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord; but in obedience, slew him. So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for its tower. So that bell’s main weakness was where man’s blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall.”

In his headnote to the entry, editor Charles Crow asserts: “With a strong belief in the reality of evil, a sense that reality is slippery and ambiguous, and an oppositional stance toward many conventional American values, the Gothic mode was natural, perhaps inevitable, for Melville.” Crow goes on to cite the author’s Captain Ahab character as a preeminent Gothic hero-villain, and Bannadonna (a Promethean over-reacher who also forms a Victor Frankenstein figure) certainly fits this mold. But with its overt Italian setting, “The Bell-Tower” is decidedly foreign to the United States; it does not allegorically align–along race or gender lines–with a native situation, either (cf. Crow’s comment that Melville’s Benito Cereno “is a profound Gothic meditation on race in the Americas”). As such, the tale does not make for a terribly representative piece of American Gothic fiction.

 

“The Wildermings” by Alice Cary

Cary’s 1852 sketch is set primarily in a “lonesome little graveyard” in the woods outside the rural community of Clovernook. The cemetery is a source of superstitious lore for the locals, who claim that it is haunted by the ghosts of “unresting spirits” such as Mary Wildermings, “a fair young girl who died, more sinned against than sinning, [and] had been heard to sing sad lullabies under the waning moon sometimes, and at other times had been seen sitting by her sunken grave , and braiding roses in her hair, as for a bridal.” When a mysterious trio–a handsome young man, a 14-year-old girl (his presumed sister) and an elderly woman (mother? servant?)–inhabit the abandoned cottage nearby the cemetery, the reader (helped by Cary’s story title) can infer that these people are somehow related to Mary. The strange girl, ever stoic and vigilant (“her melancholy are wide open all the time”), takes ill and expires, and is climactically established as the daughter of Mary: “her mother, they say, died in watching for one who never came, and the baby was watchful and sleepless from the first.”

The pitiable Mary Wildermings hardly makes for some malevolent revenant, and Cary’s is no doubt a genteel version of Gothic narrative. Nevertheless, in this darkly romantic tale of a jilted lover/ruined woman, the author (who twice cites Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) creates a fine sense of graveyard ambiance. Charles Crow’s headnote states that Cary’s collections of sketches about the fictional Clovernook “anticipate later regional realists such as Freeman and Jewett,” but Clovernook might also be viewed as a forerunner of more famous American Gothic towns created by writers such as Faulkner, Bradbury, and King.

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