Gothic Fiction

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What does American gothic fiction have to tell about history or, more precisely, about how writers use and transfuse history in their works? For a long time, the answer to this question would have appeared to be largely self-evident: the American gothic, the standard critical line went, reveals little about American history. From its inception in the Englishman Horace Walpole's (1717–1797) The Castle of Otranto (1764), gothic fiction registered not only the fissures in Enlightenment humanism and rationalism but also the revolutionary tendencies of the late eighteenth century. Despite these origins, critics have read the gothic primarily as a mode focused more on psychic than on historical depth and complexity. Thanks in large part, perhaps, to the legacy of Sigmund Freud, who transferred many of the gothic's most cherished conventions (buried secrets, hidden ancestries, repressed desires, imprisoning vaults, mysterious passageways) to the self, the gothic has long been seen as a mode that expresses, above all, the nightmare landscape of the unconscious, the drives of the id, the neurotic, haunted ego.

This reading of the gothic has had particular appeal in the American context, given the long-standing (if increasingly contested) myth of America as a land without the kind of dense historical fabric—the heritable past—that is often viewed as a key ingredient of gothic literature. Many of the characteristic features of what might be called "classic" gothic texts such as Walpole's Otranto or the late-eighteenth-century novels of another British writer, Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823)—haunted (and usually decaying) castles and debased aristocrats, disputes over land title and long-held family estates, corrupt monks and designing prioresses, propertied heiresses under siege—seemed rooted in an ancientness of culture and institution that the "new" nation appeared to lack. In the absence of the intricate social networks and ancient cultures of Old World Europe, critics who read in this vein suggest, American writers cast the gothic into a form that meditates particularly, often obsessively, on the intricacies of the inner self, on that mysterious interior landscape that Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) calls, in "The Custom-House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1850), the "inmost Me" (p. 7).

The critic Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) functions as one of the most important early explorations of the centrality of the gothic in the American literary tradition, offers a complicated example of this ahistorical reading of the American gothic. Arguing against critical tendencies to devalue the gothic as a sensational, formulaic, and market-driven mode, Fiedler associates what he calls the "serious American novel" with the emergence of the gothic (p. 143). Yet although Fiedler acknowledges that "behind the gothic lies a theory of history, a particular sense of the past" (p. 136), his efforts to elevate the American gothic to the status of "serious" literature relies on a conventional reading of the gothic that in the end empties it of historical import. Above all else, Fiedler declares, the gothic is, finally, a "method for dealing with the night-time impulses of the psyche" (p. 140).

Since roughly the 1980s, critics have taken up Fiedler's invitation to consider the gothic's centrality to the American literary canon. Unlike Fiedler, however, these more recent critics have turned their attention to what, precisely, has so long been excluded from assessments and readings of the gothic: the historical conditions out of which U.S. gothic fiction emerged and on which that fiction meditates. In works by such critics as Cathy Davidson (Revolution and the Word, 1986), Lawrence Buell (New England Literary Culture, 1986), and Kari Winter (Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change, 1992), critical understanding of the gothic takes a new and notably contextual turn. For these critics the gothic is, for example, a mode by which American writers explore the ideological cracks in the new Republic's social and political foundations, the dangers of individualism, the disfiguring effects of regional provincialism, or the terrifying oppression of women under white male patriarchy. Expanding on these openings, Teresa Goddu turns to a full-scale study of the gothic's historical impulses in Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (1997). Insisting that the gothic is a key form by which writers engage the nation's conflicted ideological foundations, Goddu follows traces left by Fiedler, who establishes a relationship between race and the gothic, and especially by Toni Morrison, whose 1992 Playing in the Dark argues that the nation's racial history motivates and indeed haunts its early literature. In particular, Goddu demonstrates the gothic's function in responding to the young nation's deepest historical traumas by showing how race and slavery are central to the American gothic imagination.

