A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun” and “Luella Miller”

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:

“Old Woman Magoun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Freeman’s 1909 tale presents a clear American Gothic hero-villain in the character of Nelson Barry, “the fairly dangerous degenerate of a good old family.” Forceful in personality yet shiftless and given to vice, Barry is worshiped as “an evil deity” by the town’s other layabout males. He is at once physically attractive and morally repugnant. It’s not bad enough that he seduced and then deserted the title character’s daughter (who died a week after giving birth to her own daughter, Lily). Now, after discovering that the child he has neglected for fourteen years is beginning to blossom into a beauty, Barry attempts to claim Lily from her grandmother’s guardianship (so he can pimp the girl out to a gambling buddy in debased payment of an accrued debt). Desperate to keep Lily from her corrupt father’s clutches, Magoun first seeks to have Lily adopted by a wealthy lawyer and his wife. When that last-ditch effort fails, she knowingly allows the innocent and naive Lily to consume deadly nightshade berries.

In her murderous decision to save Lily from a fate worse than death, Magoun prefigures Sethe in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Her extreme protectiveness of her granddaughter brings a considerable amount of moral complexity to Freeman’s short story (one could argue that Magoun herself has had a ruinous effect on Lily all along, by keeping her mired in “prolonged childhood,” a perennially prepubescent state meant to stave off a fateful deflowering such as the one suffered by Lily’s mother). While the righteousness of Magoun’s steering of Lily toward the safety of the hereafter is debatable, there is no denying that the old woman’s best intentions in the story prove tragic missteps. Her efforts to distance her family from the sordid Barrys are in vain; just like Nelson’s “feeble-minded” sister Isabel, Magoun appears “touched” in the head at tale’s end. Toting around the same rag doll that a fourteen-year-old Lily had been allowed to play with, Magoun ironically reverts to an unnatural child-like state. Freeman ultimately paints a grim picture of a patriarchal society that affords limited options to women, who are left warped by their own desperate measures.

 

“Luella Miller” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Long before Kurt Barlow visited Salem’s Lot, a vampiric figure wreaked uncanny havoc on a fictional New England village. In Freeman’s 1902 tale, the title character has a strangely enervating effect on those around her, who all seem to waste away while weighing on Luella hand and foot.  Luella’s evil reputation in the village gradually develops as her pupil (when Luella was employed, but never really worked, as a schoolteacher), her husband, her sister-in-law, and a sequence of caregivers are each drained of their vitality. And Luella herself wanes whenever there isn’t someone to provide the sustenance of subservience. Freeman’s story seems to present a more metaphorical form of vampirism, as part of a commentary on the dangers of doting on fetching beauty (which can also lead to a prostrating passivity for the idolized herself).

Freeman’s feminist concerns, though, do not drain “Luella Miller” of Gothic effectiveness. There are some truly unnerving moments here, such as when the aged protagonist Lydia Anderson glimpses the ghosts of Luella’s past victims (servile even in posthumousness) leading her out of her house on the night Luella herself finally expires. Lydia’s own death a few years later hints at Luella’s haunting effect: “One bright moonlight [sic] evening she was sitting beside a window in her parlour when she made a sudden exclamation, and was out of the house and across the street before the neighbor who was taking care of her could stop her. She followed as fast as possible and found Lydia Anderson stretched on the ground before the door of Luella Miller’s deserted house, and she was quite dead.”  Lydia’s mysterious downfall causes an uprising the next night, when Luella’s long-shunned house–“unhallowed by a nearly half a century of superstitious fear”–is “burned to the ground” in classic angry-villager style.

 

 

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