A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

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:

 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

James’s 1896 novella is an undeniably canonical work of Gothic fiction. It exemplifies the genre in both form and content. The narrative is framed as the text of a manuscript that has been secreted “in a locked drawer” for many years, and which has at last been brought out to entertain those gathered fireside for the telling of ghost stories (an attempt to present the ultimate in the macabre reminiscent of the famous competition at the Villa Diodati that eventually produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The actual story that is read aloud to the group is set in an ancestral home (complete with castle-like towers) in the English countryside, an isolated abode that is seemingly haunted by the ghosts of two former employees of ill repute. “Seemingly” is the operative word here, as James haunts/taunts his own readers with ambiguity–the ongoing, nerve-wracking uncertainty of interpretation. Are the horrors at Bly manor sinisterly supernatural, or do the alleged ghosts simply reflect human madness (the dangerous visions of a deluded governess desperate to prove her own heroism)?

All this being said, I have no idea why The Turn of the Screw appears in Crow’s book. The novella qualifies as American Gothic in only the most facile sense: it is a Gothic work written by an American author. Set explicitly and strictly in England, the narrative has zero connection to the American scene (Crow’s claim in the headnote that James emulates Washington Irving in the use of the frame-story device makes for a weak argument for the inclusion of the novella here). The Turn of the Screw has exerted a strong influence on American Gothic works, from The Haunting of Hill House and Dark Shadows to Ghost Story and The Shining, but such legacy does nothing to establish retroactively its own American Gothicism. The fact that Crow did not choose to select “The Jolly Corner,” a much more representative (if less popular) James piece, is a real head-scratcher. The Turn of the Screw is the longest entry in this anthology, and unfortunately, also its wrongest.

 

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.

 

 

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.”

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

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:

Eight Poems by Emily Dickinson:

#9. Dickinson employs stock Gothic imagery–the woods, “banditti” lurking on a “lonely road,” tempestuous weather–in almost allegorical fashion to signal humanity’s fraught journey through life.

#281. The poem invokes the sublime from its opening lines: “‘Tis so appalling–it exhilarates– / So over Horror, it half captivates–.” From here, though, the poem takes a surprisingly optimistic turn, finding relief in release–the acceptance of death frees the soul from “Fright” and “Terror” and makes personal “Woe” no longer so “bleak dreaded.”

#414. Dickinson presents a trio of nightmare scenarios here: drowning by being sucked into a maelstrom, fiendish menacing by “a Goblin with a gauge,” death by hanging from a gibbet. The series of last-minute reprieves–the divine rescue from a dire fate–nonetheless leaves a lasting a crisis of faith.

#512. The opening conceit (“The Soul has Bandaged moments”) hints at mummy-like restriction, at a death-shrouded state. The unnerving attention of a “Goblin” to the poem’s prostrate and and helpless female subject recalls Fuseli’s classic painting “The Nightmare.” In contrast to the positivity of poem #281 above, this one ends on a note of re-imprisonment, a return to the clutches of “Horror.”

#590. Dickinson paints an uncanny scene–a person standing in the mouth of a cave is frightened by a horrid Goblin–as a means of describing the experience of human loneliness.

#670. A poignant exploration of psychological (vs. supernatural) horror: “One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted– / One need not be a House –“. Dickinson argues that the human mind produces “a superior spectre” to any ghost encountered at midnight, to any Gothic villain giving chase through an Abbey.

#1400. This poem focuses on the seemingly-limitless mystery of nature, looks down at the water in a well and posits a whole other world beyond the “abyss’s face.” A perfect example of how Dickinson utilizes a Gothic rhetoric and repertoire of images, as the poet describes nature’s strangeness in terms of a “haunted house” and a “ghost.”

#1670. A surreal shocker (“with creeping blood,” the speaker recounts her nightmare) in which a worm in a bedchamber transforms into a sinister serpent. The Gothic trope of the maiden in flight is expanded to the extreme here, as the speaker runs right out of her house and admittedly doesn’t stop until she’s several towns away.

