A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Charles W. Chestnutt’s “Po’ Sandy” and “The Sheriff’s Children”

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:

 

“Po’ Sandy” by Charles W. Chestnutt

In the frame story to Chestnutt’s 1899 tale (collected in The Conjure Woman), the white narrator John tells of his decision to tear down an abandoned one-room schoolhouse on his property and build a detached kitchen for his wife Annie. He is dissuaded, though, by his coachman, the elderly ex-slave Julius McAdoo, who claims (shades of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) that the schoolhouse is haunted. Julius launches into the story of the eponymous slave: poor Sandy was dutiful and hard-working, so much so that he was constantly loaned out by his master (who at one point unfeelingly traded away Sandy’s wife while Sandy was toiling far away). When Sandy complained to his second wife, Tenie, about such enforced separation from his loved ones, the latter revealed that she was a conjure woman, and helped him stay at home by working a spell that disguised him as a tree on the property. Minor, and somewhat comic, trials ensued from the transformation (including an incident involving a feisty woodpecker), but true tragedy unfolded when Sandy’s master unwittingly cut down the tree and turned into lumber for the eventual schoolhouse. Tenie (who had herself been sent miles away at the time to serve as nurse for one of the master’s family members) thus had her best-laid plan fail miserably, and the grief-stricken woman is later found dead on the floor of the schoolhouse (which is said to contain the spirit of the groaning, mutilated-while-metamorphosed Sandy).

Annie–a more sympathetic listener than her husband–considers Julius’s account of Sandy a “gruesome narrative.” John, meanwhile, dismisses the “absurdly impossible yarn,” and soon thereafter is forced to consider that the “old rascal” Julius had an ulterior motive for conjuring such a tale: he has worked to preserve the schoolhouse so he and his Baptist brethren can use it as a church. Uncle Julius, though, is more than Chestnutt’s version of Uncle Remus, weaving local-color fiction in a humorous dialect, and “Po’ Sandy” does not just recount a wily hoodwinking but more seriously works to open eyes. “What a system it was,” Annie exclaims after hearing Julius’s story, “under which such things were possible!” She is not talking about fantastic sylvan transformations but the way slavery, beyond just subjugating individuals, tore apart black families. Chestnutt proves the ultimate trickster figure here, as his comic-cum-Gothic tale exposes “the darker side of slavery.”

 

“The Sheriff’s Children” by Charles W. Chestnutt

This second Chestnutt tale first published in 1899 features an American Gothic staple: the angry mob. The quiet, isolated village of Troy in Branson County, North Carolina (whose society “is almost primitive in its simplicity”), is shocked by the foul, midnight murder of Civil War hero Captain Walker. A “strange mulatto” (not coincidentally, Chestnutt himself was of mixed heritage, both of his grandmothers having been slaves impregnated by their white owners) is spotted near the scene and promptly arrested. But a rabble of locals, drunk on “moonlight whiskey,” is hasty for justice and intemperately decides to form a lynching party:

They agreed that this was the least that could be done to avenge the death of their murdered friend, and that it was a becoming way in which to honor his memory. They had some vague notions of the majesty of the law and the rights of the citizen, but in the passion of the moment these sunk into oblivion; a white man had been killed by a negro.

When the bloodthirsty mob arrives at the jailhouse, Sheriff Campbell fends them off, but he proves no heroic precursor to Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. The sheriff is acting from a sense of duty as an elected official, not from moral outrage at his racist constituents (“I’m a white man outside,” he tells the angry villagers, “but in this jail I’m sheriff; and if this n—-er’s to be hung in this county, I propose to do the hanging”). The sheriff’s misguided sense of superiority (“He had relied on the negro’s cowardice and subordination in the presence of an armed white man as a matter of course”) also allows the prisoner to get the drop on him. In a major plot twist (spoiled somewhat by Chestnutt’s chosen story title), the inmate Tom reveals that he is actually the sheriff’s own flesh and blood, callously sold off as a child along with his slave mother to a speculator. Now, in true Gothic fashion, a “wayward spirit” has “come back from the vanished past” to haunt” the sheriff; Tom’s bitter indictment of his abandoning father recalls the creature’s eloquent confronting of Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Just as Tom is about to commit patricide, he is disarmed by the sheriff’s pistol-toting white daughter Polly. The experience has a nonetheless transforming effect on the sheriff, who resolves to help his son (who is innocent of the crime) beat the murder charge. But the sheriff’s turn toward atonement is a case of too little too late: the next morning he discovers that Tom had deliberately “torn the bandage from his [gunshot] wound and bled to death during the night.” Faced with the perceived impossibility of a fair trial, and the hopeless prospect of societal acceptance, Tom has opted for suicide in his jail cell–cementing his status a tragic mulatto figure, and the legacy of “The Sheriff’s Children” as a Gothic critique of race relations in the South.

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