Towards a Definition of American Gothic
“American Gothic”: the phrase has been memorably employed by Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 painting, has resonated as the title of an 80’s slasher film, of a Robert Bloch novel, of two different television series on CBS (1995; 2016), of a Smashing Pumpkins EP, even. These two words no doubt have become a familiar part of our cultural lexicon, but what do they really signify?
First and foremost, American Gothic might be categorized as a literary offshoot, a further branching of the tradition of the English Gothic romance popularized by novelists such as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and M.G. Lewis starting in the late-18th Century. In Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic, critic Mark Edmundson gathers the “bundle of conventions” established in these English writers’ narratives:
Besides the tyrannical hero-villain with the piercing glare, there’s inevitably a trembling heroine and her impetuous lover, who comes, usually in his sweet time, to save the day; the scene is often an oppressive ruin, surrounded by a wild landscape; the society is Catholic, usually feudal. Certain preoccupations frequently arise: the priesthood and monastic institutions, sleeplike and deathlike states, subterranean spaces and live burials, the uncovering of obscure family ties, possibilities of incest (and sometimes the real thing), Faust- and Wandering-Jew-like figures. We encounter civil insurrections and fires, the charnel house and the madhouse. One of the major resources of the Gothic mode is the double. The idea of a second self—of a horrible other living unrecognized within us, or loosed somehow into the world beyond—is central to the vision of terror Gothic […]. (8)
American Gothic, then, can be understood as a New World version of an older form, an embedding of such conventions in fresh soil. Immediately, though, a problem emerges, as deracination leads to a radical decontextualizing. To produce a facile facsimile of the European Gothic mise en scene is to risk a jarring anachronism, as Leslie Fiedler explains in his seminal study, Love and Death in the American Novel:
The gothic, after all, had been invented to deal with the past and with history from a typically Protestant and enlightened point of view; but what could one do with the form in a country which, however Protestant and enlightened, had (certainly at the end of the eighteenth century!) neither a proper past nor a history? It was easy enough for the American writer to borrow certain elements, both of cast and setting, from the tale of terror; the Maiden in flight, for instance, was readily adaptable, and the hero-villain viable at least as a visual image—his burning eyes and furrowed brow presented themselves without difficulty. But what was to be done about the social status of such hero-villains? With what native classes or groups could they be identified? Traditionally aristocrats, monks, servants of the Inquisition, members of secret societies like the Illuminati, how could they be convincingly introduced on the American scene?
Similarly, it was not hard to provide the American equivalent of the moors, hills, and forests through which the bedeviled maidens of the gothic romances were accustomed to flee. But what of the haunted castle, the ruined abbey, the dungeons of the Inquisition? In America, such crumbling piles, architecturally and symbolically so satisfying to the eighteenth-century reader and writer, are more than a little improbable. (144)
At its most successful and least absurd, American Gothic does not just transplant but translates, adapts the established conventions, reworks them into something more germane to the country’s own time and place. The nation’s first (Gothic) novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, pointed towards a more distinctly American form of Gothic narrative in the preface to his 1799 work Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker: “Puerile superstition and exploded manners; Gothic castles and chimeras, are the materials usually employed for this end. The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the Western wilderness, are far more suitable; and for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology” (3). As Alan Lloyd-Smith cogently summarizes in American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction, “although American Gothicists participated in a wider literary tradition, the circumstances of their own history and the stresses of their particular cultural and political institutions meant that a series of significant inflections determined a Gothicism that differs considerably from British or European versions” (29). America has plenty to be haunted by without having to borrow from overseas; Lloyd-Smith discerns the “shadows of patriarchy, slavery, and racism, as of Puritan extremes of the imagination and the political horror of failed utopianism” (34) falling all across the field of American Gothic literature.
