A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (Chapter XXXI) and Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Foreigner”

The latest 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 Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

The Poe overtones are manifold in this Gothic tale interpolated in the thirty-first chapter of Twain’s ostensible 1883 nonfiction book. Before embarking on a curious nocturnal errand, the narrating Twain persona recounts a dark tale told to him in Germany a year prior by the now-deceased Karl Ritter. Ritter’s story reveals a man hellbent on vengeance after a terrible affront to his family (his wife and child are murdered during a cabin-invasion and attempted robbery by two wayward [German emigre] soldiers during the American Civil War). Many years later, Ritter (having traveled back overseas and found work as a corpse-watcher in a German death-house) takes a Montresorian delight in tormenting his ill-fated nemesis when the latter (prematurely designated as dead) awakens in his shockingly charnel surroundings. Along with “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial,” Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” is invoked via an encoded missive that serves as something of a treasure map (the stolen riches secreted by the soldier-thieves paralleling the hidden plunder of Captain Kidd in the Poe story).

Ritter’s tale is full of deceptive disguise (the determined detective and would-be vigilante infiltrates the army camp by dressing up as a fortune-teller) and mistaken identity (Ritter unwittingly stabs to death the “gentler robber,” not the brute who murdered his family). Twain’s Chapter XXXI narrative (whose frame story is appropriately set in “Napoleon, Arkansas”) is also noteworthy for its transnational aspects, its cross-cutting between a German death-house and “that lonely region” of the war-torn American South. Ritter makes a deathbed request that the narrator locate the hidden money in Napoleon and then bequeath it to the heir of the gentler robber, who lives in Mannheim (“I shall sleep the sounder in my grave,” says Ritter, “for knowing that I have done what I could for the son of the man who tried to save my wife and child–albeit my hand ignorantly struck him down”). But the happy ending pointed to at the end of this excerpted chapter is ironically undercut by the anthology-editor Crow’s appended endnote: “The next chapter [of Twain’s book] reveals that the building which may have contained the treasure has been swept away by the changing channel of the Mississippi.” Apparently, human fortune has been beggared by the caprices of sublime Nature.

 

“The Foreigner” by Sarah Orne Jewett

Jewett endeavors to establish a dark, stormy atmosphere for the ghost story told in this 1900 tale (which forms a bit of a postcript to the regional-realist author’s 1896 collection of linked stories, The Country of the Pointed Firs). A tempest rages without (“some wet twigs blew against the window panes and made a noise like a distressed creature trying to get in”), just as it did on the night the title character (a French widow of Dunnet Landing’s Captain John Tolland) died. But Jewett is no Joyce Carol Oates or Anne Rice (or even Edith Wharton), and her character Almira Todd presents a tale that produces no terrifying revenant. The dark-faced woman who appears to Almira and the widow as the latter lies on her deathbed has “a pleasant enough face” that is soon identified as the countenance of the widow’s late mother (who has come to lead her daughter off into the hereafter, where she’ll never have “to feel strange an’ lonesome no more”).

Jewett’s story creates minimal frisson, yet qualifies as a work of American Gothic in its depiction of small town prejudice. The natives of Dunnet Landing ostracize the French foreigner (especially after her singing and dancing in the meeting-house vestry is deemed scandalous). They also bear a superstitious fear of her, as Almira recounts: “She was well acquainted with the virtues o’ plants. She’d act awful secret about some things, too, an’ used to work charms for herself sometimes, an’ some of the neighbors told to an’ fro after she died that they knew enough not to provoke her.” Almira, though, dismisses the town gossip as nonsense, and admits that she owes her own “unusual knowledge of cookery” to the widow. “The Foreigner” thus furnishes further insight into the character (central in The Country of the Pointed Firs) of Mrs. Todd, a herbal-medicine dispenser who represents a “kind of good witch” (as described by Crow in his editorial headnote). In this light, it is also intriguing to consider how Almira prefigures the resident of another fictional Maine community: the uncanny heroine of Stephen King’s Castle Rock narrative “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.”

 

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