 

The final verdict? No writer since Poe took readers into–and beyond–the grave. While Dickinson’s work feels closer to home than Poe’s vaguely European settings, her morbid and macabre meditations transcend any specific geographic locale in their more universal concerns with the human condition. Dickinson is an indisputably Gothic poet (one who employs the Gothic to diverse ends), but not necessarily an American Gothic poet. The poet’s own intriguing background–the “fabled eccentricities” (Crow’s headnote phrase) of this legendary New England recluse long sequestered in an upstairs bedroom of her family home–appears to have created an American Gothic framework that does not perfectly reflect what is pictured within Dickinson’s actual poems.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “The Amber Gods”

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:

“The Amber Gods” by Harriet Prescott Spofford

The title of Spofford’s 1863 novelette refers to a mysterious rosary whose beads are carved with figures of “hideous, tiny, heathen gods.” This uncanny amulet once belonged to an Asian dwarf (variously fashioned as a “witch,” “imp,” and “sprite”), a no-longer-living “legend” for the Willoughby family that briefly enslaved her. According to tradition, the dwarf vowed that “bane would burn the bearer” if the beads were ever brought back to the New World. A malefic object literally transported overseas to New England, a family line cursed by the sins of the past: these are the makings for an intriguing American Gothic tale.

But the problem is, the amber beads are embedded in a sprawling narrative marked by overwrought prose and a murky, underdeveloped story (Spofford models her work on the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, but that poetic device seems a poor fit here for the novelette form). The beads get lost time and again in the prolix proceedings, are mentioned only periodically and figure sporadically into the ostensible action. Spofford’s dominate note is one of sentimental romance, and the frisson of the piece’s final line (“I must have died at ten minutes past one”)–revealing a now-posthumous, ghostly narrator–fails to make up for the preceding lack of any sense of menace. All told, “The Amber Gods” represents editor Charles Crow’s least satisfying and most questionable selection for the anthology thus far.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Louisa May Alcott’s “Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power”

The (belated) eighth 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:

Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power by Louisa May Alcott

This 1866 novella (published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard) warrants the same criticism as some of the previous entries in Crow’s anthology: it is a Gothic work by an American author, but (set squarely on an English country estate) is not a work of American Gothic. Crow also misleads in his editorial headnote when he cites Alcott’s character Jean Muir as a “Scottish witch.” Jean does not literally bewitch anyone in the narrative. She is less a weird sister than a scheming Lady MacBeth, more gold-digger than hex-slinger. While her horrified victims claim she possesses “the art of a devil” at tale’s end, she is not actually in league with Satan. Her titular Power is not supernaturally-endowed, but the product of her own feminine wiles.

Alcott does succeed here in transforming traditional Gothic elements, but is not by translating them into American alternatives. She reworks the paradigm of Persecuted Maiden relentlessly harassed by a sinister suitor (significantly, the duplicitous Jean draws on just such a plotline as part of her elaborate ruse). No, it’s Jean herself who is the ruinous seducer, the heroine-villainess who conceals harm within her charms as she toys with the eligible bachelors of the Coventry family. Not merely seeking to marry into money, the proud Jean is motivated by the desire for vengeance against anyone who has slighted her in any small way (especially the protagonist Gerald Coventry). It is with this central theme of masking–the disparity between superficial appearance and secret purpose, between Jean’s seeming meekness and underlying ambition–that Alcott anticipates a staple aspect of American Gothic fiction.

The cunning con-woman Jean (a former actress) insinuates herself into the Coventry family by posing as a governess. In the novella’s opening scene, Gerald expresses a dislike of governesses in general and develops an instant, if vague, mistrust of Jean in particular (if only he had trusted his instincts!). Ignorant of just how truly he speaks in Jean’s case, Gerald later denigrates governesses as “such a mischief-making race.” Alcott’s casting of a trusted domestic figure in an ambiguous light prefigures the darkened depiction of the governess in another Gothic novella we will encounter in later pages of Crow’s anthology: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Herman Melville’s “The Bell-Tower” and Alice Cary’s “The Wildermings”

The (long overdue) seventh 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 Bell-Tower” by Herman Melville

Melville’s 1856 story centers on “the great mechanician, the unblest foundling, Bannadonna,” who has been commission to construct the eponymous architectural marvel. Bannadonna is a quintessential eccentric genius whose operation via “secret design” tends to unsettle others (“his seclusion failed not to invest his work with more or less of that sort of mystery pertaining to the forbidden”). Before his work is completed, Bannadonna is found slain in the belfry, apparently bludgeoned to death by the automaton bell-ringer he designed (and which looms over his corpse in macabre tableau). Melville vacillates between mechanical and supernatural explanations for Bannadonna’s fate: was the oblivious builder simply blind-sided while busy putting finishing touches on the bell,  or did he receive vicious redress for his previous murder of a timid workman (whose blood mixed in with metal during the casting of the bell)? The fact that the bell crashes to the ground during Bannadonna’s funeral, and that the tower itself is subsequently leveled (on the first anniversary of its completion) by an earthquake, suggests that a higher power has disapproved of Bannadonna’s lofty ambition and merciless pursuit of glory. As Melville moralizes in the closing paragraph: “So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord; but in obedience, slew him. So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for its tower. So that bell’s main weakness was where man’s blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall.”