Given the groundbreaking critical work done by Goddu, Morrison, Buell, Davidson, and others, it has become increasingly difficult to read the early American gothic in ahistorical terms. American gothic fiction of the nineteenth century, as such critics have helped make plain, unveils a history that is present but often unseen or unacknowledged, bearing witness precisely to the historical realities that underlie (and often undercut) American ideals. Whether recounting what the early American gothicist Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810) called "incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness" (p. 3) or the brutality of white settlers, telling the story of the violence, both real and figurative, done in the name of slavery or of domestic spaces invaded by sexual cruelty and emotional abuse, recording the realities of patriarchal oppression or the unseen and sordid underbelly of the American industrial machine, American gothic fiction, as is now more widely recognized, tells the story of a nation divided against its own democratic promise.


This reading of the gothic character of the nineteenth-century nation runs counter to the un-gothic image of America purveyed by many cultural commentators in the same period. Writing in 1839 for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, John L. O'Sullivan offers an ebullient paean to the American democratic experiment that might be seen as representative of much of the period's public rhetoric. Celebrating the "magnificent domain" of what he calls the "nation of many nations," O'Sullivan provides a sort of architectural blueprint for the nation (indeed, the globe) that contrasts starkly with the haunting depictions of the American experience offered by a wide array of gothic texts. "Governed" as it is by the "law of equality, the law of brotherhood—of 'peace and good will amongst men,'" the United States, in O'Sullivan's view, is "destined" to be the site of the "noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High." The "floor" of this temple, he proclaims, "shall be a hemisphere—its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master" (p. 427).

The crowing confidence of rhetoric such as O'Sullivan's notwithstanding, many Americans recognized that the democratic ideals so often publicly celebrated could not be reconciled with actual experience. The fifty-year period between 1820 and 1870 witnessed, for example, a number of deeply traumatic events that belied the image of "happy" masterless "millions," including the genocidal removal of Native Americans to undesirable western lands, the expansion and territorial extension of U.S. slavery, the violent convulsions of the Civil War, and the divisive political battles fought in its aftermath. Although less neatly demarcated by dates and years, such "events" as the Industrial Revolution and the often acrimonious debate over the rights of women posed further problems for the national self-image. For many Americans, in short, the paradisal mansion that O'Sullivan celebrates had no earthly counterpart. And it is here, in drawing the distinction between the historical real and the ahistorical ideal, that the gothic becomes instrumental. In the American gothic indeed, the nation looks far more like a haunted house than a utopian "mansion." Deploying the gothic's conventional interest in space (locked rooms, underground vaults, secret passageways), nineteenth-century American writers work to tell the story of a nation that betrays its own ideals. From the burial vaults of Edgar Allan Poe's stories of the 1830s and 1840s to the attic of the Custom House where Nathaniel Hawthorne "finds" Hester Prynne's lost story in The Scarlet Letter; from the "haunted" garret of Simon Legree's hellish plantation in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to the "L-shaped chamber" where Harriet Wilson's mixed-race character, "Nig," is quarantined in Our Nig (1859); from the crawl space where the fugitive slave Linda Brent hides for seven years in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) to the damp, underground cellar into which the narrator of Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills (1861) commands one to descend as she launches her exposé of the deforming effects of industrial capitalism—American gothic texts draw attention to that which O'Sullivan's glorious vision of the American "temple" denies. These confining spaces function as reminders of the disturbing, sometimes even horrifying truths that the nation as a whole would rather keep buried. Inside this "nation of nations," such texts remind their readers, are prisons and ghosts of the nation's own making. And ultimately American gothic texts remind their readers that the nation will have to confront its troubled past and its blighted present to exorcise its ghosts if it wishes to achieve its democratic possibility.


Among the many ways in which American gothic fiction in the early to mid-nineteenth century draws attention to the haunting gap between national ideals and national realities is in telling the story of American race relations—a story that is, in many respects, a story of blood. One of the most remarkable and daring features of the democratic experiment as it emerged in the late eighteenth century was the creation of a nation based on ideals rather than on bloodlines. Rejecting inherited monarchy, laws of inheritance that privileged firstborn sons, and other kinship-based vestiges of feudal and monarchial societies, this new, democratic nation would predicate itself not on the legacies of blood but on the natural rights of freestanding individuals. Yet even the founders revealed their own unwillingness or inability to do away with the idea and the importance of blood. Indeed the rhetoric of blood becomes increasingly instrumental in drawing racial lines, marking whites as fundamentally different from blacks, Native Americans, and a host of "others." The effort to enlist blood as a means of creating a privileged space for whiteness can be seen, for example, in Notes on the State of Virginia (first English edition, 1787), in which Thomas Jefferson asserts that the "inferiority [of blacks] is not the effect merely of their condition of life" (p. 190) and admits the possibility of natural "distinction[s]" between blacks and whites (p. 191).

