A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes” and Jack London’s “Samuel”

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Today, a look at the final two stories in editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Eyes” by Edith Wharton

In Wharton’s 1910 tale, a group of gentlemanly dinner guests retire to a “Gothic library”  for drinks, cigars, and a round of ghost stories. When their host, Andrew Culwin, is persuaded to contribute his own midnight narrative, he relates a personal experience of having been haunted at several times over a period of years by the infernal glare of a pair of eyes appearing at his bedside:

They were the worst eyes I’ve ever seen:  a man’s eyes–but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim, looked like sea pebbles in the grip of a starfish.

Noting the uncanny eyes’ “damnable habit of coming back,” Culwin asserts: “They reminded me of vampires with a taste for young flesh, they seemed to gloat over the taste of a good conscience.” The self-deluded Culwin, though, is oblivious to his own enervating effect on those around him. Apparently his conscience isn’t as good as he claims, either, because in the climax of Wharton’s story he is forced to consider that the hateful eyes were his very own–a ghost of his future self reproaching him for his selfish misdeeds.

From its mention in the frame story of upping the narrative ante by presenting a tale of two ghosts, to its hinting at the death of a young male character in its final line, “The Eyes” is clearly indebted to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (who served as a literary mentor to Wharton). Wharton further acknowledges her ghost story–and American Gothic–roots by referencing a writer of a famously ambiguous, framed-narrative spook tale (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Culwin recounts early on that he lived in “a damp Gothic villa” in Irvington that belonged to “an old aunt who had known Washington Irving.” Wharton’s literary effort here, however, is hardly derivative; “The Eyes” is an atmospheric and meticulously crafted piece of American Gothic literature.

 

“Samuel” by Jack London

London’s 1909 story concerns an inscrutable old woman, Margaret Henan, who has been mysteriously shunned by her insular community. The intrigued narrator wonders if Henan is guilty of “some shocking cruelty? some amazing infidelity? or some fearful, old-world peasant-crime?” Via a series of conversations with Henan’s fellow islanders, the narrator gradually uncovers the reason for her ostracism. Henan’s beloved brother Samuel suffered an ignominious fate: after his marriage is nullified (due to a clerical error by the minister) while the husband/skipper was at sea, Samuel’s wife drowns herself and her babe. Finally returning home, only to discover the loss of his loved ones, Samuel attempts to kill himself at their gravesite, and before he expires he spits and curses at the minister, and dies “blaspheming so terribly that those that tended on him did so with an averted gaze and trembling hands.”

Because of his manner of death, Samuel is a black figure for the islanders; the suicide’s very name is considered one of ill-omen. Yet Samuel’s sister Margaret insists on honoring her late brother’s memory by naming her own son Samuel. More accurately, she ends up naming four of her sons Samuel, and each child stubbornly christened thus ultimately meets a tragic end. The first Samuel dies of the croup; the second is boiled to death as a three-year-old after accidentally falling into a tub of hot water; the third grows up healthy and happy, only to be drowned at sea. The last Samuel, born to Margaret when she is 47 years old, is “a great awful monster,” a braying idiot that his own father bludgeons to death one day with a puck-handle (the filicide then promptly hangs himself in the stable).

A name with uncannily tragic consequences; a seemingly cursed family; superstitious and provincial locals: London’s “Samuel” might seem a preeminent work of American Gothic. The problem is that there is nothing American in this tale (set on Island McGill off the cost of Ireland) except for the fact that the narrator is a Yankee abroad. In his headnote to the story, editor Charles L. Crow posits that “Samuel” is “a fitting work to conclude this volume, but the piece only proves fitting in that it is yet another example of Crow’s own loose sense of “American Gothic” literature–a Gothic work written by an American author (and not necessarily tied to an American scene).

 

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