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.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby”

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:

 

“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin

At the start of Chopin’s compact but impactful 1892 story, an abandoned orphan (Desiree) of unknown parentage is discovered in Louisiana bayou country. Adopted and raised by the Valmonde family, Desiree matures into a beautiful woman; she is eventually wed to the lovestruck Armand Aubigny, whose family name is “one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana.” Desiree takes up residence at the Aubigny family mansion, L’Abri, a “sad looking” and shudder-inducing edifice reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher:

The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far reaching branches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime.

Chopin’s story broaches a subject central to American Gothic fiction: racism and slavery. Aubigny’s sadistic, diabolic treatment of his slaves (he’s described at one point as seemingly possessed by “the very spirit of Satan”) forms the backdrop to the main narrative’s family drama. When the titular newborn shows evidence in his features of possessing black blood, Desiree is perplexed, but the proud Aubigny is revolted, and viciously rejects his wife and child: “He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul.” Distraught over Aubigny’s cold-hearted turn, Desiree takes her baby and disappears into the “deep, sluggish bayou” (where she presumably drowns herself and the child). But Chopin (who was an admirer of Guy de Maupassant) gives a final, surprise twist to the plot, when Aubigny (in the Gothic tradition of the discovered document) finds an old letter from his mother to his father that reveals it was he, not Desiree, who passed the mixed blood along to their baby.

In a mere handful of pages, Chopin manages to convey the sense of a sweeping Gothic saga (anticipating Faulkner’s chronicle of the Sutpen family in Absalom, Absalom!). This tightly-woven tale makes for one of the strongest and most representative selections in Crow’s anthology.

 

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.