The cautious appeal that Jefferson makes to scientifically verifiable differences between whites and other groups became more common at the turn into the nineteenth century, when the need to justify the abrogation of freedom in a republic founded on principles of liberty and autonomy (the existence of racial servitude, for example, or genocidal policies with regard to Native Americans) intensified. As, in short, white Americans found it increasingly necessary to delineate precise and verifiable lines between blacks and whites, Native Americans and whites, immigrants and "Anglo-Saxons," appeals to the biological, blood-based foundations of race to which Jefferson nods become more and more frequent. Enlisting the help of such pseudoscientific tools as cranial measurement, physiognomy, and phrenology, leading race thinkers in the early nineteenth century—Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton, George Gliddon, and Josiah Nott among them—worked to make racial "differences" innate, something inherited through the blood. The law of hypodescent (also known as the "one-drop rule," which designates that "one drop" of "black blood" classifies a person as black) and the prevalence in popular culture of such terms as "half-breed," "mulatto," "quadroon," and "octoroon" reflect the broad appeal of such notions of race as blood, as does the anxiety about the negative effects of blood "mixing" that one finds in treatises against and laws prohibiting intermarriage. In blood, in short, theorists of race found "evidence" of the existence of "real" race. And in the United States they found an audience widely responsive to their ideas.


From slave narratives to short stories to novels, many gothic texts between 1820 and 1870 reflect on the newfound significance of racial bloodlines. At times, these texts try to work against the grain of antebellum race theory and to undermine the notion that race is a real and transmittable essence locked in human veins; at other times, the investigation into the meaning of blood appears to be far more inconclusive. Regardless, gothic fiction's nearly obsessive return to race and blood highlights the nation's unfinished revolution, the enduring questions about bloodlines, ancestries, and racial "essences" that compromise the nation's democratic ideals.

This gothic preoccupation with blood is evident in texts as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative (c. 1850s). Although typically read as a historical romance, The Last of the Mohicans has a number of features that are characteristic of early gothic novels: a besieged heroine (Cora Munro) whose virtue and life are threatened by a dark, Byronic antihero (Magua); sublime landscapes, at once beautiful and forbidding, that house hidden dangers and that are often, at least for the white characters, perilously difficult to navigate; "silent grave[s] and crumbling ruin[s]" (p. 135) that bear witness to past scenes of violence; "houseless" and unquiet ghosts of dispossessed native people; masquerade and mistaken identities; and perhaps above all, an obsession with bloodlines and secrets of ancestry. At the center of this second novel in the Leatherstocking Tales is Natty Bumppo (here called "Hawkeye"), a white scout who repeatedly stresses his racially pure lineage. He is, as he claims obsessively throughout the text, a "white man without a cross" (p. 59). The novel's interest in racial taxonomies extend to other "unmixed" characters (Hawkeye's boon companion, Chingachgook, and Chingachgook's son, Uncas, the titular "Mohican") as well as to those who are, like Cora (the daughter of a white father and a West Indian woman with slave ancestry). tragically, indeed fatally "mixed." Although some of the bloodshed that takes place in this insistently brutal text happens during conventional warfare, the bloodiest scenes are ones of racial violence; most notable is a massacre scene in which "two thousand raving savages" slaughter thousands of whites retreating from a surrendered fort (p. 181). Cooper (1789–1851) presents the site of the massacre and the nation itself as a land "fattened with human blood" (p. 187), reminding his readers of the violence engendered not only by imperial claims but also by taxonomies of race and race difference. Yet while Cooper seems to want to imagine an alternative and more benevolent "mixed" society that is not based on bloodlines, he is unable, in the end, to do so: the future is vested not in Uncas and Cora, who are allowed to "marry" only in death, but rather in two white characters, Duncan and Alice, who ride off to embark on a new life in the "settlements of the 'pale-faces'" (p. 373). Like many more conventionally gothic novels, from Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) to Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Last of the Mohicans ends with the promise of order restored, but it is an order that is qualified and compromised: the budding society that Cooper imagines at the end of Mohicans—one that must be, like Hawkeye himself, "without a cross"—remains haunted by those whose blood sets them outside its confines.