In his headnote to the entry, editor Charles Crow asserts: “With a strong belief in the reality of evil, a sense that reality is slippery and ambiguous, and an oppositional stance toward many conventional American values, the Gothic mode was natural, perhaps inevitable, for Melville.” Crow goes on to cite the author’s Captain Ahab character as a preeminent Gothic hero-villain, and Bannadonna (a Promethean over-reacher who also forms a Victor Frankenstein figure) certainly fits this mold. But with its overt Italian setting, “The Bell-Tower” is decidedly foreign to the United States; it does not allegorically align–along race or gender lines–with a native situation, either (cf. Crow’s comment that Melville’s Benito Cereno “is a profound Gothic meditation on race in the Americas”). As such, the tale does not make for a terribly representative piece of American Gothic fiction.

 

“The Wildermings” by Alice Cary

Cary’s 1852 sketch is set primarily in a “lonesome little graveyard” in the woods outside the rural community of Clovernook. The cemetery is a source of superstitious lore for the locals, who claim that it is haunted by the ghosts of “unresting spirits” such as Mary Wildermings, “a fair young girl who died, more sinned against than sinning, [and] had been heard to sing sad lullabies under the waning moon sometimes, and at other times had been seen sitting by her sunken grave , and braiding roses in her hair, as for a bridal.” When a mysterious trio–a handsome young man, a 14-year-old girl (his presumed sister) and an elderly woman (mother? servant?)–inhabit the abandoned cottage nearby the cemetery, the reader (helped by Cary’s story title) can infer that these people are somehow related to Mary. The strange girl, ever stoic and vigilant (“her melancholy are wide open all the time”), takes ill and expires, and is climactically established as the daughter of Mary: “her mother, they say, died in watching for one who never came, and the baby was watchful and sleepless from the first.”

The pitiable Mary Wildermings hardly makes for some malevolent revenant, and Cary’s is no doubt a genteel version of Gothic narrative. Nevertheless, in this darkly romantic tale of a jilted lover/ruined woman, the author (who twice cites Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) creates a fine sense of graveyard ambiance. Charles Crow’s headnote states that Cary’s collections of sketches about the fictional Clovernook “anticipate later regional realists such as Freeman and Jewett,” but Clovernook might also be viewed as a forerunner of more famous American Gothic towns created by writers such as Faulkner, Bradbury, and King.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Alice Doane’s Appeal” and “Young Goodman Brown

The sixth 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:

 

“Alice Doane’s Appeal” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Of the two Salem-based Hawthorne stories anthologized here, “Alice Doane’s Appeal” (1835) is the much lesser known but no less effective. With a bit of proto-postmodern self-reflexivity, it explores the very process of crafting/conveying spook tales. Out walking with a pair of young ladies, the author-narrator (a stand-in for Nathaniel himself) travels atop Gallows Hill. The local scenery prompts him to pull out one of his own manuscripts, and the narrative he proceeds to share is a Gothic potboiler filled with intimations of incest, mysterious doubles, murder, and an uncanny gathering of graveyard ghosts (the climax reveals “that all the incidents were results of the machinations of the wizard, who had cunningly devised that Walter Brome should tempt his unknown sister to guilt and shame, and himself perish by the hand of his twin brother”). The narrator works hard to thrill his audience, but goes a step too far when he claims “that the wizard’s grave was close beside us, and that the wood-wax had sprouted originally from his unhallowed bones”; his intended effect is spoiled when the woman burst into incredulous laughter.

Chagrined but undeterred, the narrator shifts genres to true crime, and finds his source material in historical horror. Hearkening back to the “witchcraft delusion” that gripped Salem, he depicts a scene of multiple executions on Gallows Hill:

Behind their victims came the afflicted, a guilty and miserable band; villains who had thus avenged themselves upon their enemies, and viler wretches, whose cowardice had destroyed their friends; lunatics, whose ravings had chimed in with the madness of the land; and children, who had played a game that the imps of darkness might have envied them, since it disgraced an age, and dipped a people’s hands in blood. In the rear of the procession rode a figure on horseback, so darkly conspicuous, so sternly triumphant, that my hearers mistook him for the visible presence of the fiend himself, but it was only his good friend, Cotton Mather, proud of his well won dignity, as the representative of all the hateful features of his time; the one blood-thirsty man, in whom were concentrated those vices of spirit and errors of opinion, that sufficed to madden the whole surrounding multitude.

