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 Ishamel’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.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of George Lippard’s “The Hangman’s Glee” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Skeleton in Armor”

The third 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 Hangman’s Glee” by George Lippard

The very title of this excerpted scene from Lippard’s 1845 American Gothic shocker The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (the country’s bestselling novel prior to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) points to the macabre mockery of decorum. The villainous Devil-Bug happily narrates about his previous experiences as an executioner: “When I was quite a little shaver I used to hang a puppy or a pussy-cat, and I used to think it quite refreshin’. But hangin’ a man? Ho-hoo! That’s the ticket!” Devil-Bug proceeds to provide an example, recounting the capital punishment of Charley, a young English sailor (wrongly) charged with murdering the captain of a sea vessel. That public hanging occasions some gallows humor, as a punning Devil-Bug describes the attending parson as “a blackbird, or rather a crow come to pray over yer dead body, boy” (the sin-sniffing hangman also exposes the false piety of the parson, who is more worried about what he is having for dinner than about preaching to the condemned man). Devil-Bug also takes a satiric jab at the medical profession, at the old doctors “prowlin’ around like wolves,” eager to steal off with the corpse for a grisly dissection.

Lippard’s scene, though, heaps the most scorn on the angry mob that has gathered to witness the hanging. The crowd’s bloodlust only throws Charley’s innocence into starker contrast; “hooting, yelling, swearing, and screaming like devils,” these people prove no better specimens of humanity than Devil-Bug himself. He gives a final glimpse of the unruly mob working to procure unholy relic, “tearing the gibbet to pieces, and bearin’ splinters away in their fingers, that they might take ’em home to their families and brag of seein’ a man hung! Ho-hoo!”  His jovial tone, though, cannot undercut the horror of what transpired on that ignominious day. Poor Charley’s hanging is described in grim detail, his body jerking spastically, his tongue protruding “black as a hat.” “The Hangman’s Glee” makes for an appropriate excerpt from the sprawling novel, representing Lippard’s penchant for expressing moral outrage by splashing scenes of extreme iniquity across the page.


“The Skeleton in Armor” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Reminiscent of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Longfellow’s poem is framed as an accosting by an uncanny figure; here the titular revenant haunts the poet-narrator, hounding him to record his story in verse or “Else dread a dead man’s curse.” The tell-tale skeleton claims to be a formerly marauding Viking forced into a fugitive elopement with his beloved after a Norse prince scornfully dismissed his request of the daughter’s hand in marriage. A thrilling sea chase ensued, but successful escape to the shores of the New World did not leave the couple married happily ever after. When the wife died some years later, the distraught Viking buried her beneath the “lofty tower” he had built “for my lady’s bower” and then donned his “warlike gear” and threw himself onto his own sword.

This now-grave-marking tower proves to be a key detail. In a headnote to the poem (not reproduced here in Crow’s anthology), Longfellow identifies it as the actual “Round Tower” in Newport, Rhode Island. The poet subscribes to the mistaken belief that that construction is of Viking origin, and accordingly shapes “The Skeleton in Armor” to fit such a narrative. Unfortunately, such backward glance toward the European aligns Longfellow’s poem with a more dubious form of American Gothic that anachronistically transplants medieval structures onto New England soil rather than finding native equivalents for traditional Gothic elements. So while imbued with spooky atmosphere, “The Skeleton in Armor” ultimately makes for a pallid example of American Gothic poetry.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and John Neal’s “Idiosyncrasies”

The second installment of a new 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:


“Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving

Irving (as an end note to this 1819 story reveals) adapts a tale of “German superstition” and gives it a New World setting–the Dutch villages of the Hudson region, which (as in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) are frequently “subject to marvellous [sic] events and appearances.” The title character makes an archetypal journey into the American wilderness, stumbling upon a “deep mountain glen” in the Catskills, “wild, lonely and shagged.” He also encounters the ghosts (as they are later identified) of Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon, whose supernatural potables knock Rip into a two-decade-long blackout.

Rip’s fantastic siesta has since become a part of American pop culture, and most people can recount the bare bones of his story. What might have been forgotten by those who have not read Irving’s actual text recently is its darker elements–the uncanny effects of Rip’s belated awakening. Returning to the village he believes he left just one day earlier, Rip finds strange new homes with unfamiliar inhabitants and begins “to wonder whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched.” His own longtime abode has been reduced to a sudden Gothic ruin–“the roof fallen in, the windows shattered and the doors off the hinges.” Perhaps most disorienting of all is Rip’s encounter with his seeming doppelganger, a younger-looking version of himself dressed in his old clothes and referred to by the same name. Before realizing that this figure is his own son, a frazzled Rip suffers an instant identity crisis (“I’m not myself,–I’m somebody else–that’s me yonder–no–that’s somebody else got into my shoes–I was myself last night; but I fell asleep on the mountain–and they’ve changed my gun–and every thing’s changed–and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”). For all the lighthearted humor of Irving’s piece (e.g. the genteel misogyny directed at Rip’s hen-pecking wife), there is also an undeniably terrifying aspect to the scenario it presents.