American Gothic is perhaps better approached as a worldview rather than a recognizable setting, a sensibility rather than a set of conventions. After first defining American Gothic as “simply, the imaginative expression of the fears and forbidden desires” (History of the Gothic 1) of the nation’s inhabitants, Charles L. Crow describes “a tradition of oppositional literature, presenting in disturbing, usually frightening ways, a skeptical, ambiguous view of human nature and of history. The Gothic exposes the repressed, what is hidden, unspoken, deliberately forgotten in the lives of individuals and of cultures” (2).
Here Crow accentuates the “counter-narrative” (17) quality of American Gothic; in his Introduction to American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916, he also notes its inherently transgressive nature: “In the Gothic, taboos are broken, forbidden secrets are spoken, and barriers are crossed” (1). Fiedler similarly highlights an “aesthetic that replaces the classic concept of nothing-in-excess with the revolutionary doctrine that nothing succeeds like excess” : “Dedicated to producing nausea, to transcending the limits of taste and endurance, the gothic novelist is driven to seek more and more atrocious crimes to satisfy the hunger for ‘too-much’ on which he treads” (134). Just as Fiedler posits an avant-garde art form, asserting that one of the functions of English/European Gothic “was to shock the bourgeoisie into an awareness of what a chamber of horrors its own smugly regarded world really was” (135), Mark Edmundson touts the cultural work performed by the narratives of modern American Gothicists: “Early Gothic writers like Lewis and Radcliffe offered means of insight. They acquainted willing readers with their suppressed passions and allowed them to reflect, however indirectly, on the place of priests and nobles in a revolutionary age. Even in our own time, artists have used Gothic to rouse readers and help them see the world in revealingly darkened shades” (xiii). Rather than a mere reveling in the grimly visceral (for gore’s sake!), American Gothic offers potentially heady fare.
Any attempt to define American Gothic must acknowledge that the label transcends matters of national origin. For example, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a quintessential Gothic work by an American novelist, yet with its English countryside setting hardly qualifies as American Gothic. Conversely, non-native writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Clive Barker have proven themselves to be preeminent American Gothicists (as anyone who has ever been seduced by Lolita or wandered into Coldheart Canyon might attest). The various literary, cinematic and televisual narratives of American Gothic likewise cannot be restricted to genre. Despite significant overlap (as evident in the oeuvre of Stephen King), American Gothic’s borders are not coextensive with horror; they also cross over into science fiction (particularly the post-apocalyptic and technology-run-amok variety), paranormal romance (Dark Shadows, True Blood), noir crime (from James M. Cain to James Ellroy to Gillian Flynn), the western (Deadwood, Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight), even nonfiction (In Cold Blood, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).
Here, then, is the definition I would give: American Gothic spotlights the shadows, scratches the cultural underbelly. It detects the seamy in the seemingly idyllic. American Gothic concerns itself with the past’s eclipsing presence, with the horrors hidden behind closed doors and shaded windows, with the animosity underlying/belying smiling facades. It is the unraveling thread, the “warp” in the delicate fabric of civilization, exposing the physical and psychological grotesquerie of individuals, the hypocrisies and secret guilts of communities, the corruption of institutions. Unflinchingly provocative, American Gothic probes the dark side of everyday life in Anytown, U.S.A.
All this having been said, I think the best way to get a sense of American Gothic is not from the words of literary critics but from the text of the literature itself. Accordingly, I conclude here with two excerpts that furnish perfect epigraphs. The first takes us back into the Puritan wilderness, and the second into the heart of the small, Southern hometown:
But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints. Scattered also among their palefaced enemies were the Indian priests, or powwows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft.
–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (72)
He believed in the infinite rich variety of all the towns and faces: behind any of a million shabby houses he believed there was strange buried life, subtle and shattered romance, something dark and unknown. At the moment of passing any house, he thought, some one therein might be at the gate of death, lovers might lie twisted in hot embrace, murder might be doing.
–Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (498)
Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1799. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Crow, Charles L., ed. “Introduction.” American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1999. 1-2.
—. History of the Gothic: American Gothic. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 2009.
Edmundson, Mark. Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1966.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales. Ed. James McIntosh. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987. 65-75.
Lloyd-Smith, Alan. American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. 1929. New York: Scribner, 1995.