A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Stephen Crane’s “The Monster”

The latest (overdue) 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 Monster” by Stephen Crane

Crane’s 1899 novelette is a clear American Gothic riff on the classic novel Frankenstein. Like the patchwork creation in Mary Shelley’s narrative, Crane’s African-American character Henry Johnson, a genial horse groomer, is sadly misunderstood; his physical abnormality is mistaken for essential grotesquerie. Henry is gravely wounded (his face seared right off) while rescuing his employer’s son from a horrific house fire (which Crane describes in nothing-less-than-Gothic terms: flames gouting from the windows are likened to “bloody specters at the apertures of a haunted house”). Grateful for Henry’s sacrifice, the father, Dr. Trescott, sets to the Frankensteinian task of “restoring him to life.” Such effort, though, is not endorsed by the people of Whilomville, who consider that the physically- and mentally-ravaged Henry is better off left for dead.

At one point, Henry escapes from his supervised convalescence, unwittingly terrifies a group of children gathered at a party, and is chased by a stone-throwing mob of angry villagers. The treatment of the wounded hero Henry is despicable enough, yet does not represent the extent of the town’s ugliness. Crane exposes the pettiness of the gossiping townspeople, whose prejudices extend beyond the racial (Henry was already marked as different because of his skin color, but now he is further demonized for modeling a travesty of the healthy human form). Trescott’s so-called friends and neighbors hector him to banish Henry to a remote farm, and when the good doctor refuses, both he and his wife end up ostracized: the doctor’s long-time patients abandon him for other physicians, and at the conclusion of the tale, Mrs. Trescott’s tea party is boycotted by the women who now refuse to socialize with her. The true monster of the novelette’s title proves to be not Henry Johnson, but the community of the only-superficially-idyllic Whilomville itself.

In its references to Shelley (transferring elements of a canonical text of British Gothic fiction to New World soil) and its censure of the incivility underpinning a quintessential small town, Crane’s “The Monster” surely warrants the label “American Gothic,” and forms one of the most representative pieces in Crow’s anthology.