Sufficiently frightened, the females beg for the tale to be cut off before the narrator even gets to the climactic hangings, but enough has been said to establish his (and by extension, Hawthorne’s) thorough condemnation of the Salem witch trials and ensuing executions. And while the narrator concludes by bemoaning the lack of monument on Gallows Hill commemorating those who criminally lost their lives to superstition and mass hysteria, “Alice Doane’s Appeal” succeeds in forming the literary equivalent of such memorial.

 

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The allegorical meets the archetypal in this 1835 tale, as the title character leaves his (wife) Faith behind and makes a night journey into the American wilderness (the woods outside Salem). Young Goodman Brown has an assignation with a Satanic figure, but the antics of this fiendish scene-stealer cannot overshadow the creepiness of setting that Hawthorne establishes. The “heathen,” “haunted forest” is “peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while, sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn.” Unnerved but persistent, Young Goodman Brown continues on to a clearing where a pulpit-shaped rock is flanked by a quartet of pine trees blazing like cyclopean candles and forming “shapes and visages of horror on the smoke-wreaths” above. A witch’s meeting is in full swing, widely attended by the pillars of community. Here the worshiped devil preaches dark truths to his congregation and the prospective converts in attendance:

“There,” resumed the sable form, “are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet, here they all are, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted to you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth, and how fair damsels–blush not, sweet ones!–have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin, ye shall scent out all the places–whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest–where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot.”

This scourge’s sermon forms a wicked critique of the duplicity–the false piety–of New England’s civic/religious leaders. Hawthorne, though, has further tricks up his authorial sleeve. At the last moment, Young Goodman Brown resists a baptism into blackness, and soon awakens to a depopulated scene. He appears only to have had a “wild dream of a witch-meeting,” but now ironically must face an unending nightmare. Thoroughly shaken by what he envisioned (if not actually witnessed in the flesh), he transforms into a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.” He lives out his days in fear and loathing, “and his dying hour was gloom.” Clinging to his faith has merely precipitated another form of ruination, as the very consideration of the secret guilt of others destroys Young Goodman Brown’s self-possession.

“Young Goodman Brown” not only constitutes the most representative piece of Crow’s anthology, but to this day stands as one of the top five American Gothic short stories ever written.

A.G. Exemplary? Selected Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

The fifth 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:

“Hop-Frog,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” “The City in the Sea,” “Ulalume–A Ballad,” “Annabel Lee,” and “Dream-Land” by Edgar Allan Poe

Crow’s headnote hails Edgar Allan Poe as a “master of the Gothic tradition, in poetry and prose,” and so perhaps not surprisingly Poe (with four tales and five poems) is the most widely represented author in the anthology. Nevertheless, Poe makes for a curious case, for while he is an American writer of Gothic works, he is not necessarily a writer of American Gothic works.

Poe typically turns overseas for his tale settings, in either identifiably European (such as the Italy of “The Cask of Amontillado”) or vaguely feudal locales. While “The Fall of the House of Usher”–with its gloomy mansion, decadent family, instances of premature burial and seeming revenant vengeance–is suffused with Gothic elements, there is nothing to mark the Ushers or their eerie estate as distinctly American. In “Hop-Frog,” the fiery uprising by the titular court dwarf might (as Crow suggests) touch upon the dread of slave rebellion in the antebellum South, but only on a subtextual level. Although Poe’s macabre (and ultimately gruesome) tale of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” points to the cultural fascination with such pseudoscience in mid-19th Century America, the story itself proves only passingly American: the title character is noted as a longtime resident of “Harlaem, N.Y.,” and is cited as the perfect specimen for the narrator’s entrancing experiments simply because the transplanted foreigner has “no relatives in America who would be likely to interfere.”

Likewise, Poe’s poems–with their entombed females and grief-stricken male speakers (of suspect reliability)–often feature Gothic scenes and scenarios, but there is little that is recognizably American about such pieces. “Ulalume” transports readers far afield to the “woodlands of Weir,” “Annabel Lee” to some “kingdom by the sea”; “Dream-Land” and “The City in the Sea” deliver us to more phantasmagoric remotes. The most prominent decorative item in the speaker’s chamber in “The Raven” is a bust of the Greek goddess Athena, and the “lost Lenore” finds her nominal precursor in the doomed heroine of Gottfried August Burger’s 1773 German supernatural ballad.