Like The Last of the Mohicans, Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket ends with an image of total whiteness, but a whiteness whose meaning is more mysterious and inscrutable. In Pym, Poe (1809–1849), perhaps not unexpectedly, works more directly and extensively than does Cooper in the gothic vein, turning in particular to the conventions of what has been called gothic "horror": rotting corpses and decaying flesh, underground vaults, live burial, incipient madness, even cannibalism. Yet as in Mohicans, many of the text's most horrifying images and events are those that highlight anxieties about and blood spilled in the name of race. Indeed Pym is even more preoccupied than Mohicans with racial categories and bloodlines. From Dirk Peters, the "half breed" who functions as a "line manager" (p. 84) on the ship of which Arthur Gordon Pym is part of the crew, to the "jet black" "savages" (p. 189) who inhabit the island of Tsalal, the "perfectly white" animal with "brilliant scarlet claws" (p. 188) that Pym and his shipmates discover on their journey southward to Antarctica, and the mystifying "figure" of "perfect whiteness" (p. 239) in the novel's final scene, Poe's text delineates and "manages" the "lines" of race with excessive care. Indeed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym tries to imagine race as being like the water on Tsalal—a miraculous substance "made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue," that do not "commingle" (p. 194). Yet even as the narrative works relentlessly to police and stabilize racial categories—appealing, as it does so, to scientific views of racial inheritances and identifiable racial bloodlines—it also, over and over, reveals the ways in which such categories are unreliable and unpredictable. White men become blackened in death, the "hybrid" Peters is rewritten as a "white man" (p. 212), and racial identity itself becomes shifty, changeable.

It is in the context of the novel's challenges to stable racial meanings (the very meanings to which the text itself at the same time appeals) that one must read its notoriously ambiguous and terrifying final episode. The narrative action of Pym simply ends by showing Pym, Peters, and their "jet-black" Tsalalian companion being drawn inexorably toward a chasm, presided over by a "shrouded human figure, very larger in proportions than any dweller among men" and with "perfect" snow-white skin (p. 239). On the one hand, such a gothic figure—flawlessly white, yet monstrous in proportions, unrecognizable, unclassifiable—suggests that the very notion of pure and "perfect" race exists only in the realm of fantasy. Simultaneously, the image serves as a reminder of the destructiveness of that same fantasy: Pym and Peters become increasingly "listless" and "apathetic" as they proceed toward the chasm, and their "perfectly" black companion expires as he moves closer to "perfect" whiteness. In this ending, Poe's novel refuses even the uneasy closure that many gothic novels, including Cooper's Mohicans, seem to offer. Cooper's text embraces, albeit with some hesitation, a national future of "unmixed" bloodlines. But Poe's Pym cannot even be said to come to an end: in a "Note" that follows the novel's final chapter, one learns that "the few remaining chapters which were to have completed [Pym's] narrative . . . have been irrecoverably lost" through an "accident" that appears to have claimed both Pym and his manuscript (p. 240). Such refusal to bring the story's narrative and its racial implications to an end serves as Poe's reminder that the gothic story of race—excessive and indeterminate, fantastic and destructive, desired and feared—cannot, finally, be told.

