American Gothic

The British Library’s blockbuster Gothic exhibition, Terror and Wonder:  the Gothic Imagination opened yesterday across the pond, complete with a (rather suspect-looking) vampire-slaying kit. I like the title: that’s just what makes Gothic literature so compelling, the combination of fear and curiosity. Horror is something else entirely: it’s just repulsive. Gothic is humanistic; horror is not. I hope to see the exhibition myself but it has already inspired me to think about my favorite examples of American Gothic literature: I can’t go back to the eighteenth century, where Terror and Wonder begins with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, because I haven’t read anything by the man whom everyone identifies as the first Gothic author, Charles Brockden Brown, so my list begins with Edgar Allen Poe and then proceeds rather conventionally: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, The Yellow Wallpaper, the amazing short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which I read for the first time just last week, several stories by Ambrose Bierce, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (I know–it’s very British but he was born American), anything by Flannery O’Connor (I know–southern Gothic deserves its own special categorization, but I’m only really familiar with Flannery, the namesake of my first cat), and also pretty much anything by Shirley Jackson:  I particularly like We have always Lived in the Castle (1962). Just a short list as my fiction-reading has been limited, for the most part, to an earlier phase of my life, but I would love more suggestions for the years to come.


Gothic Gables Folio Society

Gothic Gillman

Gothic Bierce (1893)

American Gothic James

Gothic O'Connor

American Gothic Jackson

Harry Perkins illustration of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart (1923), from the “Terror and Wonder” Exhibition at the British Library; Francis Mosley illustration from the Folio Society’s edition of the  House of the Seven Gables; Title Page of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman), New England Magazine, 1892; Ambrose Bierce’s collection of short stories (1893); Penguin English Library edition of Henry James’ Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw; Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories; and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

12 responses to “American Gothic

  • Michelle

    I did some casual research into nineteenth century Gothic modes a few years ago, and the thing that most surprised me was that they were already Gothic revivals. The lean toward Gothic is seen by many as a reaction to the crisp, confident principles of the Enlightenment, a turn toward mystery, romance, and dark themes. There was an early nineteenth century Gothic movement as well as a later Victorian one, somewhat distinct. One of my favorite expressions of the Gothic in American literature is a parody – Mark Twain’s portrait of Emmeline Grangerford, the tragic Appalachian poet, who was based on the real Julia A. Moore, “the Sweet Singer of Michigan.”

    The exhibition looks very good. I often wish Salem had a more genuinely Gothic, less sideshow feel.

    • daseger

      Thanks Michelle. Obviously I share your parting sentiment! It strikes me that there is kind of disconnect between the material and literary Gothic cultures in America–not so much in the UK–but that’s just my impression.

  • Erin

    I did an American Gothic section in literature class once. They included To Kill a Mockingbird, an author named Eudora Welty, The Keepers of the House by Shirley Grau, and Rats in the Walls by Lovecraft. Those are the ones which have stuck with me, but I am sure that there are a lot more you would enjoy in that genre 🙂

  • troublestrumpetPenelope

    Thank you for flagging that up – not sure how it had escaped my attention. Tickets duly booked.
    As for your observation on the disconnect of cultures in the US…. the sense of Gothic is much more present when one is surrounded by places with an obvious history. Living in a 200-year-old farmhouse & looking out across the fields to Hanging Wood, being 10 miles from Glastonbury etc etc, gives one a very different relationship to dark tales when compared to my college years living in an apartment complex shadowed by nothing older than the glass & neon of downtown Dallas.

    • mserinlee

      I have noticed that here in the Midwest as well, but in a different way. Many of the farmhouses were simply abandoned when the land around them was bought up by large-scale industrial farmers. Since it was cheaper to just farm around them and keep the trees that were in the original grove rather than knock them down, fill in foundations, etc, now you have hundreds of dilapidated and eerie-looking houses, barns, and other buildings. In an area where nothing is especially “old” per say, to look at the remnants of rural living in the U.S. from anywhere to 50-100+ years ago and comparing it to the attitudes of say, the East Coast or Europe is definitely interesting. There are some towns that are just now celebrating their 125th founding anniversary, which is a wholly unique experience for me.

  • cecilia

    So we are to assume that you are not much into horror movies!? how are you cats by the way, preparing to hide out over Halloween? c

  • Brian Bixby

    I’m not so sure the boundary between Gothic and horror can be drawn so neatly. Bierce often straddles it; hey, he even straddles horror and humor (“The Parenticide Club”). Toss in George Lippard’s “The Monks of Monks Hall / Quaker City” (1844), and note that Lippard (1822-54) knew Poe. F. Marion Crawford (1854-1909) had a poignant vampire tale (no, they are not sparkly), “For the Blood is the Life” published in his collection “Wandering Ghosts.” (Ignore his only supernatural novel, “The Witch of Prague.”) Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) wrote a wonderful collection, “The Wind in the Rose Bush and other Stories of the Supernatural,” published in 1903, which I reviewed on my blog:

    • daseger

      Wow lots to ponder here, thanks, Brian! I almost wrote that about Bierce–he does go too far for me sometimes.

      • Brian Bixby

        Coincidentally, I was just reading an anthology entitled “Victorian Ghost Stories, by Eminent Women Writers” (New York, 1988), not that all ghost stories are necessarily gothic. However, there is little American in it: one of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s stories, “The Affair at Grover Station” by Willa Cather, and “The Striding Place” by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton (1857-1948), a Californian who associated with Bierce. Given that connection, you’ll not be surprised that “The Striding Place” was originally considered too gruesome for publication, though it is suggestive, not explicit.

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