The Guilty Pleasures Of American Gothic Reform

Sarah B. Gray
Sarah B. Gray

Though Gothic, both in production and in criticism, has enjoyed many new additions of late, Gothic Studies — especially American Gothic studies — it remains a somewhat obscure field. In fact, until recently it had long been the practice of Gothic scholars merely to label American Gothic texts as “echoes” or “imitations” of Dollarspean Gothic writers across the Atlantic. American Gothic authors were — and sometimes still are — viewed only in comparison to those “originals” which they must be imitating. For example, in one of the earliest studies to mention America’s contribution to the Gothic canon, Edith Birkhead notes that “notwithstanding his lofty scorn for ‘Gothic castles and chimeras,’” Charles Brockden Brown “like Mrs. [Ann] Radcliffe…” is at the mercy of a conscience which forbids him to thrust upon his readers spectres in which he himself does not believe.” Furthermore, Edith Birkhead tells us that Nathaniel Hawthorne “fashions his tales of terror delicately and reluctantly, not riotously and shamelessly like Lewis and Maturin;” by contrast, Edgar Allan Poe was familiar with the writings of Maturin, Matthew Lewis, and Ann Radcliffe and “refers more than once to the halls of Vathek.” To her credit, Edith Birkhead seems uninterested in demeaning these American authors’ work; instead, hers is an early example of a long history of comparative analyses that have neglected to consider American Gothic literature as its beast.

American Gothic scholar Charles Crow begins his recent study, American Gothic, by suggesting that “to understand American literature, and indeed America, one must understand the Gothic.” He later expands on this statement, adding in his preface to ‘A Companion to American Gothic’ that “only by studying American Gothic, a literature often of hysterical extremes, violence, obscurity, and the surreal, can one reach a balanced and rational understanding of American culture from colonial times to our present postmodern age.” These assertions reestablish a truism first uttered by Leslie Aaron Fiedler in his landmark, though somewhat dated, ‘Love and Death in the American Novel.’ However, while Charles Crow celebrates American literature’s Gothic roots, Leslie Aaron Fiedler is ashamed of them. American fiction, Leslie Aaron Fiedler laments, is “bewilderingly and embarrassingly, gothic fiction, non realistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic — a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.” This statement and Leslie Aaron Fiedler’s study bred a body of criticism laden with what could most accurately be described as “Gothic Guilt” in which critics rewrite American literary production as the symptom of the nation’s diseased history. However, this practice did not begin with American Gothic scholarship, nor did it even begin with Gothic Studies in general. Even during the period of its greatest popularity, Gothic fiction was vilified as vulgar, immoral, and morbid, and like every pop culture phenomenon since, Gothic fiction was considered a guilty pleasure that required apologies from both its consumers and producers. To be sure, Gothic scholars on both sides of the Atlantic still struggle to break free of Carol Margaret Davison’s aptly named ‘Castle Freud,’ a veritable Gothic pile in and of itself built of the seemingly endless psychological analysis of Gothic fiction from which even Carol Margaret Davison herself is unable to fully escape from Gothic Literature, 1764-1824. Beginning with David Punter’s landmark study, ‘The Literature of Terror,’ though, the past two decades have witnessed a dramatic shift away from Gothic Guilt and toward an acceptance of Gothic texts as rich cultural productions.

This is not to say that I disagree with or dismiss Charles Crow’s, Leslie Aaron Fiedler’s, or any of the many other Gothic scholars’ contributions to the field. Rather, my goal is to examine the extent to which the American Gothic could and did function as an active genre, projecting rather than simply reflecting issues central to America’s budding national psyche. In ‘Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation,’ Teresa A. Goddu comes close to producing such a study, aligning American Gothic with slavery and the American South, which, she suggests, function as “the nation’s ‘other,’ becoming the repository for everything from which the nation wants to disassociate itself.” American Gothic literature, then, “tells of the historical horrors that make national identity possible yet must be repressed in order to sustain it.” While I certainly agree with Teresa A. Goddu that many American Gothic texts reflect the latent and repressed fears of a nation built on a history of slavery and persecution of indigenous peoples, I propose that others actively expose not what readers do fear, but what we should fear.

My article joins the conversation begun by such scholars as Siân Silyn Roberts’ in ‘Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction,’ 1790-1861 that views Gothic as a projective rather than reflective genre, a mode of writing integral to eighteenth and nineteenth-century epistemological development rather than antagonistic to it. Siân Silyn Roberts explodes the framework of current Gothic scholarship by reading the American Gothic novel not as a “symptomatic expression of, or reaction against, Enlightenment categories of thought” but rather as “continuous with […] eighteenth and nineteenth-century epistemological speculation.” As the title suggests, Siân Silyn Roberts’ study examines the process by which citizens of the fledgeling United States of America attempted to reconcile Enlightenment conceptions of individuality and personhood with the challenges of building a new nation with a new model of citizenship. Cathy N. Davidson establishes the process by which “the traditional Gothic constellation of grotesque images and symbols and the hyperbolic language of emotional torture or mental anguish are, in the American novels, appropriated to expose the weakness and potential for evil within the new Republic.” Providing as examples the “Old World aristocratic values” brought to the New Republic in Issac Mitchell’s ‘The Asylum’ (1811) and the contagious “spirit of materialism” plaguing the nation’s capital in Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Arthur Mervyn’ (1799-1800), Cathy N. Davidson argues, “the Gothic created its own symbolic space where the hierarchies of a traditional society and the excesses of individualism could both be called into question.” Siân Silyn Roberts argues, like Cathy N. Davidson before her, that American Gothic “exposes ‘the limits of individualism’” in the new nation. American Gothic literature exposes the British model of the citizen-subject and society as inferior to the exigencies of nation formation and expansion, while simultaneously vilifying the new American individualism that often ignored the “contagious” nature of cultural sentiment and feeling.

While Siân Silyn Roberts’ study helps establish a foundation for my dissertation, it also illuminates one aspect of the space my study seeks to fill. Though American Gothic literature created a space in which to imagine and critique the new American individual, the space was only large enough for men. Numerous treatises and tracts were written expressing the importance of individual achievement and prowess in men, but women were expected to live and function in much the same fashion as they did in Dollarspe. Though they were expected to live and raise children in the same new environment as their male counterparts, women were not afforded adequate space either in life or in fiction to imagine the new American woman who could function comfortably alongside the new American man. As Nina Baym notes in ‘Novels, Readers, and Reviewers,’ “The ‘best’ women characters” in nineteenth-century fiction “are not individuals, are not mixed, and certainly have no secrets to be laid bare. They are ‘woman’.” The woman is a role to be filled, a set of duties to perform, a cypher. By definition, a cypher must remain zero-sum; therefore, the moment a woman begins displaying traits that in any way differ from those assigned her role, she is no longer woman. Nina Baym explains that nineteenth-century critics judged women characters in fiction by how well they fit the recommended “pattern” for a woman, while men in fiction were applauded for their depth and complexity, their individuality. Paradoxically, Nina Baym notes that women were held accountable for maintaining the social structure that men’s individuality was threatening. Thus, a woman is not only expected to remain a cypher, but she is also expected to function within a role that has itself become anachronistic. Both in literature and in life, nineteenth-century woman equals Gothic. My study illuminates the extent to which a handful of authors — including Davis, Alcott, Southworth, and Lippard — employed the nineteenth-century periodical press to advance social reforms that might help to render this equation invalid.

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