Ironically, these works by the preeminent Gothicist Poe anthologized here actually end up diverting the focus from the American Gothic. Their inclusion doubtless speaks more to the popularity of the author than to their own exemplarity.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie and Henry Clay Lewis’s “A Struggle for Life”

The fourth 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 The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper

This excerpted chapter from Cooper’s 1827 novel concerns the efforts of retribution–the attempt by patriarch Ishmael Bush to capitally punish Abiram White, the brother of his wife but also the murderer of Ishmael’s son. Cooper resorts to a Gothic rhetoric throughout the chapter; for example, the captured murderer White is riddled “with the terror that one would exhibit who unexpectedly found himself in the grasp of a monster from whose power there was no retreat.” The nightscape Cooper describes also makes for an indisputably eerie setting: “The wind had risen with the moon, and it was occasionally sweeping over the plain in a manner that made it not difficult for the sentinel [Ishmael] to imagine strange and unearthly sounds were mingling in the blast.” Ishmael’s nocturnal vigil indeed verges on the fanciful: “The naked prairies began to assume the forms of illimitable and dreary wastes, and the rushing of the wind sounded like the whisperings of the dead.”

While Cooper succeeds in establishing an ominous atmosphere, he scripts a scene that ultimately plays cold. Despite their “lawless and semi-barbarous” nature, the Bushes do not devolve into an angry mob exacting bloody justice. The laconic and lethargic Ishmael even allows his brother-in-law to be his own executioner, leaving him to hang himself from a dead willow tree (the hanging is not dramatized, although White’s death throes are overheard, and the “grim and convulsed countenance” of his later-revealed corpse makes for a haunting image). In his headnote to the selection, editor Charles L. Crow notes that the “novels of James Fenimore Cooper are filled with Gothic moments,” but the chapter Crow chooses to excerpt here makes for a middling example, of questionable worthiness of inclusion in an anthology of American Gothic literature.

 

“A Struggle for Life” by Henry Clay Lewis

Lewis’s short story (from his 1850 collection Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor) features a spooky bayou setting with “night draperied darkly around” and local fauna lending an ominous aura: “Had I not known it was an owl surrounded with moss that sat upon that stricken tree,” Dr. Madison Tensas narrates, “I would have sworn it was the form of an old man, clad in a sombre flowing mantle, his arm raised in an attitude of warning.” The story also sports some incredible imagery, such as when Tensas is seemingly strangled to death by the drunken, enraged Negro dwarf that had been serving as his guide. Tensas’s conveyed thoughts read like a grotesque, posthumous variation on the Poe-like dread of premature burial:

My lungs had ceased to play; my heart was still; my muscles were inactive; even my skin had the dead clammy touch. Had men been there, they would have placed me in a coffin, and buried me deep in the ground, and the worm would have eaten me, and the death-rats made nests in my heart, and what was lately a strong man would have become a loathsome mass. But still in that coffin amidst those writhing worms, would have been the immortal mind. and still would it have thought and pondered on till the last day was come.

Yet perhaps what proves most striking about “A Struggle for Life” is the racist perspective of Lewis’s narrator. The Negro dwarf antagonist of the piece is thoroughly dehumanized and demonized, described as “the nearest resemblance to the ourang-outang mixed with the devil.” He is a “foul ape,” a “hellish Negro” given to “demoniac expression.” He apparently has a pair of tusks bracketing a double hare-lip; his yell is “like a wild beast’s,” his teeth are gnashing “fangs,” and his hands terrible, throttling “talons.” If (as Crow suggests in his headnote) Lewis’s story touches upon the Southern fear of slave rebellion, then Tensas also recounts the stern punishment of such transgression. “Awful was the retribution” the Negro dwarf suffered for his attack on the white doctor. In what amounts to a self-inflicted lynching, the drunken wretch stumbles onto the campfire and is reduced to a “charred and loathsome mass” (these last two words precisely echoing Tensas’s earlier concerns). In his landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler cites Edgar Allan Poe as “our first eminent Southern author [to] discover that the proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged,” but “A Struggle for Life” demonstrates that Fiedler’s lines apply just as readily to Henry Clay Lewis.