“Idiosyncrasies” by John Neal

This 1843 story makes for an apt pairing with the preceding Irving piece, featuring a tyrannical husband to counter the shrewish wife of “Rip Van Winkle.” But Neal tells a much darker and more psychologically complex tale, one reminiscent (as Crow identifies in the editorial headnote) of his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe. Like the typical Poe narrator, William Southard Lee (“a mono-maniac and perhaps a murderer”) grows more suspect the more he insists that he is not mad. Recounting his personal history to a visitor to his asylum room, Lee reveals himself as someone who lorded over the very family he claims to have loved dearly. He also appears to have precipitated the disaster that befalls his alleged loved ones. When his son Willy stands upon the precipice of a cave-in on a snowy mountain, Lee–irritated by his frightened wife’s hysterics–decides to “punish her for such untimely interference,” and instead of moving to rescue Willy gives the perverse command to the boy to venture forth and fetch his fallen cap. Willy never recovers from his subsequent plunge beneath the frozen surface, and his grief-stricken mother (whom Lee actually blames for Willy’s death) drowns herself years later.

Again recalling Poe, Neal is indistinct in his geography; the story’s wintry setting could just easily be European as American. Nevertheless, the natural scene depicted is quite sublime, and the plot centers on a wilderness trek fraught with danger (cave-ins, avalanches, maybe even a she-bear). Much like its mountainous locale, the lines of Neal’s tale make for rough traveling, as the idiosyncrasies (nested narratives, lack of quotation marks to distinguish speakers) extend to a structural level. For those willing to brave Neal’s narrative labyrinth, though, the story offers some fine chills, including a climax where Lee proves that his madness (employed to avoid a death sentence when he’s suspected of murdering his wife) is hardly counterfeit as he lunges at his interlocutor with a drawn knife.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Abraham Panther’s “An Account of a Beautiful Lady” and Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism: A Fragment”

This is the first installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre RepublicMy goal is to explore just how “American Gothic” are the works of literature collected in books bearing that titular designation. The first book I am tackling (periodically, I will cover a few texts at a time from the table of contents) is editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916.


“An Account of a Beautiful Young Lady” by Abraham Panther

In this fictional narrative published in pamphlet form in 1787, the pseudonymous Panther pens a letter describing his discovery (while trekking through the “Western Wilderness”) of a cave-dwelling Lady. Prompted to explain her curious living situation, this woman recounts a bloody tale. While eloping with her lover (and fleeing her vengeful, death-threatening father), she and her partner ran afoul of those ultimate bogies of the American Gothic wilderness: a “party of Indians” who proceeded to mutilate and immolate the male and then dance in heathen celebration of their barbarous handiwork. The Lady escaped, but quickly encountered another threat in the form of a giant who took her into his cave and threatened to kill her if she didn’t submit to his sexual advances.

Panther’s epistolary narrative captures the savage state of the wilderness, and the facility with which it strips away the veneer of civility. Before her first night in the cave concluded, the Lady got hold of a hatchet and killed the sleeping giant with it. For good measure, she beheaded and quartered his corpse, dragged out and buried the body parts, and then settled down into the cave herself. While being given a grand tour of the Lady’s home, Panther notes the presence of quartet of skulls, which he supposes “were of persons murdered by the owner of the cave, or of his former companions.” Still, one has to wonder if the cave’s current occupant didn’t author such misdeed herself at some point during her nine years’ stay. She might have a lovely face, and a singing voice to match, but this Lady doubtless can be quite tigerish. The happiness of the story’s ending–with the Lady being returned home to her now-regretful father–does not necessarily wash away the darker undercurrents of the account.


“Somnambulism: A Fragment” by Charles Brockden Brown

America’s first (Gothic) novelist shows he can work the same elements in shorter forms, in this story centering on a classic scenario: “the perils and discomforts of a nocturnal journey” through the woods. “Somnambulism” also involves the theme of the double: is the furtive figure haunting the carriage ride of Constantia Davis and her father the misshapen, mentally-challenged, mischievous “monster” Nick Handyside, or the unreliable narrator Althorpe himself? Althorpe embodies contradictory notions of heroism and villainy; he is preoccupied with being the protector of Constantia on her night journey, but actually might be the cause of her demise. He dreams of shooting and mortally wounding the assassin who waylays Constantia, but when news arrive the next day that Constantia has been seriously wounded by a pistol shot, the possibility arises that Althorpe delivered the blow during a bout of sleepwalking. Such unwitting assault (which leads to Constantia’s death at story’s end) would be a most ironic turn. More sinisterly, the violence can be interpreted as an eruption of the unconscious hostility Althorpe bears towards Constantia, who is betrothed to another and thus far has rebuffed the smitten Althorpe’s romantic advances.

First published in 1805, but written prior to some of Brown’s more famous novels, “Somnambulism” clearly anticipates Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. The Davises’ fretting about notorious local trickster Nick Handyside during their night ride can also be viewed as an influence on Ichabod Crane’s concerns with the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). Brimming with dark ambiance and narrative ambiguity, “Somnambulism” proves a fine example of American Gothic fiction.