Perhaps more than any other text in the antebellum period, Hannah Crafts's gothic novel The Bondwoman's Narrative (undiscovered until the late twentieth century and not published until 2002), explores the frightfully ambiguous significance of race as blood. Like many other antebellum narratives of slavery, both fictional and nonfictional—William and Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), Frank Webb's The Garies and Their Friends (1857), William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853), for example, The Bondwoman's Narrative exploits the unreliability of skin as a racial marker. Crafts describes numerous light-skinned African American characters who move back and forth across the color line to suggest, as does Poe, that race is a fiction, a story written on (not inherent in) the skin. Because the skin "lies" about race, the slaveholding society depicted in The Bondwoman's Narrative requires gothic villains like Mr. Trappe, a lawyer and slave speculator who polices the lines between "blacks" and "whites" by "scenting out the African taint" (p. 239) in the blood of those presumed to be white and then selling those so "tainted" into slavery. Trappe is a hard worker, perpetually digging, traveling, snooping, spying, reading. But while the strenuous labor involved in his efforts to entrap whites with their "black" blood points to the difficulty of maintaining the fiction of race, the novel cannot seem to put that fiction to rest. Thus Crafts's novel, like both Cooper's and Poe's, makes one look over and over again at blood: the blood of tortured slaves that "manures" the roots of a haunted tree (p. 21); the "clotted gore" oozing from the throat of a white suicide (p. 68); the blood that gushes in a torrent from the mouth of a woman sold into slavery (p. 103). Through these repeated depictions of bloodshed, The Bondwoman's Narrative reminds its readers, of course, of slavery's relentless brutality. But Crafts's attention to blood also works on the level of metaphor. Over and over again, Crafts brings blood—that which lurks below the surface, palpable but invisible—to the surface, spilling it as if in an effort to scrutinize it, understand its meaning and implications. In short, although The Bondwoman's Narrative tries to work against the notion that race is locatable in human veins, the amount of blood spilled in its course marks the questions about blood and racial "essence" that Crafts herself cannot, finally, resolve.

In writing stories of blood in the antebellum period, Cooper, Poe, and Crafts are not, of course, alone. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, and Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1856) are just a sampling of the many texts that explore, in a gothic vein, what blood might mean in a still-new nation that promised, at its inception, to do away with blood as a founding idea. Writing in a period when blood assumed new, "scientific" importance as a means of demarcating, on the basis of biology, privileged whites from "others"—African Americans, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Hispanics—these authors remind their readers again and again that, far from rejecting blood, the nation was embracing it anew, in ever more virulent and violent forms.

As the nation moved into the crisis and conflagration of the Civil War and the uneasy period of reconciliation and early Reconstruction, blood would assume an even more terrifying and bewildering significance. Americans witnessed not only the heretofore unimaginable brutality of the war itself—enabled by new technologies of warfare and brought home in the forms of the dead and wounded and in the form of photographic images—but also a stunning increase in racial violence and the emergence of white supremacist discourse in the postwar period. As if in an effort to counter a reality that had become more terrifying than any fiction could be, many war-era writers, from Elizabeth Stoddard (1823–1902) to Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) to Rebecca Harding Davis, wrote texts that rejected the gothic's embrace of chaos, violence, and entrapment in favor of romances that strove for reunion and reconciliation. Yet haunting such texts—Stoddard's Two Men (1865) or Davis's Waiting for the Verdict (1867), for example—are the very questions about the relationship between blood, race, and national identity that circulate throughout gothic fiction in the prewar period.

See alsoThe Bondwoman's Narrative;Democracy; Ethnology; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Leatherstocking Tales; Manifest Destiny; Miscegenation; Slavery


Primary Works

Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of aSleep-Walker. 1799. Edited by Norman S. Grabo. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. New York: Bantam, 1989.

Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman's Narrative. c. 1850s. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Warner, 2002.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: A Romance. 1850. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1787. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Viking, 1975.

O'Sullivan, John. "The Great Nation of Futurity." UnitedStates Magazine and Democratic Review 6 (1839): 426–430.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym ofNantucket. 1838. Edited by Harold Beaver. New York: Penguin, 1975.

Secondary Works

Botting, Fred. Gothic. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture fromRevolution through Renaissance. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of theNovel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.

Goddu, Teresa. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Kilgour, Maggie. The Rise of the Gothic Novel. London: Routledge, 1995.

Martin, Robert K., and Eric Savoy, eds. American Gothic:New Interventions in a National Narrative. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and theLiterary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Ringe, Donald. American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Winter, Kari. Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790–1865. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Ellen Weinauer