Monday, 24 November 2014

Foreshadowings: Early American Gothic

Is it that time already? The Gothic Reading Group meets for its third session of 2014-15 on Wednesday and this time the subject is early American Gothic: a sub-genre of sorts that has generated plenty of critical discussion, but isn't always as central as it might be to the historical development of the Gothic  and its status as an international mode. Never fear though, the Gothic Reading Group is here to fix this in the only way we know how: with cake and death. As the compere of sorts for this session, Kathleen Hudson will take you through what to expect:


The Gothic as a genre depends very much on a sense of ‘place.’  In attempting to answer that ever persistent question – what is the Gothic? – one frequently ends up describing a ruined castle, a graveyard at night, or a dank laboratory.  For Americans, and especially early Americans, terror and horror can usually be found in the wilderness.  Much of American history is defined by a sense of civilization versus wilderness, or namely the sense that identity is something carved out of an ‘uncivilized’ space.  The American wilderness is also a place where Americans as a people committed some of their greatest atrocities and faced some of their deepest fears.  Deep anxieties about the state of humanity in opposition to the demonic ‘other’ in the woods unite the three examples of early New England Gothic literature we will be reading in our next GRG meeting.

“Somnambulism: A Fragment” is a short story published in 1805 by Charles Brockden Brown, perhaps better known for his novel Wieland.  Brown is one of the first professional Gothic authors in America, and his works are foundational for the American Gothic genre.  He famously argued for the adaptation of the genre using American rather than British conventions, what he described as “puerile superstition and exploded manners” and especially “Gothic castles” which paled in comparison to the perilous wildernesses of the fledgling Americas.[1]  That being said, many critics argue that Brown was heavily dependent on William Godwin, trying to conscientiously avoid the Ann Radcliffe school, and there are elements of “Somnambulism” which echo works such as Caleb Williams.[2]  There is narrative ambiguity and a nightmarish confusion even when we have left the actual nightmare behind.  The site of danger is a forest in the dead of night with special emphasis on a portentous tree.  The real horror, though, stems from the fear that, as Charles Crow puts it, we potentially discover that “our senses cannot be trusted, or that we cannot tell dreams from reality, or that we are not the people we thought we were.”[3]

The next short story, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) is more famous for the horror film/TV adaptations of it than for its original pseudo-Gothic text.  In fact there is some debate whether the original “Sleepy Hollow” can be called “Gothic” at all, or if it’s not rather a sort of ‘Gothic Lite’, a satire, or a fairytale.  While the tone may have changed over time the original still carries its anxiety about going into the woods and about identity, though here disparity is externalized onto the caricature figures of the brutish yet heroic Brom and the cowardly, mechanized academic Ichabod Crane, who ultimately misinterprets and over-determines his ‘supernatural’ experiences.  When reading this text it is important to look at ideological context, and also perhaps to think about why modern adaptations tend to emphasize the supernatural.

The third story, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), reflects Hawthorne’s interest in Puritan history and in particular his recurring anxieties about the injustices perpetrated by his ancestors.  Again a protagonist enters a dark forest, and what he finds there undermines both his own identity and his conceptualization of the world and people around him.  Again ambiguity is emphasized – was it all a dream?  Either way, does Brown’s resulting disillusionment reflect more on him or on the people around him?  Once again a trip into the wilderness suggests that we were not who we thought we were.  The idea of inherited or institutional evil also comes into play in this story, and society as a whole is questioned throughout. 

These stories share plenty of similarities with the earlier texts we’ve looked at, especially in their emphasis on place and their focus on ambiguity and the ‘self’.  They’re also really creepy, well-written, complex examples of the early American gothic subgenre.  Be sure to come along to the Gothic Reading Group meeting on Wednesday to discuss more!  A reading packet containing all three stories is available through the GRG conveners, just email us or contact us on twitter @SheffieldGothic to find out more!

Kathleen Hudson is a PhD student in the School of English, researching the role of the servant narrative in Gothic fiction. She is American. And Gothic. 

[1] Brown, Charles Brockden, “To the Public,” Edgar Huntly; or Memoirs of a Sleep-walker (1857)

[2] Crow, Charles, American Gothic, p. 25

[3] Crow, Charles, American Gothic, p. 26

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