Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Reimagining the American Haunted House (Part One): Charles Chesnutt & 'Tales of the Conjure Woman'

 In the tradition of Sheffield Gothic’s perpetual question “but is it Gothic?” this is the first in a three part blog mini-series about haunted houses in American literature. However, none of the houses I’ll be discussing are the conventional kind of creepy castle. Rather, I’d like to look at how the concept of the haunted house and America’s unique historical identity merged to create some interesting Gothic texts. As such my first text is not is not strictly considered a Gothic work. 

Charles Chesnutt was a mixed race author in post-Civil War America writing in response to other, less comprehensive attempts to determine a racial identity. His "Tales of the Conjure Woman" (published 1887-1924) can be classified in various ways - the frame narrator, a white northerner named John, may see the tales told to him in regional dialect by the freed-slave narrator Uncle Julius as comical fairytales (though decidedly more Grimm brothers than Disney) but he is pretty much the only one who does. Chesnutt himself identified Julius’s folkloric Gothic tales as part of a Post-bellum and Pre-Harlem Renaissance impulse to re-write repressed narrative.

As such, the characters in "Conjure Woman," white and black, Southern and Northern, explore the legacy of slavery in America – most importantly, African American characters are caught between an profound need for individual self-expression and the lingering psychological effects of a life spent in slavery. Under slavery ‘talking back’ or articulating some kind of narrative was often a severely punishable offence. Slavery as an institution also prevented the education of slaves, hampering their ability to convey stories to a mainstream audience. As a result, slaves turned to alternative and subversive oral folklore to keep their identities alive, protecting themselves by shrouding their messages in metaphor and symbolism. Chesnutt’s ‘Uncle Julius’ character uses folk tales as metaphors for the horrific realities of slave life, peddling them to a Northern couple who have, in the framing device, only recently moved South and are unaccustomed to Southern ways.

The stories themselves and the manner in which they are told express the horrors of slavery through a post-slavery voice, and arguably Chesnutt's exploration of repression and trauma makes the "Conjure Woman" tales distinctly Gothic texts, an African American experience functioning as American Gothic literature.

Charles Chesnutt

‘The Plantation’ as a cultural haunted house frequently figures in Chesnutt’s tales, but he also suggests that more humble dwellings also have the ability to hold or embody the souls of the dead or repressed. Chesnutt's short story "Po' Sandy" (1888, published as part of Chesnutt's "Conjure Woman") sees, in its framing story, the new white landowner John attempt to recycle some wood from a broken-down structure on his property in order to build a kitchen. Uncle Julius tells him that the structure is haunted by a slave named Sandy. Sandy was turned into a tree by his wife, Tenie, so that the two of them could remain together rather than being sold or killed as the property of their masters. In a brutal turn of events symbolically indicative of an institution that reduces human beings into objects Sandy is then cut down and the wood used to make the now disused structure.  Once she realizes what has happened Tenie goes insane with grief.

John scoffs at this bit of folkloric imagination, but John’s wife Annie refuses to use the wood and instead gives the old place to Uncle Julius's church group. Charles Crow notes that “Julius’s story is Gothic for Annie, comic for John,” or, more to the point, Gothic for those who recognize the dehumanizing consequences of slavery and who are, perhaps, part of a disenfranchised group themselves (American Gothic, p. 96). Thus "Po' Sandy" not only reflects slavery and racial discourse but can also be read as a proto-feminist work. Annie's sympathy for Tenie (when the story ends Annie's first thought is not "poor Sandy" but rather "poor Tenie") and their parallel characterizations (both are subject to a paternalistic reading of their identities which negates their voices and forces them to turn to covert methods of expression), refocuses their personal narratives as not only cross-racial but also gender-specific. It is an interesting moment of intersectionality in which gendered and racial repression reflect the injustices of a patriarchal tradition.

At its core, "Po' Sandy" can be read as a pseudo-haunted house story where a sin of the patriarchal/aristocratic group creates a space for recurring tension. Even without the supernatural implications the symbolic meaning of the tale is profound.  Whether Sandy is a literal or figurative tree doesn't matter - he is a being with roots whose life is destroyed by an institution which sees him as an object. 

 The structure in the story is literally built out of the body of a slave, a figure who is denied agency and human love by a patriarchal authority and is then utterly torn apart. This story is distinctly American Gothic in that it epitomizes tensions about problematic national identity. A structure (or country) built literally using the flesh and blood and suffering of an entire race is in many ways inherently tainted, inescapably haunted. A space (or country) so created must forever be a source of recurring historical and emotional trauma that ultimately either makes the structure unusable or requires a spiritual exorcism, a moral realignment such as the transformation of Po' Sandy's remains into a place of worship. Anxieties about the promise of America as an ideal built on freedom and personal liberty are articulated particularly in slave and post-slavery narratives of figures such as Chesnutt, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and others. While all such texts may not be explicitly Gothic they do imply Gothic imagery and sentiments and suggest that America-the-country is also a kind of national haunted house.

Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield studying narrative in the Gothic. What's a ghost's favourite fruit? A Boo-berry!  Hahahaha... sorry. 

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